Several years ago I worked on a production of the musical Ragtime. The show is huge; our production had a cast of 28, and a crew of at least that many. With a show that big I was always a step, or several, behind. While organizing something that complex is fun, it’s also exhausting and made me cranky much of the time. Very few things could make me smile with any regularity during that process.
One of the songs in Act II is titled “What a Game”. Father, who is very upper class, decides to bring his son to a baseball game as a way to avoid having a more serious talk with him about race relations. It all begins much as Father expects it to; a gentlemanly afternoon of sport.
UMPIRE Play ball!
GIANTS FANS Ain’t this the kind of weather
BRAVES FANS For smackin’ leather,
ALL For playin’ baseball
But then the experience takes a turn in a somewhat coarser direction.
FAN #1 Let’s go, you sons o’bitches!
FAN #2 Let’s see some pitches!
ALL Let’s play some baseball
BRAVES FANS The Giants haven’t got a prayer
GIANTS FANS Aah, yer underwear!
BRAVES FANS Up yer alley!
ALL Go back to where yer mother once came!
At this point in the song there is a stage direction that reads ‘rude gestures’. However, it was written in the score with markings on the staff that seemed to indicate it should be spoken rhythmically. So once the cast had learned the basic harmony in the song, that’s what they did every time we practiced the number.
ALL Go back to where yer mother once came! Rude Ges-tures!
This, of course, was accompanied by all the rude gestures they could think of. It was a lot of fun. Depending on the intricacy of the gestures, it always made me smile, if not laugh out loud. I was grateful for the silliness in the middle of an otherwise stressful show.
Once we got onstage though, things changed. We had to get ready for our first audience, and that meant no more chanting ‘Rude Ges-tures!’ Since our director didn’t want to offend the audience any more than necessary, it also meant the cast needed to tone down the physical gestures. So we ended up with a lot of fist shaking and hat waving. One person even adopted the very Shakespearean biting of his thumb. The song was still fun, and audiences loved it, but it lost a bit of spark without the shouted ‘Rude Ges-tures!’ and the cast’s inventive ways of giving each other the finger. The silly joy was missing and the song became just another piece of a large and intricate show.
For the crew though, as we continued to deal with the complexities of the show during the run, that silliness would never go away completely. We adopted the ‘Rude Ges-tures!’ and all whispered it at the right time, along with whatever gesture people could come up with. Of course those gestures started to be as rude as possible and have nothing whatsoever to do with the scene onstage, unless miming motorboating a woman’s breasts has some baseball significance I missed. The joy of ‘Rude Ges-tures!’ was still alive for us. But the audience missed out.
@@@This is my entry for week 1 of LJ Idol - the topic is “empty gestures”. I'll post a link to the poll once it is up, probably next Wednesday. Thank you for reading.@@@