Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher, once said that “To see others suffer does one good.” And when it comes to live theatre, the prospect of seeing something go wrong can certainly be more than a small part of the appeal.
Whereas a movie or TV show will have been perfectly polished and edited before being brought to the screen, real-life actors on stage bring with them a degree of human error that can be just as entertaining as the production itself.
Usually, those errors are fairly minor—perhaps a missed lighting cue or some fluffed lines—but in the following ten cases, live theatre went spectacularly wrong.
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10 Mamma Mia!
Mamma Mia!—the ABBA musical—has earned a reputation as a feel-good night out. However, one audience member got more than they bargained for when they took their seats at a performance in London in 2014.
Kim Ismay, playing the rich divorcee cougar Tanya, was singing “Dancing Queen” into a hairdryer when the cable snapped, and the hairdryer flew out into the audience, hitting an unsuspecting theatergoer in the face. They were given some champagne in the interval by way of an apology—hopefully, they drank enough to dull the pain!
Making a musical about one of the most famous disasters of all time might have triggered alarm bells among audience members as they sat through the seemingly endless Broadway preview of Titanic on March 29, 1997.
Before the show even began, the director had warned the unsuspecting public that they were in for a rough crossing. Indeed, he was not lying—the production came to a grinding halt repeatedly because of problems with its three-story tilting hydraulic lift set. Eventually, a cast spokesperson was sent out to entertain the audience by telling jokes while the crew worked in the background to fix the bugs. The show finally came to an end after three and a half grueling hours—a whole hour longer than it took the original ship to sink!
9 The Queen of Spades
Opera singer Susan Chilcott went above and beyond for her art in 2002 when she carried on performing an aria as her dress caught fire. Another performer forgot to blow out a candle after burning a love letter onstage, and the naked flame set the train of her gown ablaze.
Blissfully unaware of her impending doom, the soprano continued performing in The Queen of Spades by Tchaikovsky as audience members shouted and yelled to alert her of the danger. The fire officer eventually ran onto the stage to extinguish the blaze, confusing the prima donna who thought an intruder had invaded the Royal Opera House.
7 Way Upstream
When veteran playwright Alan Ayckbourn suggested flooding the stage of the National Theatre for his production of Way Upstream in 1982, he knew that it would be no small undertaking. Set on a moving boat in 8 inches (20 cm) of water, the show caused Ayckbourn to say, “We may all drown… Come and see it. You will need Wellingtons.”
In fact, the show turned out to be even more of a disaster than he imagined, and it achieved a somewhat notorious reputation because of the countless issues that plagued the production. The water tank burst before the technical rehearsal, threatening the theatre’s electrical supply and causing £3000-worth of damage to the floor. As a result, the first performance in front of an audience began late due to ongoing repairs before being cut short partway through the first act when the boat collided with the riverbank.
Following an 18-minute hiatus to fix the problem, the show continued, only for the front row of the stalls to be drenched by a 12-minute-long rain effect. Perhaps not the best night out in theatrical history!
The Scottish play has long held a reputation for being cursed—so much so that actors refrain from saying its name in the theatre for fear of a disaster ensuing. According to legend, the show was cursed from the start by a coven of witches who objected to their incantations being used by Shakespeare in the 1606 production. Since then, performances of Macbeth have been plagued by disasters, problems, and deaths, some of which took place live on stage.
In a 1672 production in Amsterdam, the decision was made to portray King Duncan’s murder onstage instead of offstage as was written in the original. Unfortunately for the actor playing the king, the actor portraying the title role was having an ongoing dispute with his fellow performer, which reached its peak one night when he replaced the fake dagger with a real one, killing him instantly.
Around the same time, a performance in London also ended with one of the actors dying onstage (in the literal sense) when Henry Harris, who was playing Macduff, ran a sword accidentally through Macbeth’s eye, dispatching him immediately.
5 Henry VIII: All Is True
Macbeth isn’t the only Shakespeare play to be associated with onstage tragedy. The performance of his historical epic Henry VIII: All Is True on June 29, 1613, ended in disaster. A cannon used during a key moment to highlight the first meeting between the King and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, misfired.
While the audience was preoccupied with the lavish pageantry onstage, the Globe Theatre’s thatched roof went up in flames, and within minutes, its wooden structure had been set alight. In less than 60 minutes, the entire theatre had been reduced to ashes. Although, on the upside, only a single casualty was reported—one man’s breeches caught fire, but he managed to put the flames out by dousing himself in ample amounts of ale!
4 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime
It wasn’t only during Tudor times that theatres experienced damage during live performances. In December 2013, London’s Apollo Theatre became the victim of a tragic accident when a balcony collapsed partway through a sold-out performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.
At first, audience members thought the crackling noise from the dome ceiling and ensuing chaos was all part of the show. However, when debris started falling from the roof, and 25 ambulances arrived, it became clear that something had gone spectacularly wrong. Over a hundred theatergoers claimed compensation for injuries they received during the curious incident, although fortunately, there were no fatalities.
3 The Full Monty
Although the structure of the Manchester Opera House remained intact during September 2014’s production of The Full Monty, some of the cast members may have wished that the curtain had come down early. A lighting malfunction left them revealing rather more of themselves than they intended to their unsuspecting audience.
The finale of the show sees the stripping steelworkers baring everything, throwing their hats offstage while their modesty is shielded by a blinding light and then a blackout. Unfortunately, during the September 18 show, the audience-facing lights failed to work, leaving the male actors fully exposed to the shock (and perhaps delight) of theatergoers. There was never a more appropriate moment to sing, “You can leave your hat on!”
Even the most famous Broadway shows are not immune to onstage disasters. Amazingly, one of them even befell veteran actress Idina Menzel during her January 8, 2005, performance in Wicked when she took her melting scene to a whole new level.
Toward the end of the musical, Elphaba melts into a puddle of clothing while an unseen elevator under a trap door takes the actress playing the Wicked Witch beneath the stage. Unfortunately, on that fateful day, the elevator started to descend without Menzel being in place, resulting in the musical star falling through the hole and cracking a rib. The show had to come to an abrupt halt while her understudy had to take over the role, not only for the last couple of scenes but for the rest of the run.
1 Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark
Surely a musical that involved actors performing complex aerial stunts hanging on wires high above the stage couldn’t possibly result in any major disasters!
The catastrophe known as Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has become legendary in theatre history, not because of its spectacular success, but because of the countless technical hitches and injured performers it left in its wake.
Even the process of bringing the show to the stage failed to run smoothly, with spiraling costs and financial problems, a feuding artistic team, composers who had never listened to a Broadway musical before, and the death of the leading producer. But even that catalog of crises couldn’t prepare audiences for the reality that unfolded during the preview performance.
A hurried unclipping of a cable backstage led to a carabiner dropping onto an actress’s head, leaving her with a concussion. However, that offstage disaster was nothing compared to the spectacular problems that befell the front-of-house team just before the interval.
As the first act came to a close, Spider-Man was supposed to fly toward the balcony, astounding the delighted audience as he passed overhead. Sadly, the cable mechanism malfunctioned, leaving the unfortunate actor dangling 7 feet (2.1 meters) in the air over the first few rows. Due to his awkward location, no one was able to reach him to get him down from his precarious position, resulting in the crew prodding him with sticks like a Spider-Man piñata. It was certainly a memorable performance but for all the wrong reasons!