Those Magic (Scene) Changes
Posted on: March 17, 2020
Think of one of your favorite scenes from a movie or television show.
(Really, take a second.)
Now imagine how that scene ends. Maybe a character has just spoken their last line—probably something clever and devastating—or a plot-twist has turned the story on its head. You think to yourself, “This cannot be happening.” Or, “I would die for Phoebe Waller-Bridge.” You’re into it, you’re loving it, and you’re so ready for what’s next.
Now imagine, immediately following, watching the actors walk back to their trailers so they can change into their next costumes. Watching the production crew come into frame to sweep shattered glass off the floor, or to strip the hospital bed stained with fake blood. The whole restaurant interior is lifted into the air, a facsimile of a bedroom wheeled into place. The illusion would instantly be broken! These are necessary things that will have happened at some point during production, but of course they are not included in the final product. They aren’t what we’re supposed to be paying attention to as viewers. They aren’t part of the story.
And of course, we don’t have to see any of that on screen. It’s possible to exclude these elements of production because of the nature of the filmic medium. The video we ultimately see is pre-recorded, so people and pieces of scenery can move and do what they need to do when the cameras aren’t on. We’re used to waiting for commercial breaks, sure—but we aren’t learning that we can save 15% or more on car insurance in the middle of an episode of “Game of Thrones” so that Emilia Clarke can have three extra minutes to climb onto her dragon. Even watching live televised events, or films that appear to be shot all in one take (the recently released 1917, for example), the camera can simply turn away from things we aren’t meant to see.
But live performance is different. In theatre, the laws of time and physics are inescapable. When a scene ends, actors can’t teleport to their dressing rooms. There is no cutting to the next scene. It takes time for people to enter or exit; for a bed, or a train, or a mountain to appear. Of course, scenes can be strategically ordered so that breaks for the actors and the crew are built into the story, and the need for quick changes or backstage sprints to the other side of the stage are minimized. (The song “Little Lamb” in Gypsy is as much about deepening our relationship to Louise’s character as it is about the set changing behind the curtain.) And sure, sometimes it’s possible with some sleight of hand to make things appear to happen more quickly than they should. (Don’t you love when an actor has a body double, and the body double, face hidden, exits on one side of the stage wearing a cloak, and the character’s original actor immediately enters from the other side wearing what appears to be the same cloak? Stage magic!) But oftentimes, a scene comes to a close, it’s time for new people to appear and for the setting to change, and a scene change is called for in earnest.
We’ve all sat through a bad scene change: the lights dim for so long that you worry something might actually be wrong; the momentum built from the previous scene burns out; you sit in silence feeling awkward or distracted. But scene changes can provide a unique opportunity to incorporate more storytelling. The way a person picks up and carries a chair offstage, the posture an actress takes as she enters from down a staircase, the surprise reveal of a new piece of scenery emerging from behind a curtain—these can all generate a kind of curiosity and anticipation that energize us while we watch. They provide confirmation that the story will indeed continue, and they hint as to how things may unfold. And one particularly vital element in making a scene change gel is the music that plays while we wait.
The way a person picks up and carries a chair offstage, the posture an actress takes as she enters from down a staircase, the surprise reveal of a new piece of scenery emerging from behind a curtain—these can all generate a kind of curiosity and anticipation that energize us while we watch.
In “Unheard Melodies,” Claudia Gorbman’s seminal text on film underscoring, she writes about the different contexts in which we hear music meant to be played in the background. She describes how music played in the background at a dentist’s office, for example, can help a patient relax before their procedure. Film scores, she argues, use background music in a similar way: “to render the individual an untroublesome viewing subject: less critical, less ‘awake.’” The same concept can be applied to scene change music in musicals. Scene change music is played at a time when the spell cast over us, our suspension of disbelief, is most at risk to be broken. As we watch the mechanics of a production unfold before us, music sends a clear message to us on a subconscious level: “Nothing to see here, folks!” It renders us more willing subjects. This makes scene change music rather unusual to study—the more thoughtfully composed it is, the less we pay attention to it. Whatever storytelling information it may convey, it is conveyed incognito.
And that is the purpose to this series of essays: to shine a light on a topic that, by design, we are not really supposed to notice. By taking a closer look, we can see how scene change music ties stories together in ways we might never otherwise notice, and we can gain a deeper appreciation for how it achieves its most vital anesthetic effect towards maintaining the illusion of theatre. Of course, we only get to hear any music from a musical once while viewing; and scene change music is often omitted from cast albums, piano/vocal selections, and other places where the music from a musical might be made more accessible for re-listening. But through scholarly access to archives such as those maintained by Roundabout, we can examine the music that accompanies scene changes more closely.
Columbia@Roundabout is a collaboration between Columbia University School of the Arts and Roundabout Theatre Company which provides exceptional educational and vocational opportunities for the next generation of playwrights and theatre practitioners.
The program includes an annual reading series for Columbia MFA students, Teaching Artist training facilitated by Education at Roundabout and two fellowship positions in Roundabout’s Archives.
As a part of the Archives fellowship, the MFA candidates conduct deep research into our historic records and are encouraged to produce scholarship that explores Roundabout’s contribution to American theatre. Josh Brown is one of the Archives Fellows, and over the course of the coming months, he will write a series of articles about interstitial music from Roundabout’s musical productions.