“Macbeth. Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth!” he said, smiling.
In costume backstage, waiting for the curtain to go up on Act One, the girls near him shrieked “Noooo!”
“Don’t be silly. Nothing’s going to happen. There’s no such thing as a curse.”
Actors can be a superstitious lot. So are many people, especially those of us in professions that involve doing one’s job in front of an audience. Athletes and we musicians have our little rituals, too. We wear our lucky socks (in my case, a lucky bracelet, not as stinky or as likely to be in the laundry), eat our pre-show grapes, go in the side door, etc. Most of these tricks aim to improve our performance. Do they work? A lot of the time, yes–they help calm and focus us, which usually improves things.
The Macbeth curse is a different kind of superstition. Instead of bringing good luck, it brings bad luck, like walking under a ladder or having a black cat cross your path. Many actors have been told that uttering the word Macbeth in a theater guarantees bad luck unless a takesies-backsies ritual of some kind is performed. Supposedly this dates back to a disastrous (possibly deadly) first performance of the Shakespeare play having something to do with daggers and witches. I’ve always thought of the Macbeth superstition as a kind of actor bonding thing. Instead of Macbeth, you’re supposed to say “The Scottish Play” or “The Bard’s Play,” then trade scary stories about the time somebody said the M word in the theater and then fell into the orchestra pit and broke their leg…
This week I’m playing in the pit orchestra for a high school production of the musical Beauty and the Beast. I was making my way to my seat to get set for the overture when the actor playing Gaston–he’s the villain–said, and said and said and said, the M-word. I was curious, to put it mildly, about what the results might be.
Well, I should have brought popcorn. There were technical problems aplenty–woofy mikes, mikes that cut in and out, stage curtains determined to rise at their own speed, dammit. There were musical problems aplenty–singers who started their songs early or late, brass players who kept losing their place. There were some actor problems, too, most notably poor Babette (the feather duster), who tripped down the onstage stairs, nearly face-planted, and hurt her ankle in the process, plus a couple of unscripted sneezes from Mrs. Potts (the teapot). It was a night of many little mistakes and missteps with a couple of hot messes.
And yet, it was still…broadly within the range of normal for a high school musical performance. The kids didn’t let the problems throw them, and they seemed to be enjoying themselves. They remembered their lines. It seemed to me that the mishaps mostly worked to get the audience more into the performance. They were a great audience. They laughed at all the funny lines and clapped for all of the ballads and production numbers, and at the end of the evening they erupted with almost literally deafening applause.
Gaston, by the way, had an excellent night…he didn’t miss a step.
Curse? Maybe…or maybe not.