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September 30, 2004 - Language of Broadway - 2004-10-04

Broadcast on COAST TO COAST: September 30, 2004

It's autumn in New York -- time for an all-new razzle-dazzle season on Broadway, the undisputed capital of the American stage. For over one hundred years, audiences have been going to Broadway shows to be moved and entertained blissfully unaware of all the hard work going on backstage.

But as VOAs Adam Phillips reports in this edition of Wordmaster, backstage on Broadway is an entire world in itself complete with its own colorful -- and often highly dramatic -- vocabulary.

ADAM PHILLIPS: That's the music for "Tim and Scrooge," a new show that is scheduled to open soon in New York hopefully to thunderous applause. Before the curtain on "Tim and Scrooge" rises however, it's work-work-work for the cast and crew in Broadway rehearsal studios like this one.


Jennifer Paulson-Lee, the show's choreographer and associate director, takes a few moments to teach me something about the special language of the theater.

JENNIFER PAULSON-LEE: "To get to a result, a product, a finished show that someone has paid money to go see, actors have to go through these rehearsals and develop the heart of their character. We call it 'the process.' It's their preparation from the minute you get the script in their hand to when you open. Everyone has their own process."

AP: But even before any actors say a line, a show's director and creative staff must develop a firm sense together for how the show will ultimately look and sound. Ms. Paulson Lee that that is a process in itself -- complete with its own jargon.

JENNIFER PAULSON-LEE: "You talk about the whole overall structure of the piece that has do with the concept and the story and the way in which you're going to tell the story: the 'arc' of the show. And that is where the 'high points' are [and] where the 'low points' are. We talk about when we stop for applause 'Are we are going to go for a button?'" A button is the final 'pose,' the final picture. 'Ta da!' Essentially that ends the 'number.' And the button is -- "

AP: "The number?"

JENNIFER PAULSON-LEE: "A number is a song. You have to button the number that sends everyone to rousing applause -- we hope! -- and then you 'break' the applause. The actor breaks the applause. That's a term we use when he steps in and continues the show. So he 'rides' the applause. There's another one [term]. And when it peaks, you break it with movement, or the actor starts to speak."

Ms. Paulson Lee says that an actor who overacts in search of attention or applause is said to be "chewing the scenery."

JENNIFER PAULSON-LEE: "Actors who chew the scenery are just either very loud or hysterical. They typically 'steal the show.' That means you steal it away from the leading actor who is supposed to be leading the scene."

AP: "You divert attention away, you mean?"

JENNIFER PAULSON-LEE: "Yes. That's a nice way of putting it. Stealing is the most appropriate way!"

The conversation in a scene onstage may seem spontaneous, but its pacing is carefully contrived by dividing a scene into "beats."

JENNIFER PAULSON-LEE: "And that is when one aspect of a scene has been in a completion. You've finished talking about a subject or you've changed the subject. And those turns in the conversation are called beats. And those are as determined by the actor and the director together, or the director."

In the theater as in everyday life, it's wise to expect the unexpected. Ms. Paulson-Lee says that when that happens in a good way ...

JENNIFER PAULSON-LEE: "It just becomes 'GOLD.' GOLD! That is the undefined magic that is what theater really is."

Ms. Paulson-Lee experienced that gold recently, during auditions for a stage production of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Scores of actresses had tried out for the role, but none seemed to be a good fit.

JENNIFER PAULSON-LEE: "So this girl walks into the audition. She had sparkly eyes, she is very shapely and all she did was smile. And we knew that was it! She was perfect. Just perfect! And we said 'That's it. She's gold.' Because she was gonna bring to our show the spark that you couldn't define. You had to just see it!"

Jennifer Paulson-Lee acknowledges that sometimes, theater critics fail to find any gold in a production, so they 'kill' it in their reviews.

JENNIFER PAULSON-LEE: "That means they use such language that tears apart the utter core of the show, which means that no one is going to want to buy a ticket for your show. They can 'pan' your show. Panning means bad, echh, don't waste your time.

"They can 'eat it up.' That means they love it.

"To sum it all up, you want to make sure you get a 'grand curtain call.' Which means the bows, when the actors come out and they take their bows and you get an ovation, which hopefully they know about. A 'standing ovation,' when everyone's done a brilliant job, you stand up, you give the rousing applause and you don't stop. You make them [the actors] come back."

AP: "I can see that even remembering it you just get pleasure from it."

JENNIFER PAULSON-LEE: "Oh I love it. I just love it."

Jennifer Paulson-Lee is the choreographer and associate director of "Tim and Scrooge," one of many shows that are scheduled for the New York theater season just getting underway. Let's hope that everyone -- in theater jargon -- "breaks a leg," meaning, of course, we hope that they don't. For Wordmaster, this is Adam Phillips in New York.