“Musicals in Real Life” and the Magic of Spontaneous MT

Imagine yourself eating lunch at the food court of your local mall. Everything about your day so far has been totally normal. Then, out of the blue, the people around you – a food court employee, a janitor, a fellow mall-goer, even the security guard – start singing to each other. This may be the stuff of our musical theatre nerd dreams, but you’re awake. Welcome to the first episode of “Musicals in Real Life,” a project of the New York City-based prank collective Improv Everywhere.  

You might have heard of Improv Everywhere because of their annual No Pants Subway Ride or, one of my personal favorites, their viral video “Frozen Grand Central.” But their history is extensive; they’ve completed approximately 150 events (or “missions”) since they began in 2001. The recurring mission “Musicals in Real Life” is especially near and dear to my musical theatre loving heart, and I recommend checking out all six episodes if you haven’t seen them yet. 

What especially interests me about “Musicals in Real Life” during the month of #MusicalTube is that – even more so than traditional live theater – each of the musicals in the series is incredibly ephemeral. It happens one time (or just a handful of times), not eight times a week; it is built for a hyper-specific location and for an audience that isn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary. Yet a key component of the mission is getting the musical on tape so it can reach a digital audience on the internet, where it flourishes. Since Episode 1 was posted on YouTube in 2008, the series has collectively garnered well over 23 million views – a far cry from the few hundred people who are fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time to see the musical in their real lives. So what is it about “Musicals in Real Life” that makes for such great musical videos? Improv Everywhere founder Charlie Todd graciously answered some questions about the series over email to help us understand the relationship between live musicals, filmed musicals, and the digital audience.

Watch this video on YouTube.

Todd explained to me that “Musicals in Real Life” began because of the many requests Improv Everywhere received from fans to do a musical: “Tons of people wrote in saying, ‘You know how in a Broadway musical people just burst into song, and everyone acts like it's normal? I'd love to see that happen in the real world.’” In response, Improv Everywhere produced “Food Court Musical,” with a score by Anthony King and Scott Brown, the writers of the hit off-Broadway show Gutenberg! The Musical! They’ve produced five more musicals since then, with the most recent mission completed in early 2015. After a musical mission is complete, it is posted on YouTube and on Improv Everywhere’s website, where it is accompanied by behind-the-scenes information and rehearsal photos.  

Videography is a crucial part of the process for all of Improv Everywhere’s musicals. As Todd told me, "As soon as we find a location for one of these musicals, we immediately start developing a camera plan.” More than just capturing the action, that plan must account for a key feature of the videography: camouflage. Todd elaborates: “It's important that our camera coverage is discreet, especially when the musical starts. These videos only work if they are surprise moments.” A visible camera can tip off the audience that something is going to happen, and even if they wouldn’t necessarily expect that something to be a musical number, it still puts the audience on alert in a way that could ruin the mission. In this way, the two goals – the live musical and the recorded musical – are at odds. To bridge this gap, Improv Everywhere employs everything from two-way mirrors to lipstick cameras to high-tech camera systems, depending on the mission’s location (and its budget). In that way, they use technology to enhance the live experience and the digital experience simultaneously.  

One aspect of the digital experience that is felt very differently in the live experience is the way that the video incorporates the reactions of surprised onlookers. As Todd explains, one of the necessary elements of the camera plan for a musical mission is “to get excellent coverage of both the performers and the people reacting to the performers.” For me, this technique is one of the features that make Improv Everywhere videos such a joy to watch. By framing the videos in this way, Improv Everywhere demonstrates its awareness that there's a difference between the audience of the live event and that of the digital experience. Because we clicked on a video link, because we see the title (if not even more descriptive information), we’re set up to expect something – much like how the live audience would if they spotted a camera in a grocery store aisle or in a New York City beer hall. But by showcasing the reactions of the crowd, the videos position the digital audience as somewhere between audience member and prankster. We might be seeing the prank for the first time, but we’re in on it, too – we’re able to watch the spectators in addition to being spectators ourselves. 

I think for musical theatre fans watching the musicals, this effect is heightened even more. Not only do we get the inherent pleasure of watching someone else be harmlessly pranked, but we also identify with those unsuspecting audience members in a personal way. Have you ever wished that your life was a musical? Have you ever wanted to spontaneously burst into song to express your feelings? Have you ever theorized about the rules of naturalism in musical theatre? (Okay, maybe that one’s just me.) As musical theatre fans, the idea of a musical in real life is even more special to us – so when we watch the spectators’ mixture of surprise and delight and confusion, in our own unique way, we understand just how lucky they are. 

Watch this video on YouTube.

Camouflaging the cameras also serves a larger aspect of the mission, one that I think is crucial to understanding where the series fits into the continuum of filmed musicals. In all of the “Musicals in Real Life,” the performers (or “agents”) have to seamlessly transition in and out of their performances. In order to ensure that the musical seems truly spontaneous, agents are in costume long before the musical is due to start – which means that they’re often mistaken for the people they’re portraying, such as a grocery store clerk or a fast food employee, and as they wait for the cue for their mission, they often end up actually doing the job they’re dressed for. Transitioning out needs to be just as seamless. After “Food Court Musical,” Todd writes on the Improv Everywhere website, “there was there was no bow. Our agents returned to whatever they were doing before the song broke out, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.” By never revealing the proverbial “man behind the curtain,” Improv Everywhere playfully forces its audience to question exactly where the boundary is. So maybe the choreography was rehearsed, but did they use a real mall security guard, or was he an actor in a costume? Only by reading the behind-the-scenes content can you know for sure. When you watch the musical, whether you were there live or not, you experience it as a seamless event in the fabric of the mall – just like how, in a proscenium musical, the songs are seamlessly integrated into the story.  

The idea of the musical as seamless is, I think, they key difference between “Musicals in Real Life” and other filmed live musicals. Because audience turnover is so rapid, Improv Everywhere agents have the opportunity to do multiple performances – and thus get multiple takes. Todd explains that they “typically stage the musical 4 or 5 times throughout the day, waiting a half hour in between so the crowd turns over. This makes video editing easier – if a performer flubs a line, we can replace it with another take.” In that way, these missions exist on the border between the genres of “movie musical” and “stage musical broadcast live.” When you watch a live broadcast, flubs are always a little bit exciting; 30 Rock did a whole episode about “breaking” on live television. Seeing a flub like that makes a broadcast feel more convincingly live – if it weren’t live, wouldn’t they go back and fix it? But Improv Everywhere videos aren’t trying to convince us that they happened live. They’re trying to convince us that they were surprising – that they seamlessly emerged from the normal circumstances around them. Flubs point to the seams; they remind us that everything that’s happening onstage is meticulously planned by deviating from that plan, even for only a moment. So the ability to do multiple performances/takes of a musical mission is necessary for the digital audience to experience it as a seamless event in the audience’s day – exactly what we’d want the musical versions of our lives to be.  

The element of surprise is not unique to “Musicals in Real Life”; as Todd notes, “Everything we do is an attempt to stage a big surprise and elicit laughs and smiles from strangers.” But it takes on a special significance in the context of musical theatre. Through Improv Everywhere’s tried-and-true techniques of capturing their missions on video, musicals can flourish in this digital package. As Todd wrote, “I do think there is something a little extra magical about a musical breaking out right before your eyes.” I think I can safely say that all of us at NMT agree.  

Watch this video on YouTube.

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