Sunday, August 14, 2011

Real playwrights don't lip-synch

Why are these guys so ugly?  Oh, yeah - they can actually play their instruments!

I'm not sure why it should have happened, but recently, while I was watching a new play in which the lead characters were lip-synching to Toto's "Africa," (above) something inside me just snapped. And it was all I could do not to jump up in the theatre and shout, "STOP!!! NOW!!!!  REAL PLAYWRIGHTS DO NOT LIP-SYNCH!!!"

Luckily, I didn't do it (that would have been the subject for a little play unto itself!).  But I am wondering why, suddenly, I felt like heaving at this particular commonplace of the millennial theatre.

Perhaps it's that I've seen a lot of lip-synching on stage recently - and by "lip-synching," I mean not merely the literal, Milli-Vanilli kind, but the figurative one as well: you know, scenes in which two people fall in love, or patch things up, or simply form some sort of bond by singing along to the verse and chorus of a forgettable pop song that - whaddyaknow - they both secretly love!

Now, speaking personally, this has never happened to me.  Nor have I ever seen it happen to anyone else.  Except on stage.  Where it seems to happen all the time.

You know the drill (for it is indeed a drill): The Downer. The Failure of Communication. The Awkward Silence. Followed by: The Hesitant, Quavering Attempt at the First Line. Maybe Just the First Word or Two. Which is Followed by a Suspenseful Silence. Then: The Call and Response, When the Soulmate/Hook-Up/Divorced-or-Dying Mom Tentatively Replies, Like a Lonely Cockatoo in the Outback Calling for its Mate. Then! The Encouraged Intertwining of the Two Lonely Voices into One! And THEN -  THE CHORUS! THE HOOK!  (PRAY GOD, NOT THE BRIDGE!) THEN THEY CUDDLE/BEGIN TO DANCE AND  YES!!!  THE CRISIS IS OVER! AND EVERYONE IS COVERED IN EMOTIONAL CUM!!!

In a word - yuck.  But wait, it gets worse.  The basic impulse of theatrical lip-synching (which in formal terms, I suppose, represents that notorious "breaking into song" moment in the American musical run completely amok) has both metastasized and, in its choice of material, sadly declined.  Now supposedly "new" plays seem to routinely feature "scenes" in which people strut out and lip-synch to an empowering soundtrack with an "oh-snap!" attitude (or an ironic "oh-snap!" attitude).  And the soundtracks themselves - well, let's just say it's one thing to win back your love by lip-synching to "Ain't No Mountain High Enough;" it is another thing entirely to do it to Toto's "Africa."

Now, yes, I know - research shows that people who like the same songs are, indeed, often emotionally compatible.  Still - if your characters' deepest feelings are best summed up by "Annie's Song," then your characters represent approximately half the population of Cleveland; they aren't "characters;" they are a demographic.

And the bottom line, young playwrights, is that if you resort to lip-synching you haven't actually done your job.  You have instead grabbed a pre-fab emotional signpost and planted it in your play and pretended it is a scene.  Because the hard part is crafting you know, like dialogue that can get us to that moment of connection.  To be blunt - if your characters are lip-synching, then you are lip-synching too.  Which is fine for skits and summer camp shows (or even, perhaps, for the evening that prompted this diatribe, which consisted of plays written under a strict time limit).  But it's really not okay for paying audiences who aren't friends and family.  Or for crotchety critics who can remember when playwrights could write love scenes.  If you feel the love scene is now impossible - if your characters can text but not speak (and maybe you're right about that dismaying judgment!) - then write a scene about that.  Understand?  Because if you don't, I will begin simply posting Youtubes instead of reviews.  And there are a lot of really bad 80's videos out there, so that will not be pretty!


  1. Don't forget the trope of a character demonstrating the true depth of their sensitivity by singing a Dylan song.

  2. I have to say I deeply appreciate your posting the video- I forgot how truly terrible that song is.

  3. I agree with what your points here, but what of the great Dennis Potter? His use of lip-synching can be awesome.

    And I suspect some of the lip-synching to which you refer might be the result of some youngsters emulating him (as they emulate Shepard, Mamet, etc.-- whoever their theatrical 'heroes' are).

    Blogless Joe