Mel B's Mistake
You'd have to be living under a theatre rock if you haven't heard about the rigmarole surrounding former Spice Girl Mel B's indiscretion during her final performance as Roxie Hart in the long-running musical Chicago. For those of you who do not know, the pop singer decided to interpolate some lyrics from one of her famous pop songs into the show for her final farewell. The theatre world appears to be of two minds about this move. There are those who stand by the traditions of theatre (and the rules of Actors Equity), finding her actions egregious, pandering to the lowest common denominator of theatre: inserting shtick where neither the authors or production originally intended. There are others, however, that believe that employing Mel B is an example of stunt casting and that it was a clever tip of the hat to her fans (arguably the makeup of that night's audience) to reference her music. In fact, some welcome moments of such shenanigans. Either way, there has been a lot of debate on websites and chat boards over her choice to do this. Having taken a few days to weigh the scenario in my mind and synthesize how I feel about this (not exactly life-ending) infraction, I must side on those who admonish the star for her actions.
Taking a moment to digress, I will admit that there is a time-honored tradition in certain types of shows where breaking character and/or generously ad-libbing are delightful and even encouraged. I have seen it used to great effect in productions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and The Producers. It's also been used with poor judgment in productions of Fiddler on the Roof (I'm noticing a Zero Mostel pattern evolving here) and even a production of Shenandoah. The question is, in every one of these cases, what was the authorial intent and how was THIS production of the musical in question envisioned and staged by the director? That determines what is acceptable.
Actors Equity can (and does) fine actors who make alterations in a production without approval. In fact, there are strict guidelines that everyone needs to adhere to when they contract to be a part of an Equity show. Once a production is "frozen" there are not many liberties anyone involved in a professional show can take to alter what has become the mutually agreed upon (and mutually evolved) artistic work. Theatre is not about any one person. The glory of the art form is that it requires so many people to come together to make it work. It's about being a part of a team, a community that counts on your constancy and reliability for both the integrity and safety of the production. What Mel B did was in bad form. It defies the judgment of the authors and the director. Should we crucify her for this mistake? No.
If a fine is to be levied for what she did, she most assuredly can afford to pay it. Some argue that, because she is an international star and most likely can afford any fine without much hardship, that she really won't be learning a lesson. That is probably correct, but that becomes the problem of the next person who chooses to hire her. Word gets around. Anyone looking at casting her in the future will most-likely know that she comes with some baggage. For some people, that will be okay. Perhaps Mel B has no interest in starring in another Broadway musical. In that case, the problem has already taken care of itself. Whatever the future, she's established who she is and what she's capable of. No one needs to buy a ticket to see her again, especially if they don't trust what they are going to get.
In this case, however, a ticket buyer expecting to see Chicago done the way the authors and director intended were short-changed by Mel B's antics. For some people, the abrupt break in the willing suspension of disbelief employed by the audience while watching theatre can be jarring. It spoils the illusion. It compromises the escapism. "Let your clowns speak no more than is set down for them, for though it make the unskillful laugh, it cannot help but make the judicious grieve. The censure of the which one must in your mind o'erweigh a whole theatre of others." Shakespeare understood this and went so far as to call it "villainous" and "pitiful ambition". I don't think Mel B made the right choice for this production. Let's forgive her, hope she learned her lesson, and move on. For god's sake, Patti LuPone still has to police cell phones, a fine example of how audiences let themselves down.