The New York Times recently published a report about Richard Easton's onstage collapse during a performance of Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia. The audience thought it was part of the plot until the actor onstage with him asked if there was a doctor in the house. Fortunately, Easton eventually recovered and returned to the show. But the incident served as a reminder that anything can happen in live theatre. Through the years there have been a number of stage accidents, some of them frightening but others hilarious.
The late Tallulah Bankhead was noted for her stage shenanigans. In the 1920s, when she was the toast of London, she starred as a dancer in a flop play called Conchita. She made her entrance carrying a small, live monkey and wearing a dark wig over her blonde hair. On opening night, when the monkey spied the audience for the first time, it panicked, pulled off the actress' wig and waved it frantically. She was so amused she started doing cartwheels, further shocking the audience because Miss Bankhead never wore underwear.
When Bankhead starred in a successful revival of W. Somerset Maugham's The Circle in 1938, an actor was supposed to say to her, "Your beauty takes my breath away." On opening night he accidentally said, "Your breath takes my beauty away," eliciting gales of Tallulah's famous laughter.
In 1939, when The Man Who Came to Dinner was trying out in Boston, leading actor Monty Woolley was warned that there was one line in the play he could not say in that city: "I am going to reach into my hat and pull out the biggest goddamned rabbit you've ever seen." He asked what he should say instead, and was told to say he would pull out "the biggest gosh-darn rabbit you've ever seen." On opening night he got thoroughly confused and said, "I'm going to reach into my pants and pull out the biggest" — followed by a long pause while the audience sat in stunned silence, until Woolley finally added: "Now I remember — rabbit you've ever seen." His friend Cole Porter, who was in the audience, was laughing so hysterically he had to leave. More puzzling was Vivienne Segal's memory lapse in the 1952 revival of Pal Joey. Segal had starred in the original Pal Joey in 1940 and had sung the show's hit song, "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," for 374 performances. At the revival's first matinee, she completely forgot the song's lyrics, went offstage for a moment, then returned and said to the audience, "Now I remember," and sang the song beautifully.
When the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Allegro (1947) was in out-of-town tryouts, actress Lisa Kirk had a freak accident, but the audience loved it. While singing the hit song "The Gentleman Is a Dope," she fell into the orchestra pit. Amazingly, she landed on her feet and continued to sing without missing a note, and the audience gave her a standing ovation.
The late Van Heflin once told me that when he was starring with the brilliant Ina Claire in S.N. Behrman's memorable 1936 comedy End of Summer, Claire was supposed to cross the stage to turn on a lamp. At one performance, the lamp went on before she got there. She turned to the audience and whispered, "Magic." They loved it.
At one performance during the original run of My Fair Lady in 1956, star Rex Harrison stood too close to the curtain behind him. When it went up it took Harrison's wig with it. The hilarious accident stopped the show.