A musical is generally a more complicated beast for stage crews, stage managers, and the calling stage manager (who cues the show) than a play—but The Play That Goes Wrong is a clear exception to that rule. “There’s so much of the show that is tightly choreographed to make it look as if it’s all going wrong,” says Matt DiCarlo, who served as production stage manager and associate director on the Broadway production and director of the Off-Broadway and national touring productions. “It often makes it feel like a musical.”
The Play That Goes Wrong is a technical feat. The comedy only works if everything goes wrong exactly according to plan. To make things go wrong, a lot must go right.
The production from Mischief Theatre plays off the conceit that the audience is about to see the opening night of The Mystery of Haversham Manor, but the amateur troupe struggles as everything that could possibly go awry does. “It’s got to feel like those eight characters are problem-solving for the first time—and that’s what makes it so funny,” says DiCarlo.
DiCarlo spent eight months with the original Mischief creative team learning the show in London and mounting it on Broadway in 2017. “I was able to learn the how and the why and the deep history of the show—and of their company—directly from them,” says DiCarlo. That includes the execution of the play as well as the audition process as the show replenishes cast and crew in New York and on tour.
After the traditional audition, DiCarlo invites actors back in groups of 16 or 20, like a mini-workshop, to see how they maneuver physicality and comedic chemistry. His advice: “Don’t go for the laugh. Play the stakes of the murder mystery and let the laughs come.
“Those characters have to take it so seriously,” DiCarlo continues. “None of the actors can think they’re in a comedy. That’s the other trick of it. They really need to be working hard to be trying to do The Murder of Haversham Manor, and yet the audience is laughing at them and at the situation. But the audience should not be watching a comedy. They should be watching a murder mystery that just happens to be going very, very wrong.”
But what if something doesn’t go right backstage, so it doesn’t go wrong onstage? “We rehearse the play going right and we have contingencies in place,” says DiCarlo. “If something doesn’t happen, often the show just keeps going without that thing going wrong. The Murder at Haversham Manor keeps going.”
How do the cast and crew ensure The Play That Goes Wrong presents as planned? DiCarlo reveals three key ways:
1. The “Dead” Body
“Early in the show there is a whole lot of interaction with what is supposed to be a dead body onstage. His hands are on the floor and there’s stepping on his hand and not stepping on his hand [by other actors]. And [the ‘dead’ actor’s] eyes are closed, of course. We very carefully time out lines and crosses and how many steps things take and the rhythm of how certain lines happen with certain crosses across the stage, so that the actor knows how fast and slow and exactly when to lift and lower his hands. The impeccable timing of that is what makes that moment soar.”
2. The Shield Whack
“There is a very famous Play That Goes Wrong moment where a shield falls and whacks somebody in the face as they’re coming through a door that involves a couple of things. It requires the actor that plays Chris Bean (stepping through the door) backs up to the exact right spot on the floor; the person who is standing inside the door stepping to the exact right spot; and the calling stage manager calling the cue for the props person to release that shield all at the exact same time. Then there’s a live slapstick in the wing that makes the clap sound that hits him in the face. But if the sound is slightly off, you can tell. If the actor is not right on the spike, somebody in the theatre can see that we faked it. The calling stage manager is responsible for getting laughs.”
3. The Falling Frames
“There was a moment when many objects fall off the wall simultaneously. That is real and takes a lot of rehearsal and practice with whoever is the calling stage manager and the crew and the actors that are involved with getting the stuff back on the wall. Again, it’s all about the specificity of the timing. There’s a really specific rhythm to how that works. The calling stage manager really does have to breathe with the show. Laughs are longer and shorter based on the night. Rhythms change slightly. Then you put an understudy on and the rhythms change slightly because they are a different human being. There is such a choreographed, incredible art by all the stagehands that is just as complex as the people onstage.”