We’ve all heard stories attached to the cliche, “the show must go on.” The lead actor gets laryngitis, but “the show must go on.” The spotlights quit working, but “the show must go on.” All the “fish tails” for the chorus made up of fish suddenly disappeared from the costume rack, but “the show must go on.” The kids playing sheep in the nativity drama did not show up, but “the show must go on.”
Recent events helped me to understand what this cliche really means, especially for live performers.
It was a normal Saturday morning, kicking back relaxing before I had to leave for a gig that night. About 11:30 am I got a text from Mike our bass player saying he had been bitten by a dog and was waiting for animal control and then off to urgent care. Apparently, he was out riding his bike and this dog stalked him from behind, came up on him, and latched onto his leg. After Mike was bitten, he actually helped defend two other people from the same dog before help arrived!
I knew if Mike thought he could not make the gig, he would have called, so I relaxed and waited. He arrived ontime at the venue around 3 pm, and he looked rather good. I thought, “The worse that can happen is he might have to sit down for some of the show. No big deal.”
(Mike, the happy bass player.)
We finished setting up and were relaxing around 6:30, when Mike started to look horrible and very pale. He said he was nauseated. Moments later, he was in the bathroom vomiting violently. We later learned that it was the antibiotics—not the dog bite itself—that were making him sick. The band went into first-aid mode, applying every home remedy we each had learned from “Mom”, including humor. As Mike came out of the bathroom, Russ, our piano player, said, “At least we didn’t have to hold back his hair.” By showtime at 7:30, Mike was settled down and we started the show ontime and in good shape…..or so I thought.
The show went great! Over 400 folks loved our dance music and were rocking! We took a break, and about twenty minutes into the second set, Mike rushed off the stage just as we finished a song. We all knew the nausea had returned, but we had no idea when he was coming back or IF he was coming back. We still had 60 minutes to play!!! But “the show must go on.”
We chatted quietly and picked two songs on which Russ, our piano player, could play bass using his left hand. We got through I SAW HER STANDING THERE and ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK perfectly. Mike had still not returned. We picked two more songs and continued playing without our bass player.
Twenty-five minutes after he left, Mike returned to the stage and we finished the night successfully, receiving applause and taking a bow.
I’m sure that if Mike had not returned, the four of us still on stage would have trudged on, making it work without a bass player and one of our singers. We were surprised that we had done it. We had actually made it work. And we simply would have continued on as long as we had to without Mike. In situations like this, you have to think in ways you have never thought before. We had to tell ourselves, “We can play without a bass player. We can make these songs sound good.” And we did and the show was a complete success. And so I really learned what “the show must go on” means. As a performer, it means
- you arrive early enough to test all gear and anticipate failures
- bandmates communicate often, sharing status information important to the others.
- you have redundant systems and backups for everything, including an understudy for each member of the band.
- you have discussed in advance strategies for performing without a member of the band (“sudden illness scenario”)—-please note “sudden illness” does NOT include drunkeness!!!
- you have trained your team to keep “band operations” confidential and not share them with the client. Not one member of the audience said anything about Mike’s absence. We did not need to share his illness with the client. We just needed to keep playing.
“The show must go on” really should read….”a GREAT show must go on.” Because in reality, the time will pass, so the show WILL go on, but whether or not it is a great show depends very much on whether or not you have prepared for a GREAT show to go on NO MATTER WHAT!
And the dog that bit Mike was confined for observation, but died the next day. Medical examiner stated cause of death: “dog bit bass player.”