One of the shows I did during my very first summer stock gig was Pirates of Penzance. If you’re not a theatre person, you’ve probably still heard the most famous song from the show: “Modern Major General.” It’s a very long, super complicated patter song that’s been seen in everything from Home Improvement to Family Guy.
Anyway, we had learned the whole show in ten days, which is really fast for that type of show, and our poor Major General had freaked out about knowing his words every day. We got to opening night, and right in the middle of the patter, the poor guy lost his words. With a panicked face he turned to his flock of daughters sitting behind him and asked, “Girls, what was I going to say next?”
We all looked terrified at each other for a moment before the eight of us all started talking at once, trying to call out where we thought he had been in the song, which of course just made a whole lot of terrible noise. So the poor Major General freaked out, and we all started to talk louder, trying to tell him that we were right.
After a few horrifying seconds when the Major General looked as though he were about to cry, the music director pounded both his fists on his piano, rattling the speaker with the huge boom before shouting, “In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous!”
The Major General whimpered a little, sung the words and moved on. The next day one of the girls was given a book with all the lyrics pasted in it and was told to follow along and feed the Major General words if he lost the thread of the song again. ‘Cause, you know, there are few things worse than the music director shouting lyrics from the pit.