Have you seen the Haley Joel Osment movie Secondhand Lions?
It was turned into a big, splashy hopefully-going-to-Broadway musical a few years ago. I was hired to work backstage.
Secondhand Lions takes its audience on a grand journey led by some adorable children and a couple of grumpy old men. The audience watches a small airplane being “built” onstage as the chorus sang a knee-slapping ditty about “flying into a better tomorrow”. But there were no actual lions in Secondhand Lions and people were confused by the show’s title. What the musical did have was giant swashbuckling fantasy sequences with sword fighting.
This backstage dresser story gets complicated. Let me walk you through it.
Part One: Dresser Out
The musical had a big cast with nine dressers. Dresser #1 wasn’t feeling well one afternoon: stomach ache and chest pains. She had to leave the theater and go directly to the emergency room.
With Dresser #1 out, a second dresser was dispatched through the union to take her place for the performance of Secondhand Lions that night. Dresser #2 was a fine enough dresser and copious notes had been taken by Dresser #1. But she would be doing this difficult show cold: no rehearsal. And it was a hard show for all the dressers, even under the best of circumstances.
Dresser #2 struggled through the evening and everyone pitched in to help her. In Act Two, she only had a small window of time to track five sets of ninja costumes from the men’s dressing room and preset them stage left on five specific hooks with the five actor’s names written above on a piece of tape. Those actors would be exiting the stage and quickly changing into their ninja costumes before the giant sword fighting number.
It’s important to realize that these five costumes were exactly alike except for their size and a small cloth label with the actor’s name. In the rush, Dresser #2 didn’t get the correct costumes on the correct hooks.
So without knowing it, she had put:
Ninja #1’s costume on Ninja #4’s hook.
Ninja #2’s costume in Ninja #1’s hook.
Ninja #4’s costume on Ninja #2’s hook.
Ninja #3 and Ninja #5 had the correct costumes on their hooks.
Part Two: Exit Stage Right
I saw the five men exit the stage, run to their hooks, and start to get dressed while I attended to my own actors a few feet away. One by one, they realized they didn’t have their costume in hand –they had someone else’s costume that didn’t fit.
It didn’t help that the costumes were black and it was dark backstage. It also didn’t help that this costume change needed to be completed in less than thirty seconds.
There was raw panic as the five ninjas tried to figure out who had who’s costume. Frantic whispers were heard.
“Where are the pants?!?!?!?!?”
“Pants …pants, pants, pants, PANTS!”
In the costume-change-confusion, Ninja #2 dropped his shoe. He bent down to the floor to pick it up and Ninja #4 backed into him. Both ninjas fell flat to the ground taking two more ninjas down with them.
Within seconds there was a ball of half-naked actors in a ninja-knot still trying to get dressed.
A frantic game of Twister comes to mind.
Or an epileptic spider.
Dresser #2 was trying to help the best she could, but having only worked on the show a few hours, she didn’t even know the actor’s names.
The knot of ninja’s struggled. But Secondhand Lions didn’t skip a beat. Not everyone had on the correct costume, yet after thirty seconds, all five men were dressed. They were handed their sword by a prop person and dashed onstage to defend to honor of the princess from the flamboyant and wily Sultan.
Part Three: Sharp and Shocking
The swords looked realistic, but believed to be safe and dull. However, Ninja #4 was still a bit flustered from his Keystone Cop quick costume change …and his sword was neither safe, nor dull. The young ninja waved his sword around defiantly, “Ha-ha! Hee-hee! Hoo-hoo!” …and stabbed the leading man in the hand.
I’m sure the audience thought it was a real part of the show: fake blood and good acting. But it wasn’t. The sword went completely through his hand piercing the flesh between his thumb and index finger.
Let me clarify a few things (no finger-pointing).
A qualified fight choreographer had staged all the fights.
A fight captain was at every performance to keep everyone on track.
The stabbing was just an accident.
Ninja #4 was a young actor just starting his career. There were lots of apologies. He cried backstage the rest of the evening.
Our bleeding leading man got off stage, but insisted on finishing the show. His hand was cleaned and wrapped up in his dressing room. The company manager took him to the emergency room immediately after curtain call for stitches. He would remain bandaged for a few shows, but make a full recovery.
Dresser #1 thankfully returned to Secondhand Lions the night after the stabbing. What was the cause of her sudden and serious ailment? One of her new, fancy vitamin didn’t dissolve and got stuck in her esophagus. The doctor just flushed her out and sent her home. She, too, made a full recovery.
It’s possible the actor and the dresser passed each other at the emergency room.
“What are you doing here?”
“What are YOU doing here?
1-Vitamin gets stuck in Dresser #1’s esophagus.
2- Dresser #2 doesn’t get a rehearsal.
3- Dresser #2 sets ninja’s costumes incorrectly.
4- Ninja #4 panics –and is given (not so dull) sword.
5- Ninja #4 stabs leading man.
The Speed Round:
Fancy vitamin à stabbed actor.
The Reviews Are In:
The magazine Variety came to town to review Secondhand Lions and called it “… entertaining but not endearing.”
So is an onstage flesh wound.
The show hasn’t made it to Broadway yet.
And I still haven’t seen the movie.
Dennis Milam Bensie is a writer and, for thirty years, has made his living as a dresser in professional theatre all over the United States. Short stories and poetry by Dennis have been featured in numerous publications and his essays have been seen in The Huffington Post, Boys on the Brink, and The Good Men Project. He has three books published by Coffeetown Press. This essay is part of a series for Queen Mob's Teahouse on his experience working backstage.