No need for a doctor in the house–this broken leg’s lucky

Has anyone ever wished you something other than break a leg before a performance? Tell us here!

Mr. Bloom, hasn’t anyone ever told you
It’s bad luck to say, “Good luck!” on opening night?
If you do, I tell you
It is certain by the curtain
You are through!
–from The Producers, the new Mel Brooks Musical

As a theatrical novice, Leo Bloom makes a shocking but understandable faux pas in the Mel Brooks musical The Producers. It’s the opening night, and the accountant-turned-impresario wishes the cast good luck.

Yikes! That’s a total no-no, unless you’re out to sabotage the show – as his partner, Max Bialystock sets out to do. In the land of theatre superstition, it’s actually bad luck to wish your colleagues good luck. Instead, Bloom should have told the cast members to “break a leg.”

That’s what show people say to each other as they are about to go on stage, especially on special occasions.

By wishing a performer good luck, you might jinx her or him. So don’t tempt fate. Wish them a catastrophe instead. Or curse at them, as the French and Italians do.

In other words, the thinking goes, with the gods of the theatre off your tail, you stand a decent chance that nothing will go wrong during the show.

Why “break a leg?” As with many theatrical superstitions, there are many imaginative—if unreliable—back stories to explain the origin of the phrase. One favorite is that breaking a leg is an elegant metaphor for taking a bow or making a curtsey, i.e., bending at the knee.

Another is that the curtains that hang in the wings on the sides of the stage, parallel to the proscenium, are sometimes called “legs.” You have to pass through or “break” the line of drapery to take your curtain call.

And perhaps the most colorful, if least plausible, story involves John Wilkes Booth. The actor-slash-assassin was thought to have shattered a limb in leaping onto the stage of Ford’s Theatre after shooting President Abraham Lincoln. That may be the most catastrophic theatrical entrance of all time, and by invoking it you are sure to fend off any possible good-luck jinx.

So if someone tells you they hope you experience bodily harm on opening night, don’t be alarmed. It’s just their way of wishing you well.

—Ben Pesner

This video was made by Theatre Development Fund and filmed on location in Times Square.

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Theatre Development Fund is the nation’s largest not-for-profit service organization for the performing arts. Through a variety of programs and services that promote education, access and conversation, it ensures an enduring appreciation of and engagement with live theatre. In addition to operating the TKTS booth in Duffy Square and the satellite booths at South Street Seaport and in downtown Brooklyn, TDF’s theatre education, accessibility, affordable ticketing and audience development programs help to make the unique experience of theatre available to diverse audiences while supporting New York’s theatre industry. Since it was founded in 1968, TDF has provided over 80 million people with access to performances at affordable prices while returning over $2 billion in revenue to thousands of productions.