Stand Up And (I) Holler

I like to read reviews of plays and movies only after I see them. So it was that I found Ben Brantley’s New York Times evisceration of THE ADDAMS FAMILY, a new Broadway musical. He was far too harsh, in my opinion: it’s harmless, it’s for tourists, like PHANTOM, MAMMA MIA or CATS (visitors buy far more Broadway musical tickets than locals do, and I say, keep on comin’, y’all!), but it’s perfectly entertaining, if flawed, and to drag it under a bus is to shoot a fish in a barrel. Yes, cliché fans, I am a cascading fount, a glittering treasure trove.

Nowadays the groundlings can talk back, thanks to the Internet, and lots of them thought Brantley’s review was full of waste matter. Just this past Sunday, the Times’s Charles Isherwood gave a big air-kiss to the show’s star, Nathan Lane, and intimated that he enjoyed THE ADDAMS FAMILY a little better than the first-nighter had. But one particular Brantley reader, whose emailed response came from somewhere in the heartland, caught my eye. (I just tried to retrieve it for you so I could quote directly, but many others have weighed in since, and I can’t bear to sift through them all.) This theatergoer said, in essence, “How can you be so blind? Everybody in the theater loved it. Gosh, it even got a standing ovation!”

Sir or madam, you just hit my hot button. There are too many goddam standing ovations in New York. Next photo, don’t you agree?

Sit the frick down!

I’m old-school. An audience “leaps to its feet” only when it’s just seen something transcendent. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. But the current trend in New York “legit” is to hire movie or TV stars, people you already recognize before you even walk in, and their willingness to be in the same room with you seems to be enough to levitate the backside during curtain call. It’s motivated by personality, not performance. THE ADDAMS FAMILY received a standing O the night I saw it, too, but I’ll hand you a million dollars in pennies if you can prove that either Nathan Lane or Bebe Neuwirth claim this as one of their finest moments on the boards. On the contrary, perversely: if there hadn’t been a standing O, everyone involved would have nervously looked at each other and thought: something went horribly wrong tonight.

I remembered the time a well-meaning friend gave us tickets to the Metropolitan Opera for Zeffirelli’s LA BOHEME. It was thrilling to be in the audience for what must be the world’s leading opera company. I was really happy to be there. The stagecraft was beyond anything I’d ever encountered before: mammoth flies that you have to see to believe. But in my life, I have not yet managed to cultivate a taste for classic opera (I do think Gilbert & Sullivan are da bomb), so the constant up-and-down ovations for individual arias, or whatever they are – “Bravo!” and “Brava!” – seemed to me as mundane as the ADDAMS reception. I’ll cop again to the fact that this stuff is clearly over my head. Yet something seems similar: the (presumably sophisticated) audience still needs to validate itself. We’re in the frickin Metropolitan Opera, and damn if this isn’t going to be a spectacular performance!

Besides bestowing unearned praise, the other irritant which this jack-in-the-box response causes is that it prevents me from watching actors take curtain calls, which I enjoy. Actors work very, very hard, frequently under adverse conditions, and the way they acknowledge the audience out of character is a measure of offstage grace. It’s also heartwarming to see a second or third lead, whom you’d never heard of two hours ago, just destroy the role and then come out and get the adulation s/he deserves. But you can’t see it, because by then, there’s a butt literally in your face. Linda and I normally do not rise unless the performance really deserved it, or – to my shame here – if I really want to see a particular actor take hisser curtain call. All too frequently, we turn out to be the only people who have remained seated. It doesn’t mean we didn’t enjoy the show. It only means it didn’t deserve a frickin standing ovation.

Here’s the last one I can remember granting without even thinking (which should be normalcy). We saw the three plays in Tom Stoppard’s THE COAST OF UTOPIA on the same day. They were being performed in repertory at Lincoln Center, but once all three got going, they had a few special “marathon” days in which they’d perform all three plays, one after another. For the first of them, one Saturday in 2006, we sat down at 10 am and left at 10 pm, with breaks for lunch and dinner. Three brilliant, challenging plays about pre-Revolutionary Russia, with a splendid, stageworthy cast directed by the masterful Jack O’Brien. No curtain calls for VOYAGE or SHIPWRECK, the first two, but after the final piece, SALVAGE, everybody who had been on stage the whole day (including some deceased characters) ran on for a mass curtain call. I remember seeing Ethan Hawke lift his fists into the air like a triumphant boxer: we did it! The cast members were applauding us for sticking with them over nine-plus delirious hours. But of course, by then we were already on our feet. Performers and audience had just shared something sublime, which will never happen again. My God: to remain seated would have been an insult.

When I saw the original production of star-bereft AVENUE Q, I felt the same way, as I did for B. D. Wong’s amazing performance in M. BUTTERFLY: for about five minutes he made me forget to swallow. I even leapt to my feet with the rest of the Sundance audience in 2003 for WHALE RIDER, and that’s a frickin movie. Moments that earn a standing ovation do occur, no doubt about it, and thank goodness they do. Just not every night in every show.

It used to be hip to bury your name in an alphabetical listing, especially for musicals, and that’s exactly what Dustin Hoffman did when he played Shylock in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE some years back. He declined an individual curtain call: the entire company came out and bowed en masse. Very classy. No standing O, but very appreciative applause for one and all (Hoffman was good, but he wasn’t the only one!). That’s what you expect. But one day I saw a billboard advertising a particular musical with, “GETS A STANDING OVATION EVERY NIGHT!” And I knew a page had turned.

If you come all the way to New York and you see [STAR’S NAME HERE] in [BIG FANCY SHOW], I can actually appreciate the fact that you want to be able to go back home and say it was beyond belief. These tickets carry obscene price tags, partly to pay for all the glitter that audiences seem to demand these days, stars being only the first line item. And a standing O when [STAR YOU LOVE] shows up for hisser bow is one way to do that. That was beyond belief, right, everybody? Thought so!

But everyone else on stage knows the truth. Standing ovations have been devalued to the point that they’re now nothing but cotton candy. And if you ever really, no kidding, earned one the hard way, how would you know?

5/21/12: The New York Times’s Ben Brantley weighs in, two years after I did.

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9 Responses to Stand Up And (I) Holler

  1. Mary Jo Pehl says:

    You are dead on, sir! In the Twin Cities, which has a rich and vibrant theater scene, it has become routine, practically a given, no matter the quality of the production. I always tried very hard to not give in to the “peer pressure” of everyone around me standing up and applauding, but very often felt like I was a stingy Philistine! It has driven me crazy for years. I keep wondering, “Wow, is all theater in Minneapolis the exact same level of greatness?”

    • Tom Dupree says:

      In the Guthrie too? Wow! I suspected this behavior might not be limited to New York, but I never had the chance to find out. Anybody else? Has the standing O conquered America?

  2. Elizabeth Thomas says:

    I am so jealous that you got to see Nathan Lane. He is my favorite musical performer. I saw him in the Producers in London, and it was fabulous. I saw him doing standup when I was at NYU in the early ’80s – he had a partner he did a routine with and he was hysterically funny even then. And that TV show he did with Mickey Rooney in the 80s — One of the Boys? — I loved that too. Anything he’s in — EXCEPT for the movie version of the Producers. Awful.

    • Tom Dupree says:

      If you go to the theater, have you noticed more West End standing ovations in the last, say, 10-15 years?

  3. Sam says:

    The current state of the Standing O is a complex issue. Yes, it is expected these days whether the show or performer demands it or not. However, I WILL say that there are times when a show may not deserve the adulation, but a performer works his or her butt off and saves the day and then HOW do you acknowledge that person? It is complicated. Yes, tourists expect to be wowed and they THINK they have to stand up because it is expected of them but you have to grant that theater and art in general are subjective. ONE person may think the show was wonderful and another may think it sucked. That is the curse and the beauty of theater and art. SO…if the person who loved it wants to stand up and cheer, who are we to say ‘no’?

    I too have remained seated after watching a particularly disasterous performance, but in the end I do get up because I want to see the curtain call and because, darn it all, the actors worked hard that night (as they do nearly every night in every theater on Broadway). If the Standing O has simply become a working man’s acknowledgement of hard work…I guess that is that. There is nothing to be done except to stand with the rest of the crowd…or to sit with a butt in your face 🙂

  4. Elizabeth Thomas says:

    Hi, No — Brits don’t do standing ovations on the West End unless it’s a spectacular performance at the Opera House. I’ve read irritated British critics who go to NYC and complain of the new American habit of applauding stars for simply appearing on the stage before they’ve done anything to earn applause.

    Brits aren’t as mean as the Italian theatre goers though — they throw fruit!

    • Tom Dupree says:

      That “sitting ovation” bothers others too, but it’s nowhere near new. Great stage actors received entrance applause back in the days of the Barrymores (“wonderful to see you on stage again, Miss Bernhardt!”). Great stage actors. Not the star of SAW XXVI.

  5. pinkpelican says:

    Never been to a show on Broadway. I go to community & repertory theatre, and the very occasional traveling Broadway show.

    Even those tend to get standing ovations, no matter the quality, which is just silly, because you almost never get that transcendence you talk about in that level of production.

    What I love about community & rep theatre is the inventiveness of the stage crew and the enthusiasm of the actors. They may not be “Stars”, but they love what they are doing and they have fun. They have tiny budgets and they have to be so creative to make the play work.

    I would like to see a play someday on Broadway, but until then, I will continue to enjoy my little homegrown companies who give me passion driven entertainment at affordable prices, warts and all. And I’ll sigh and be polite and rise when everybody else does, even though an ovation seems a bit over the top most of the time.

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