Stand-Up Tragedy

1458047088866It’s even worse.

When I first wrote about standing-ovation-creep on this page more than six years ago, it was an irritation, like a skin rash you just have to live with. Since then, it’s become an out-and-out pandemic, infecting more and more theatre audiences in New York — and, I’d be willing to bet, where you live too, because this virus is issuing forth from the heartland.

Let’s restate a few caveats. A performance that brings an audience to its feet with gratitude is a wonderful thing, and once upon a time such a spontaneous eruption swelled the cast and crew with pride precisely because it was so rare. I have witnessed these thrilling occasions — but fewer times than I have fingers. (My most recent was HAMILTON.) However, the days when you could actually reward a magnificent production beyond mere seated applause are long gone, vanished before my very eyes.

I recognize that audience behavior evolves over time. Beatles aside, the loudest sound in an Ed Sullivan or Johnny Carson audience was the ol’ two-fingered whistle. But watch Colbert or Maher today, and you’ll hear people — usually women — shriek where they used to laugh. I’m sure that excited reaction is a bleed-over from pop music concerts, and it’s fine for a talk show where revving the crowd up to paroxysmal frenzy is part of the trick. Thing is, we’re starting to hear the whooooooooos for stage musical numbers, even “this is my way of saying I think that’s funny” in the more raucous comedies. This is a second cousin to stand-up fever.

It’s very expensive to visit New York, even before the theater sticks out its palm for you to cross so lavishly. If you go to a Broadway show, you expect to see transcendence; it had better be better than what your community theater can pull off. Some shows are certainly lesser than others, but they are all of professional caliber, and if you’re not used to that, damn near anything can impress you, especially if it features someone you’ve seen in movies or on tv. I believe that’s where the ubiquitous standing O has come from: visitors from out of town. My latest piece of evidence: I was sitting in a side box for AN AMERICAN IN PARIS a couple weeks ago, so I was able to watch the crowd. The standing ovation that day was definitely led by people in shorts and sandals.

Why should I even care about whether people jump to their feet or not? They’re just being nice, get off their backs! Two reasons. One, as stated above, when it happens every time, the gesture is demeaned: performers will never again be able to earn a legitimate standing O, since they will automatically receive one simply by getting to the end of Act II. Two, I enjoy watching actors take their curtain calls, but unless I stand as well (to my shame, I’ve done it a few times) all I can see is a butt from the previous row. Usually I remain seated anyway. It’s not because I didn’t like the show; it’s because it didn’t deserve a standing ovation!

Here’s how bad it’s gotten. The other night I went down to 59E59, the only off-Broadway theater in rational walking distance from my house, to see a surrealistic farce called BEARS IN SPACE, part of a citywide Irish theatre festival. Delightful show: four young guys using deliberately low-tech theatricality and ratty hand-and-rod puppets, snarky as hell but telling a story that turned out to be very sweet. (One of them was Jack Gleeson, GAME OF THRONES’s sadistic King Joffrey, but in one section he played that notorious imperiousness for laughs.) The audience — couldn’t have been 200 people — were attentive, laughing where they should, etc. They loved the show. (I did too.) The boys wound it up and the applause was vigorous, energetic. As I was joining them in banging my hands together, something was vaguely bothersome. WTF? Finally it struck me. Nobody in the appreciative, giddy audience had risen to their feet! I self-flagellated on the walk home (what, no standing O means you’re missing something, dickweed?) and sat down to write this piece, my first sequel. Dudes and dudettes, standing ovations are WAY WAY WAY too common, but there’s nothing anybody can do. Their function as a meaningful way to communicate back to the stage is all over.

img_14609/27/16: Last night, at the new production of THE FRONT PAGE (it was that or the Clinton-Trump “debate”), before the inevitable tumultuous standing ovation, came some “sitting ovations,” or entrance applause, for everybody the audience recognized: Jefferson Mays, John Slattery, John Goodman, Robert Morse, Nathan Lane, even Holland Taylor. This show is a trifle, an amusing limited run for holiday-season tourists, slathered with stars, and it did make me laugh a few times. But to the adoring audience, it killed. A standing O was locked in the moment they opened their programs, and every comment I overheard afterward reflected a mind duly blown. But I won’t play the snob card: New York needs their money.

11/23/16: Yes, the cast of the final play in the “Gabriel Family Trilogy” did a wonderful job, but DAMN! Even most of the audience in a little 200-seater upstairs at the Public felt the need to hit their feet. Fortunately we were sitting in the first row, and I think I caught a couple of curtain-call winks — thanks for giving us an enthusiastic response but not fucking standing up! — or maybe it was just my imagination. I mimed applause to Jay O. Russell in the lobby as we were filing out and he seemed to enjoy it. But the war’s over. Automatic standing Os and Trump have each won.

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5 Responses to Stand-Up Tragedy

  1. David E Buck says:

    Works that way down here in Dixie, Tom. A non-standing O does come across as displeasure, go figure, even with robust applause.

  2. Lew Perdue says:

    Yet another symptom of the tragic self-esteem, entitlement movement where excellence is avoided and everybody gets a prize no matter how crappy they are.

    Also a foundation of grade inflation where people who have done average work show up at the professor’s office in tears or with murder in their eyes demanding an “A.”

    The latter is one reason I stopped teaching at the university level.

    • Tom Dupree says:

      I urge you to read Chapter 4 of THE NIX by Nathan Hill. (I actually recommend the entire novel, but if you want to cheat the author out of his royalty, you can do the specific chapter standing up at the bookstore.) It expands on your second paragraph in ways you should recognize, yet it’s funny as hell too.

  3. Tom Dupree says:

    Lew, I wonder if it’s not coming from the nanny-state left (guilty of each and every thing you cite) so much as the televisionaries in the vast center. They see a professional show, they stand up cuz that’s what they do at the opera in the movies. Datum: on his entrance, John Slattery was an audibly bigger star to this crowd than was Nathan Lane. Why? He was on frickin MAD MEN.

  4. debooker says:

    I think you allude to the cause when you pointed out: “It’s very expensive to visit New York, even before the theater sticks out its palm for you to cross so lavishly.” The more somebody pays for something, the more that person expects from it … even if they have to generate that “extra” himself, herself, or themselves. Plus, I suspect a certain amount of narcissism: See me give a standing ovation a Broadway Play. I am now part of the experience. And that goes back to the more I paid for this, the more “invested” (on several levels) I am. Call it a form of self-induced instant gratification.

    It’s the same way at sporting events, where ticket prices (even for Power 5 conference schools) have risen to the point that the fan feels he or she owns a piece of the action. If you want to see folks stand up a lot (and shout, applaud, etc.), attend a major football sporting event. It might make standing ovations at a play seem tepid by comparison.

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