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Something is very wrong on Broadway: There’s a standing ovation for every performance.
Last year, I went to see the new musicalThe Addams Family at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. A day later, the New York Timesproclaimed it “genuinely ghastly” and a “collapsing tomb.” Reuters said its “artistic inspiration pretty much ended with the pitch meeting.” The Washington Post deadpanned that it was “this year’s answer to the question How many talented people does it take to screw up a concept?”
It was torpedoed by pretty much everyone. Yet just a few hours before, the audience I was part of rose to its feet. What’s going on here?
Simple: devaluation of praise.
Two decades ago, standing ovations were awarded mostly on merit. Only the upper echelon of performances earned them. Almost all performances, even superior ones, were congratulated by a hearty, but seated, round of applause. That modulated sign of respect was enough to please even a veteran performer, and if an actor was fortunate enough to see a crowd driven to its feet, a career could be instantly made.
Now, though, audiences rise as if compelled by the same machinery that makes the curtains fall. All it takes is a few people in the front rows to get it going. Once that eager vanguard — many of whom are diehards who won those seats in discount ticket lotteries — pops up, the people behind them must do it, too, in order to maintain their view of the movie star they paid top dollar to see. Most modern standing ovations are carried out without gusto and without cheering. Just clapping and standing.
“It’s an ‘occasion’ now – whatever the hot ticket is for the middle-aged and rich,” legendary Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim is quoted as saying about our audience ovations. “They want to remind themselves that it’s an occasion. They’re applauding themselves.”
The price of modern entertainment
A single orchestra ticket to The Addams Family on a Saturday night will cost you $178.16, including fees, if it’s bought using Broadway.com. “Premium” tickets, which don’t come with foot rubs, cost $360.60. Usurious rates like that are what promoted the Wall Street Journal, in its own Addamspan, to say, “tickets are so expensive that you can buy an iPad for less than the price of four orchestra seats.” It was being charitable: new iPads start at $499.
With prices like that, no one wants to be the first to admit the show stinks. Many audiences give perfunctory standing ovations out of pure, stubborn unwillingness to admit they just blew a wad of cash. These reluctant standees usually make up the majority of the ovation. They’re not leaping to their feet because they’re overcome with uncontainable jubilation and praise. No, they take their time to put their Playbills down first.
“The pro forma Broadway standing ovation now springs from duty not desire,” wrote Brendan Lemon in the Financial Times in 2003.
Sondheim observed another aspect of the worthless standing O: “Every show now gets a standing ovation, but I think if you’re really moved, you don’t stand.”
He’s right. The standing ovation has become so inconsequential that now, the only true way to gauge a performance’s quality has inverted: A standing O won’t tell you anything, but if the audience resolutely refuses to get up, you know the show’s been terrible. Tell your actor friends that the musical you saw got a standing O, and they probably won’t be impressed, but talk about how an audience remained seated during the bows for John Stamos and Gina Gershon’s Bye Bye Birdie, and you’ll see them wince knowingly.
I think that long ago, bowing actors searched the house for people who were leaping to their feet. That sight was enough to set them abuzz with gratitude. Now, they probably zero in on the people who refuse to get up. If an actor notices a bunch of people who are only sedentarily pleased, it must really scotch a good mood. Was I that bad?
Standing ovations do still happen when there are stellar performances to reward. But rising is so common, no actor can be sure anymore. They must wonder: Did they really like me, or were they just standing like usual?
An interaction with celebrities
Audiences also tend to make a point of standing for stars, the way subjects respectfully rise for royalty. It’s hard to keep a Broadway show running nowadays without a plugging into star power, and the audiences are beginning to behave the way pilgrims do, by paying respects obviously. The hard-working ensemble may be applauded from the seat, but the star’s praise is from the feet.
For every truly gifted star performance, such as Scarlett Johansson in A View from the Bridge, there are six Quentin Tarantinos in Wait Until Dark, Katie Holmeses in All My Sons, or Nicole Kidmans in The Blue Room. All took forgettable or regrettable stage turns, and all routinely received standing ovations.
The presence of a star often signifies a higher production budget, too. To make it worth that big name’s time to dally on Broadway, producers often guarantee sizable weekly paychecks. That contributes to the high price of tickets.
Broadway producers increasingly feel comfortable mounting awful written-by-committee shows as long as they can lasso a big star to headline it — or base it on a movie the masses already know and trust, which is a form of star power.
I’m not saying that you should defiantly sit on your hands the next time the crowd around you rises from its seats. Giving a standing ovation is the new standard, and bucking the new standard will only make you look petulant. You’ll also usually find it impossible to see the bows if you’re the only one sitting down.
But the next time you’re reluctantly swept into rising for a performance that was just so-so, ask yourself why you feel compelled to do it. The social and financial pressure to join in means you’re probably putting on a little performance of your own.
Update: All right. I just saw Jerusalem and War Horse in one weekend. I freely admit I some performances are unquestionably worth standing ovations. I only wish more shows were like those.
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