The Standing Ovation Crisis: When Too Much Is Just Too Much
When the curtain comes down on a Broadway play or musical, we sure hope to have had a good time and that our two-hours wasn’t wasted on a painful night of theatre. When the cost of a Broadway theatre ticket is so monumentally high (prohibitive, even), it seems almost essential that we get our money’s worth. Otherwise, how are we to justify the expense of taking the gamble on the next show? We had better stand up for that curtain call and clap just as hard as we can, no matter what our feelings about the actual show. We saw “Broadway” and that is a major life event, right?
I recall a day when a standing ovation actually meant something. It was as if, in a sudden gust of symbiotic joy, an entire theatre full of patrons all agreed that they had seen something transporting, rapturous, unique and/or life-changing. It was reserved for the best of the best, an audience’s way of rewarding a show on their own terms. Nowadays, standing ovations are handed out like Halloween candy at just about every performance and production you attend. It’s treated as if it is an essential for every curtain call, whether it is deserved or not. Is applause not enough reward for a show? Must we all feign elation and total satisfaction at every performance we attend? This automatic reflex of “stand up and clap” diminishes the authenticity of the standing ovation and its legacy as a specially awarded accolade.
Sometimes a show is so bad, or the seating so incredibly uncomfortable, that I find myself anxious to stand up at a show’s completion and stretch my legs. I hold back. I sit there and I clap out of respect, but if I don’t think that I’ve seen something special, I do not stand up. I may have enjoyed and it and I will clap for that (even loudly), but I like to reserve the standing ovations for the shows that particularly startle and transport me. I stood for The Secret Garden. I stood for Kiss of the Spider Woman. Likewise for Urinetown, The Light in the Piazza, and The Scottsboro Boys. In twenty-seven years of theatergoing, I can count on one hand the number of times I was moved to jump out of my seat. These were very special moments of theatre. One of the reasons I knew that they were special: I was compelled to stand and clap, long and loud.
So tell me: why do we all stand up at every performance that we attend nowadays? Do we think that we are supposed to? Have we been convinced that this is the societal norm? Is it a reflex brought about by sitting for too long? Or are we so sure that we paid a lot of money to see something that is supposed be worthy of our extreme admiration? I’m interested to know the answer to this question.