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Stand-Up Tragedy

Updated: Jun 1, 2021


This piece is adapted from two posts on my personal blog. The first is from 2010, with a return to the subject six years later. I mushed them together because I thought this topic might inspire some conversation amongst Players, particularly now, when we're so hungry just to have audiences again.

I like to read reviews of plays and movies only after I see them. So it was that I perused 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 adequately 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 took issue with Brantley’s review. One reader, whose emailed response came from somewhere in the heartland, 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 damned 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 walk in, and their willingness to be in the same room with you seems sufficient to levitate backsides during curtain call. Too often it’s motivated by personality, not performance. The Addams Family received a standing ovation the night I saw it, too, but I’ll hand you a million bucks 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 looked at each other nervously and thought: something went horribly wrong tonight.

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 — especially women, whose voices are naturally higher and clearer — shriek where they used to laugh. I’m sure this excited reaction is a bleedover 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 too, and that's still OK at number's end. But now it's also come to mean “this is my way of saying I think that was funny” on laugh beats in the more raucous comedies, so now we're beginning to step on the next line. This is a second cousin to stand-up fever; pretty soon we won’t notice it any more.

Once a well-meaning friend hosted us at the Metropolitan Opera for Zeffirelli’s La Boheme. It was thrilling to be in such a legendary venue. The stagecraft was beyond anything I’d ever encountered before: mammoth flies that you have to see to believe. But 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. Again, I’ll concede that this stuff is way over my head. Yet something seemed similar: the presumably more sophisticated audience still needed to validate itself. We’re at the Metropolitan Opera, mate, and damn if this isn’t going to be a spectacular performance!

Why should I even care whether people jump to their feet or not? They’re just being nice, Tom, get off their backs! Besides bestowing unearned praise, the other irritant which this jack-in-the-box response causes is that it prevents me from watching 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 we feel the performance deserves 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. That doesn’t mean we didn’t enjoy the show. It only means it didn’t deserve a frickin standing ovation.

I'm tempted to stand up right now.

Here’s the last one I can remember granting without even thinking (which should be normalcy). We saw the three plays of Tom Stoppard’s The Coast Of Utopia cycle on the same day. They were being performed in repertory at Lincoln Center, but once all three got going, the company held 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 all deceased characters) ran on for a mass curtain call. I noticed Ethan Hawke lifting 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. I even leapt to my feet with the rest of the Sundance audience in 2003 for Whale Rider, and that’s a movie. Achievements that deserve 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 for a star to bury their name in an alphabetical listing, and that’s what Dustin Hoffman did when he played Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice some years back. He even declined an individual curtain call: the entire company came out and bowed en masse. Very classy. No standing O, but very warm and appreciative applause for one and all (Hoffman was good, but he wasn’t the only one). That’s how you'd expect an audience to express approbation. But one day I walked past a billboard advertising a particular musical with, “GETS A STANDING OVATION EVERY NIGHT!” and I knew a page had turned. Friend, they all do.

If you come all the way to New York to see [STAR’S NAME HERE] in [BIG FANCY SHOW], I can certainly appreciate that you want to go back home and report that 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? Right? Thought so!

But everyone on stage knows the truth. The standing ovation has been devalued to the point that it's now nothing but cotton candy (in fairness, that's probably preferable to rotten fruit). But if you ever really, no kidding, earned one the hard way, how would you know? Its historic function as a meaningful way to communicate back to the stage is over and done with.

Tom Dupree has been a professional newsman, adman, critic and editor, and an actor and director at the college and community level. His personal blog is at Not a universal standing O fan.

1 Comment

Carl Rutberg
Carl Rutberg
Jul 20, 2020

One thing is for sure --- when Broadway opens up again, there will be a standing ovation . . . .

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