The curtain call offers a final moment of connection between players and audience as their performances waft into the air, dissipating into the universe only to exist as a subjective memory. Sometimes it’s cherished, other times it’s quickly forgotten. The once coveted standing ovation has become commonplace in American theater. Should we resist temptation and be more judicious with our accolades?
I’m fortunate to attend the theater often, so perhaps I’ve become lazy. Justin Peck’s athletically choreographed “Blow High, Blow Low” from this season’s Carousel revival is a stunner, but I could barely bring myself to tap my knee as if I was waiting for a long overdue crosstown bus.
Sometimes a director chooses to put a final button on the actors’ performances after they’ve fulfilled their official duties, having them take bows in character. Such was the case in Barrington Stage Company’s The Royal Family of Broadway, a new musical about the fictional Cavendish family, three generations of A-list actors who dominate the Great White Way. Director John Rando had them milk their final bows as a wink, perhaps, to the theater’s inherent narcissism. Unfortunately, by that point, the audience already had one foot out the door, proving that the Cavendish’s fictional reign had prematurely come to an end.
More often than not, I reluctantly join in a standing ovation to:
a: see the curtain call
b: prove that I’m not a curmudgeon to a room full of 1,500 strangers
But there have been a handful of times that I’ve led the charge, leaping to my feet with emotional exuberance. The final moment in Tina Howe’s Pride’s Crossing, which follows the life of Mabel Tidings Bigelow (the first woman to swim the English Channel), ended with Cherry Jones diving off a craggy coast, caught mid-air before the final blackout. It was a singular moment so breathtaking and precariously staged that I had to be sure she hadn’t landed in the orchestra pit.
A standing ovation may also be a celebration not of a specific performance but rather of the experience itself. I’m an anomaly. I can walk out my door and be at a Broadway box office within five minutes. But for most, an evening at a Broadway show requires deep pockets and planning. Tourists comprised more than 60 percent of admissions last year. All of that boisterous clapping and hooting may be bucket-list exclamations that are inclusive but not exclusive to what was just witnessed.
I was recently in London and saw the current revival of Dreamgirls—a show that demands a standing ovation with its driving Motown-rich score and high decibel power ballads. Act One’s closing number, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is a gauntlet throwdown and this particular performance delivered full throttle.
“That was lovely,” said the prim, middle-aged woman seated next to me as the show came to a close.
“Why yes, it was,” I mumbled through sniffles and tears. It wasn’t a standing ovation. But it was close.
Matthew Wexler is the Broadway Blog’s editor. This op-ed was written at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute.