by Ben Brantley
Something rare and wonderful happened at the opening night of the Encores! concert production of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” at City Center last week. At the end of the show, when the performers took their bows, the audience remained seated.
Let me hasten to add there was no doubt that this audience had mightily enjoyed what it had just seen. We had all beat our hands raw with clapping through a succession of showstoppers, including a tap sequence that would have made you swear the ghosts of the Nicholas Brothers had possessed its performers; an athletic series of variations on the Charleston; and a knockout rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” that immortal anthem to non-liquid assets.
That number was performed by Megan Hilty, who as the gold-digging Lorelei Lee gave an original, audacious comic performance that, for the moment, wiped out memories of Carol Channing and Marilyn Monroe, her indelible predecessors in the role. It felt like one of those fabled performances (much cherished by theatergoers) that in a single, golden night thrust its leading lady into the firmament of musical stage stardom.
And at the final curtain, we stayed in our seats.
We whooped, we roared, we wolf-whistled. Our applause might well have sent tremors all the way to Battery Park. But no one, as far as I could tell, was standing up. “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” had been accorded the five-star tribute of a sitting ovation.
I would like to make the case, officially and urgently, for the return of the sitting ovation. Because we really have reached the point where a standing ovation doesn’t mean a thing. Pretty much every show you attend on Broadway these days ends with people jumping to their feet and beating their flippers together like captive sea lions whose zookeeper has arrived with a bucket of fish. This is true even for doomed stinkers that find the casts taking their curtain calls with the pale, hopeless mien of patients who have just received a terminal diagnosis.
The s.o. (if I may so refer to a phenomenon that no longer warrants the respect of its full name) has become a reflexive social gesture, like shaking hands with the host at the end of a party.
Or, to put in cruder and more extreme terms, it’s like having sex with someone on the first date, whether you like the person or not, because you think it’s expected of you.
The reasons for the ubiquity of the promiscuous s.o. have been widely pondered by cultural pundits. One theory has it that it’s because habitual theatergoers have become a relative rarity. Many of the people who attend big Broadway shows are tourists whose itinerary includes, along with visits to the Statue of Liberty and the Hard Rock Café, a performance of “Wicked” or “Jersey Boys.”
For such audience members, standing up to applaud at the end has become of the Official Broadway Experience. And of course, if you’ve spent several hundred dollars for that pair of orchestra seats, an s.o. seems to help confirm that the money wasn’t wasted.
I also have a suspicion that for some people, standing up immediately at the end of the show is simply a physical relief after an hour or more of immobility. Besides, the sooner you’re on your feet, the greater your odds are for beating the crowd to the exits. And, oh yes, let’s not discount the domino effect of an s.o.: Once the person in front of you is standing, you too must stand if you want to see what’s on stage.
In London, where theater remains a larger and more natural part of the general cultural conversation, the s.o. is less epidemic. True, I have felt its sweaty presence at some of the bigger West End musicals (often imported from Broadway, so perhaps they arrived carrying the virus). But I can’t remember the last time I witnessed an s.o. at the National Theater, where the level of professional quality is consistently and rewardingly high.
Admittedly, there are some shows that deserve an s.o., which I don’t necessarily mean as a compliment. “Newsies the Musical,” in which the characters keep dancing and cartwheeling and jumping all over the place, seems so pathetically eager for an s.o. that to deny it one would be like forbidding an adorable puppy its chew toy. Similarly, Liza Minnelli – whenever and wherever she appears – must receive an s.o. It’s part of the unwritten but unbreakable contract between her and her audience (as it was with her mother, Judy Garland).
And then there are – or once were, the old ones tell us — the meaningful s.o.’s. These were not instantaneous or knee-jerk. Legend has it that on the opening night of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” the audience was so moved by what it had witnessed that it sat in sat in shocked silence, collecting itself and drying its tears, before the applause broke out.
I think that people seeing Mike Nichols’s current revival of that play may well be similarly moved by the tragedy of Willy Loman, its title character. But at the performance I attended, they were on their feet in a mega-second, as if electrodes had been applied to their legs.
So I can’t tell you how heartened I was, at the end of a packed spring theater season, to be part of that seated ovation at “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” I should point out that among audiences for musicals, those who attend the Encores! productions are probably the most sophisticated and discriminating in town. Many of them know the history, in detail, of the show they’re seeing and the resumes of those appearing in it.
But can’t we all, please, strive to be a little more like them? I’m not asking for the wholesale abolition of the s.o. That would be a sadly quixotic demand. I’m just asking you, my comrades in urban theatergoing, to think before you stand, if you must stand at all. And to remember, in an age in which the s.o. is as common in a Broadway theater as an endless line for the ladies room at intermission, that staying seated has become the exceptional tribute.
What’s your diagnosis for s.o. fever? Do you have any prescriptions for curtailing it? Or do you feel it even needs to be addressed?
Ben Brantley writes for The New York Times