How often have you faked it?
By Gregory Jacobs-Roseman (Composer-Lyricist)
Last week Ryan shared with us his Musical Theatre Community Contract, which garnered a lot of buzz around the internets and on social media (or at least it did among the people with whom I am friends on Facebook and follow on Twitter). Still, there’s one point Ryan made in the contract that I have been trying to come to terms with over the past few years. The contract stipulates:
15. Furthermore if the audience collectively decides that standing in ovation is the only way to respond to the work onstage, yet I hated it, I will not remain seated while everyone else stands, because that's just fucked up.
Ah yes. The standing ovation, which once upon a time was reserved for the most thrilling of performances, has become standard operating procedure in the theatre. Every Broadway production I attend ends in one, even when it doesn’t merit it. I’m forced to ask myself: how did this happen? Does anyone remember what a real standing ovation feels like?
I’ll admit that I have stood during the curtain call of shows I didn’t think merited this once sacred practice, mainly because I didn’t want to be the one asshat in the audience sitting in defiance of the practice (and also so I could see the stage). Likewise, I’ve also sat when everyone else rose to their feet after a performance that I did indeed think deserved such acclaim, most recently at Once on Broadway (which was fabulous), as I was sitting in the front row of the mezzanine with my 80-year-old grandmother, whose hips don’t need the extra wear and tear.
Stephen Sondheim has gone on the record about standing ovations. Here’s a few of his quotes I was able to dig up with the Google machine:
“Every show now gets a standing ovation, but I think if you’re really moved, you don’t stand. They want to remind themselves that it’s an occasion–they’re applauding themselves.”
“Now it’s automatic; it doesn’t matter if you get on stage and read the telephone book. The audience is applauding themselves for having been there — they’ve spent a lot of money and a lot of time.”
“My idea of a standing ovation is being so moved that you just can’t move, that you sit there in silence. I remember once walking home with a friend after a show and not wanting to talk after what I had seen. It’s those 10 seconds of silence after a show, and then the cheering starting — that’s what you want to hear. Of course, it doesn’t happen very often. Certainly not in musicals.”
I happen to agree, but I wonder if it's more than just the fact that Broadway tickets are so expensive that the audience feels the need to somehow insert themselves into the show at the end, as if to say: “look! I’m here! I’m a part of this evening too!” Do they just think they're not getting their money’s worth if they’re not acknowledged for attending? Or have they never felt the thrill of a true standing ovation? One where the show was so damn good your body simply has to leap out of your seat afterwards, shouting “brava!” at the top of your lungs?
I stole the idea of a text screenshot from Tony's post yesterday. Can't decide if it's cool or creepy that the iPhone saves every text you've ever sent/received.
That’s right. The Book Of Motherfucking Mormon. At the time no one knew what the show was – we just knew it was from the South Park creators.
We didn’t wind up winning the lottery, so instead we walked into the box office. Alisha purchased a mezzanine seat with a discount code from BroadwayBox. I, on the other hand really, really needed a laugh at that moment, so I figured “what the hell, I'm gonna get myself a gift.” I slapped down my Amex and said: “give me your best available for tonight.”
“2nd row orchestra center?” replied the man behind the glass.
If that sounds like fiction that's because this was back when you could actually DO that at Book of Mormon. At this point in previews (I think this was the 6th preview performance?) you could actually walk up to the box office and pay regular price for an orchestra seat at the performance that same night, no premium ticket required. Actually, come to think of it, it’s even more amazing that Alisha was able to get what I think was about a $40 ticket with the discount for that night’s performance about an hour or so before curtain. None of this would be possible, like, a week later. The day after seeing the show, my mother called asking what show she should take her staff to when they took a trip to New York for the pediatric dentist’s convention (or whatever the hell it's actually called) in May. I raved about Book of Mormon and she went ahead and bought something like 20 tickets. By the time May rolled around (and I got to see the show for a second time), I think you had to buy non-premium tickets to Mormon almost a year in advance.
As I took seat B 105 in the Eugene O’Neill theater (I still have the ticket stub – also, the seat next to me remained vacant – again, unheard of now that Book of Mormon is what it is) I was praying something fabulous was about to unfold on that stage, and praise be to Thespis himself, it did.
If you’ve seen the show, you know what I’m talking about. I won’t go into too much detail here except to say the show is really, really fucking good. It's so good that I'm able to overlook the near-rhymes in the lyrics, which is something I always find unforgiveable. At intermission Alisha and I texted each other:
Alisha: “Um. So this is amazing.”
Alisha: “Yeah. Like whoa.”
The play was ending and I felt it – that stirring in my joints. My body was quivering from the sheer delight of what was drawing to a close on stage. Tears of joy were welling up in the corners of my eyes – the kind of tears I’m prone to when a show is just so, so good – when a show achieves a virtuosic mastery of the structure and form that is Musical Theatre. It makes me happy to be alive. It makes me remember why I love the theatre and what it is capable of. It makes me not care that I ended that last sentence in a preposition. It makes me feel like Felicity Huffman's character Dana in this classic scene from Sports Night (especially the second clip – I could only find this on YouTube in two parts):
And then the cast appeared for their bows. And upon the millisecond I saw them, with the full strength of every muscle in my body, I involuntarily leapt to my feet, slamming my hands together repeatedly and exclaiming: “YES!!!!” It was nothing short of orgasmic. A standing O, if you will. I would not, could not remain in my seat! How could anyone sit at a moment like that?! When something so honest, so beautiful, so exciting had just played out before my eyes, my body had to spring forth from the sheer inertia of it all. This was the opposite of what Sondheim was talking about. To sit stunned, ruminating over what just happened onstage is certainly a fabulous reaction to a show, and one I’ve had many times. But this was total, utter pleasure and joy running through my body, pouring over me until it lifted me up by my shoelaces (that's just a saying – I rarely wear laces). The foul mood I was in earlier was now a distant memory.
I've had plenty of true standing O's before and since that Book of Mormon preview and each one is a real rush of emotions and a cathartic delight. That’s what a standing ovation is all about, and it’s a thrill I wish I had more often. Knowing what that feels like, when I stand for something that didn’t lift me out of my seat – when I'm faking it – I feel wrong (and a little dirty). Yet I still do it, ‘cause like most of you, I have signed the Musical Theatre Community Contract. Then afterwards I observe the Five-Block Rule (don't talk about the show within a five block radius of the theatre in which it's playing – also, as a general rule I don't talk critically about anything theatre-related inside a theater unless it's in the abstract – you never know who's in earshot) and wait to dish the show over drinks with friends somewhere far away from the theater.
GREGORY JACOBS-ROSEMAN is a composer/lyricist and theatrical sound designer currently developing Save The Date: A New Musical Comedy. www.gregjr.com
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