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Taking a Stand Against Standing Ovations

By: Linda Buchwald
Date: Aug 17, 2017


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Does every show really deserve one?


I can't remember the last time I went to a Broadway show that didn't receive a standing ovation -- even though, in my opinion, many didn't earn it. I get it -- for lots of people in the audience going to the theatre is a special (and expensive) occasion, so they're eager to jump up at the end to confirm they've just seen something truly exceptional. But here's the thing: You expect to see a certain level of talent on Broadway. So while I always applaud with varying degrees of enthusiasm, I rarely rise. I believe standing ovations should be reserved for superlative experiences, not just a job well done.

When I saw Hamilton, there was no way I could sit in my chair. I was so impressed that I leapt to my feet at curtain call. And I caught it in previews Off-Broadway at the Public Theater, so this was before all the hype! In that case, I was standing for both the performers and the musical itself. If I'm so-so on a show but I think one of the actors gave an amazing performance, I tend to stay seated and just cheer a little louder during his individual bow.

Of course I realize that standing ovations are totally subjective. If I think a show stinks but my date wants to get up, I hope he does -- even if he turns out to be the only one. It's the lemminglike rise of everyone in the house that seems disingenuous.

It also feels a bit like bullying. While I know I can continue to sit even if everyone else stands (as I often do), if I don't follow suit, I risk coming off as a grinch. It also means I can't see the curtain call. So I miss the actors' reactions to the crowd, or sometimes even an extra number. That's why I've taken to what I call hovering: I close my seat and perch atop it so I have a better view without actually getting all the way up.

I'm certainly not the first person to complain about this. Critics, audiences, and even artists have been griping about this phenomenon for over a decade now. As an On Stage Blog writer brilliantly observed, "standing ovations have become the participation ribbons of live performance," so ultimately they seem meaningless. I do find that there's a notable exception: standing ovations during a show. This past season, Glenn Close earned one after singing "As If We Never Said Goodbye" in Sunset Boulevard, and Bette Midler got one as she descended the staircase at Harmonia Gardens in Hello, Dolly!. While I suspect these were nightly occurrences, at least they felt spontaneous. Even though I personally didn't stand and wanted to get on with the show, I appreciated that the crowd was so pumped they couldn't help but pop up en masse.

So stand up…or sit down. Just consider the reasons you're doing it.

Are you quick to give standing ovations? Let us know in the comments.


Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre at @PataphysicalSci. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

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tweets about theatre at @PataphysicalSci. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.