I'm writing this week about a war I've lost, but I'm waging it anyway because I'm right and you are wrong. Audiences don't know how to applaud anymore. Oh, they know how to shout and jump up, but they don't know how to applaud.
I've been watching symptoms of this for years—most notably the knee-jerk standing ovation--but it really hit home at the recent opening night performance of West Side Story at the Cadillac Palace Theatre (through Aug. 14).
When the lights came up for the curtain calls, half the audience leapt to its feet and cheered for the first ensemble singers and dancers taking their bows. Almost 100% of the audience was on its feet cheering by the time the Sharks and Jets and name roles had taken their bows, culminating with Maria and Tony and the conductor up from the orchestra pit.
And then, suddenly, the noise and applause (what there was of it, distinct from the shouting) died away as the entire cast took a second bow. The orchestra began to play the exit music, and the curtain came down with the truly fab cast still standing on stage. The audience didn’t know it was supposed to continue applauding!
So I'm gonna' give it to you straight and true: sit the hell down, shut your mouth and clap!
It does no one a favor to leap up and scream the second the curtain comes down. All it's done for 40 years is dilute and diminish theater's ultimate accolade, the Standing O. If audiences do it at every performance of every show (as they do at every big musical and far too many plays), the gesture ceases to have any impact or value at all.
A standing ovation is supposed to be reserved for the most splendid theatrical performances of your life; performances that move you beyond words with their profundity, or transport you to heights of joy or sorrow. It's not something that should be automatic. Alas, some actors now consider a standing ovation their due, rather than a rarity recognizing a unique and exceptional effort. I rest my case: that which is too cheaply given is too cheaply earned.
For a very long time big, commercial musical productions have staged and engineered curtain calls to manipulate the audience into standing and cheering. The first show to do this was the original production of Hello, Dolly! in 1963, with music and choreography designed for the curtain call alone, something which hadn't been done before. It worked; oh, did it work. Audiences soon came to expect contrived bows.
But the passionate and honest revival of West Side Story does not do that. The performers take their bows in simple, straight lines without choreography or musical accompaniment. That is to say, there's nothing to jack up an audience addicted to artificial curtain call adrenalin.
If you really, really enjoyed the show, stay in your seat and applaud. Clap hard and clap long and give the cast two or three curtain calls. Maybe even shout "bravo." I don't know what it is that's shouted these days, but it's certainly not anything approaching the traditional "bravo." It's more like the general, amorphous roar of a ball park when the home team gets a hit.
So don't be a jerk or a knee-jerk as a member of an audience. Do NOT jump to your feet automatically. Every show you see is NOT among the greatest shows on earth, even though it may have a falling chandelier and even though you may have paid $80 or $100 for a ticket. Don't justify your expenditure by convincing yourself that what you've seen is wonderful and extraordinary, because it probably isn't. Instead, reward the company with your hands. Sit down, shut up and clap.
P.S. There is a corollary to this that's unique to Chicago, and that's the Off-Loop Theater tradition (from Steppenwolf and the Goodman to small store-fronts) of taking only ONE curtain call, even if the audience eagerly wants more. Now, the audience doesn't always want more, and the single company call is regarded as a gesture of humility and ensemble togetherness. Still, good is good, and Off-Loop directors and actors need to be prepared to take a second bow when the audience asks for it with their hands.