Ben Brantley has a front-page NY Times piece today on how the standing ovation has become the default reaction to live performances, with audiences leaping to their feet at the end of virtually every production, regardless of whether it was deserved.
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 who attend big Broadway shows are tourists whose itinerary includes, along with visits to the Statue of Liberty and the Hard Rock Cafe, a performance of “Wicked” or “Jersey Boys.”My wife and I first noticed this phenomenon here in St. Louis, where it's been going on for well over a decade. I can't count the number of times we've stayed in our seats applauding but not standing because, while the production we'd just seen was very good, it wasn't great enough to merit the highest honor an audience can bestow. In many cases at the St. Louis Rep, the cast has taken a single bow to a standing ovation, but the applause had receded so much by the time they left the stage that they didn't return for a curtain call. It's not that the Rep's shows aren't worthwhile -- they are, and we've seen most of them this century -- but we believe the standing ovation should be a rarity, not the response de rigeur.
For such audience members, standing to applaud at the end of a show has become part of the Official Broadway Experience. And 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 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.
It's even more ridiculous when people get on their feet at the beginning of a performance, usually at concerts. Perhaps they can't believe that the performer they've paid to see has actually shown up to play and sing for them, so when he/she does, they stand up to express their shock and excitement. These folks have set the ovation bar far too low.
I've been to too many concerts and plays that disappointed me in the end, and by then it's too late to take back that freely-given Standing O. So, I'll be happy to applaud when you appear, but I'm not getting to my feet in admiration until you've done something on that stage that's really worth it.