Before I go any further, might I ask that your give me some applause at this point? Just something prefatory, anticipating how good this article will become. You’ll see why in the next 600 words.
We’re in New York for Christmas, and saw “Gypsy” the other night on Broadway. We wanted to catch Patti LuPone before the show closes in the next couple of weeks, and somehow we had managed to miss this classic, a Styne/Sondheim fixture in the house of major musicals. The show was at about 90 percent of capacity and we had house seats: fifth row, center.
Laura Benanti, who plays the adult Gypsy Rose Lee, was magnificent, an elegant, classy stripper, if there ever was one. The cast was still giving it everything they have, yet it’s a dated piece of dubious resilience. Ironically, I kept thinking of the movie, which I had truly enjoyed, in another lifetime.
And I was aching for the reincarnation of Ethel Merman, the preternatural belter, who is the archetypical Mama Rose.
Patty LuPone, whom I’ve always liked, and who won a Tony for the role along with Ms. Benanti, spent the night screeching and overacting. She is the draw (she’s leaving the play and it can’t survive without her, since it’s too expensive to bring in equivalent star power in this economy), and her acolytes were present in full force, the same near-crazed outpouring of affection you see for Liza Minelli, Streisand, and Bette Midler, no matter what the quality of their performances. She put on the performance they wanted, all LuPone all the time, but not one that helped my enjoyment of the show very much.
At her concluding, iconic number she received an ovation, then camped about the stage a bit in accepting all the love. At the curtain, of course, we experienced the what-is-now-assured-Broadway-accompaniment, as certain as no taxis on a rainy night: the obligatory standing ovation.
I shall digress here for a brief history lesson. When Flo Ziegfeld (see the outstanding biography, “Ziegfeld: The Man Who Invented Show Business,” by Ethan Mordden) was the impresario changing musical theater forever, culminating in the mighty “Showboat” and the groundbreaking “Ole Man River,” a standing ovation would be seen less than once a year and then only for a Broadway debut of great power. Several times a decade—that was it.
Today, you would think that the theater seats began delivering jolts with the coda, as people leap to their feet to applaud nothing more than the average. And these aren’t just the tourists from Kansas, they are New York theater patrons, lowering the performance bar as if in a limbo contest.
I’ve seen this phenomenon as a professional speaker. People are too prone to get up and start clapping, though I suspect they’re often just stretching their legs after an ennui-inducing presentation. (I’ve actually seen people asleep who, roused by the noise around them, leap up and proclaim a great speech. As they say, “In your dreams.”)
Why are we so anxious to shower what we should expect (a decent performance) with praise that ought to be reserved for Nijinsky or Callas? Perhaps it’s because we so desperately need to convince ourselves we’re having a great time. (Who wants to say they wasted $250 on tickets?) Perhaps because we see a few benighted souls arise and don’t want to leave them standing, alone and awkward, in their embarrassment.
Or perhaps it’s because we want that kind of affection for ourselves, people cheering us for simply doing our best, even if our best is really quite ordinary.
The Australians have it right. A standing ovation is very rare, and the day I received one in Sydney, so prolonged that I had to go back on stage twice and finally leave the hall for it to stop, was one of the highlights of my entire career, precisely because it is so rarely granted there. These people had no interest in making me feel good. They were expressing their rare maximum expression of thanks for an equally rare day when I was in the perfect zone.
We need to bring some calibration back into our gratitude. If everything is wonderful, then nothing is wonderful. It’s the recognition and acceptance of the mediocre that truly enables us to appreciate the far rarer outstanding and superb.
It’s being content with sitting and clapping politely for a best effort, that makes standing and yelling for the best you’ve ever seen much more fulfilling.
Thank you for listening. You may be seated.
© Alan Weiss 2008. All rights reserved.