Bravo! Hurray! Wahoo! (Meh.)

If you’ve been to a Broadway show since roughly the late Clinton administration, I’ll bet I know how it ended: You stood up and applauded, along with the rest of the audience. As normal as that seems now, the ubiquity of the standing ovation is a relatively recent development.

In the old days of American theater, the 1950s and before, even megastars like Ethel Merman did not regularly get standing ovations. If audience members enjoyed a show, they applauded sitting down. If audience members especially enjoyed a show, they applauded for somewhat longer, while perhaps also holding their hands higher up in the air and emitting a whoop or three. Standing ovations meant a performance was truly extraordinary. As late as the 1980s, when I lived in New York for a spell, they were not a given. They seem to have set in for real, on Broadway at least, during the 1990s. By the time I returned to the city in 2002, they were the default. Now the standing ovation is simply a sign of approval.

It’s weird and clumsy.

I’m hardly at the head of the line on complaining about this. Some have attributed the trend to the tourists who fill many of the seats at Broadway shows; they may be less familiar with theater and therefore especially enthusiastic. But standing ovations are the default even at shows and plays that attract few tourists, and besides, tourists have been flocking to New York since long before the 1990s. Others venture that the cause is the soaring expense of tickets, leaving people determined to prove — if only to themselves — that they had a good time. But wouldn’t the price make people harder rather than easier to please?

I think the real story is more complex and thus more interesting.

According to theater history experts like Ethan Mordden (as well as assorted veteran theatergoers of my acquaintance), ovations started becoming more frequent on Broadway in the 1960s. That’s the era when television became established as a daily (and nightly) experience. I think that made theater, by contrast, feel more special — “live performance,” as we now refer to it.

Not every audience member would have experienced it that way. But once many people around you are standing, it can feel as though if you don’t do it too you are offering a sour critique. Even then there would have been some holdouts. (For example, me.) But the mundane problem is that if everybody around you stands up, then 1) you can’t see the curtain call and 2) you are facing a wall of butts. As such, one probably knuckles under.

The default standing ovation fits a common pattern in which something piquant loses force over time and becomes the new normal. Of late, for example, the exclamation point has lost its force in casual writing, expressing less emphasis or surprise than a kind of perky politeness, such that failure to use it can come off as almost taciturn. Similarly, words and expressions fade in power and require freshening up. The “ir” of “irregardless” arose from a sense of “regardless” as having worn down and needing a jolt. French’s “aujourd’hui” for “today” originally meant “on the day of today.” Hui was today; the front-end stuff was just padding to make it more vivid.

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