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Does a standing ovation mean anything anymore?

Photo: Sebastian Horndasch
by -

Once in West End and UK theatre, a standing ovation at a production had to be earned – now it seems that it is almost a necessary part of the theatregoing experience.

On Broadway, it is a virtual given whether the show is good or bad that the audience obligatorily stands up at the end. In the UK, productions such as the long running musical Blood Brothers cleverly adopted a marketing slogan for many years on its print and billboards with the number of performances listed and alongside it, the same number of standing ovations. That certainly made the audiences watching the show feel they must stand like each that had gone before them.

The one place in the UK where you have always regularly seen audiences standing in praise of a particular performance is at the Edinburgh Fringe. When it happens, it is because there is a palpable excitement in the room of what an audience has just watched or discovered, especially if this is a first time company or artist and the audience felt this was the greatest accolade they could pay them.

[pullquote]Today standing ovations happen regularly and it’s not that I think performance and production standards have necessarily risen in the UK[/pullquote]

Today standing ovations happen regularly and it’s not that I think performance and production standards have necessarily risen in the UK. When I first saw The Phantom of the Opera in 1989, despite it being a sell-out hit, at the curtain call the audience stayed seated. This was the same on occasional visits to it during the 1990s. Returning again in 2013, the vast majority of the audience now automatically stood up at the end, but the performance standard of every company I have seen has always been exemplary.

Often, the increase in standing ovations in UK theatre is described as a phenomenon adopted from America. I actually think the rise of the standing ovation in UK theatre might be more attributed to popular television.

In shows such as Britain’s Got Talent, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? and the X Factor, if a contestant performs well, immediately the audience is directed and filmed to instantly rise to their feet. This makes for good television, but the image also has gravitated into other live entertainment forms. It may also offer an explanation as to why the increase of standing ovations has been seen to have grown more in the 2000’s and predominately in the commercial musical sector – making new audiences believe that’s what you must do. As a result, this then becomes expected and therefore loses value.

I am certainly not attempting to dissuade audiences from standing in praise of great performances. Over many years of theatregoing, watching The Color Purple last September at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, I witnessed something I had never seen before in a UK theatre, which was an entire audience (myself included) standing mid-show at the end of a number. As an audience, we stood in praise of Cynthia Erivo knowing we were privileged to be there and see her remarkable performance in what will be remembered as a career-defining moment.

Her next musical role will be in the forthcoming X-Factor musical I Can’t Sing! at the London Palladium. Based on the TV show, audiences may habitually stand, but I hope they shall deservedly be doing so as well.

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