Seeing a show on Broadway — any show, regardless of apparent merit — there’s a virtually obligatory moment at the end when the audience rises to their feet, almost as one. No, not when the curtain comes down and the lights go up, but when the actors are taking their bows. In the process, it has become a devalued currency: since pretty much every show gets one, there’s no special achievement or recognition denoted by its occurrence.
But earlier this week, Ben Brantley of the New York Times reported with a kind of surprised awe that he’d just seen a show where “something rare and wonderful happened” — namely, “at the end of the show, when the performers took their bows, the audience remained seated.” The show was an Encores concert production of the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Was it a stinker?
No, as Brantley quickly added: “There was no doubt that this audience had enjoyed mightily what it had just seen, a succession of showstoppers that climaxed with a knockout rendition of ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’, that immortal anthem to nonliquid assets. The number was sung by Megan Hilty, who gave the gold-digging Lorelei Lee character an original comic audacity that erased memories of Ms. Hilty’s most famous predecessors in that role, Carol Channing and Marilyn Monroe. It felt like one of those single, golden nights, so cherished by theatergoers, that thrust its leading lady into the firmament of musical stardom.”
Yet the Encores audience gave her a bigger accolade by staying seated, where they were still able to show their approval — “we whooped, we roared, we beat our hands raw with clapping” — and Brantley also points out that, “Among audiences for musicals, those who attend the Encores! productions are probably the most sophisticated and discriminating in town. Many know the history, in detail, of the show they’re seeing and the résumés of those appearing in it.”
So maybe the kind of love of the ignorant masses who rise regardless of merit wasn’t necessary in this case. Brantley duly seeks to “make the case, officially and urgently, for the return of the sitting ovation.” And he’s not necessarily talking about the kind that Max Bialystock so memorably describes in The Producers to Ulla, the secretary who auditions for him and his producing partner Leo Bloom, “I want you to know, my dear, that even though we are sitting down, we are giving you a standing ovation.”
Brantley points out the standing ovation, on the other hand, “has become a reflexive social gesture, like shaking hands with the host at the end of a party. Or, to put it in cruder and more extreme terms, it’s like having sex with someone on the first date, whether you like the person or not, because you think it’s expected.”
In another piece last month, Ben Brantley spoke of another phenomenon: the re-visiting of shows he’d already seen elsewhere — “Of the 14 shows opening on Broadway [in April], there are 7 - count ‘em 7 - that I’ve already seen, either Off Broadway or out of town. In most cases, these productions have the same stars (if not the same entire casts), the same directors and even, more or less, the same scenery, though sometimes it’s been rescaled.”
And he went on to wonder aloud for his readers, “Since I have written about all these shows in these pages before, you might think that I am feeling jaded or weary or at least worried that I might not be able to come up with something new to say. Fragments of all those feelings (especially the part about not repeating myself) glimmer in my mind. But mostly, I’m grateful for the chance to become reacquainted with these shows - to see how they’ve changed or I’ve changed, and to assess how a familiar entity responds to a new environment. The relationship between any work of art and its perceiver is mutable.”
As someone who likes to re-visit shows, whether on duty or not, I never complain when I have to go back. Your reactions are invariably different each time — not just as the environment changes when a production transfers, or cast changes make other adjustments, but also the times move on, and we are subtly different each time. I re-visited two shows in the last week, in the West End transfers of the Menier’s Abigail’s Party and the Royal Court’s Posh, after a gap of just a few weeks in the case of the first but two years in the case of the second, and it was fascinating to feel a new kind of appalled dread around both.
They are each about different kinds of bad behaviour and social contempt, whether it be a warring married couple in Abigail’s Party or a bunch of over-privileged undergraduate hooligans in Posh. But it’s striking, too, of course, how period matters, too, not just of the production but of when we are seeing it. Abigail’s Party is deliberately (and brilliantly) locked into its 70s setting by director Lindsay Posner and his designer Mike Britton, superbly maintained in its move to Wyndham’s. The layers of satire and nostalgia attached to its time would not have registered quite so keenly, I’m sure, when the play was first produced in the 70s itself. Meanwhile, Posh, too, gets a different sort of kick, in every sense, two years on from when it was first premiered at the Royal Court.
Then, it opened during the run up to the last general election, and as I wrote at the time in my Sunday Express review, “By next weekend, we may well have both a new Prime Minister and a London Mayor who share one thing in common: as Oxford undergraduates, both were members of a notorious drinking society, the Bullingdon Club, whose apparent mission was to get riotously drunk - then riot and trash the premises, but buy their way out of trouble by making good on the financial costs of the damages…. Laura Wade’s bracing and potentially incendiary portrait of this appalling world also gives rise to more uncomfortable thoughts: do we really want to be governed by people whose sense of entitlement to behave as badly as this begins so young, and to hell with the consequences? It makes you want to cast your vote with care on Thursday.”
Since then, we’re re-elected Boris in London, while Cameron (who only narrowly won the last election of course and was forced into a coalition with the Liberals) soldiers on now, running the country if not like a drinking club then with one where personal favours count a lot, from friends in the Murdoch empire to those who once worked for it actually getting high profile jobs in his team.
Two consecutive openings this week of Chariots of Fire and Posh both featured companies largely made up of young male actors — the first set rigorously athletic, the second eventually paralytic with booze — that made me suddenly think that these could be to this decade what Another Country was for the 80s: a major channel for the emergence of future star actors. The original cast of Another Country, of course, was led by Kenneth Branagh and Rupert Everett; casts that came later included Daniel Day-Lewis and Colin Firth.
Theatre has an endless capacity to renew its talent source. Earlier this week I also interviewed James Bourne, best known for his rock career as a member of Busted and then founding Son of Dork and a songwriter for others that have included McFly, The Saturdays, the Jonas Brothers and Pixie Lott, who this summer will have two new musicals produced — Loserville at West Yorkshire Playhouse, and Out There at Riverside Studios (under the auspices of Youth Music Theatre), both co-written with Elliot Davis. I discovered that he made his West End debut at the age of 11 as part of the original ensemble of boys in the Cameron Mackintosh/Sam Mendes revival of Oliver! at the London Palladium in 1994. He subsequently returned to the show in the title role.
So one of the future hopes for the British musicals has actually been schooled by being in one of the iconic shows of its past. And it’s also intriguing to remember that it was seeing Oliver!, too, that famously influenced Boulbil and Schonberg to create Les Miserables.
Quote of the week: Tony nominated actor Steve Kazee, currently appearing in Once on Broadway, interviewed in last weekend’s New York Times on splitting up with his partner (the aforementioned Megan Hilty) and losing his mother to cancer in the midst of enjoying this professional success, “On a daily basis I feel like I’m living two separate lives. You’re a guy who has lost two of your best friends, pretty much your whole personal world, and you’re also a guy with a Tony nomination and a great show. You’re in pain but you can’t wallow in it, because it will overwhelm the good things…. If I ever let my pain into the show, I wouldn’t be able to get through it. It’s two and a half hours of the day where I don’t have to think about things. My mom always said, when I’d feel down about an audition or something, ‘You stand up there and show them whose little boy you are.’ So you go onstage, you do your job. There will always be other time to figure out the rest of your life.”