Sunday, May 15, 2011

About Applause

As weird as it may sound, my favourite part of any theatre performance is the curtain call.

Don't get me wrong. Usually I love the stuff before the final bows and wouldn't want it to end so soon.
However, despite that, that I find curtain calls magical. Just the thought of not saying goodbye just yet when the curtain closes excites me. To see the actors once more, the most evil of villains smiling happily and blowing a kiss towards the audience, the stars of the piece joking with each other and me trying to guess what they're saying, all the flowers and gifts people have sent to the cast... The excitement and decibel levels rising and rising when getting nearer and nearer to the biggest role's bow.
To me, curtain calls are beautiful.

I remember the curtain call back when I saw Mamma Mia!, my first musical, in 2007.
I don't know where I'd gotten the idea - probably from TV, since the tour had a lot of media coverage when it first arrived to Finland - but I was absolutely certain it was a crucial part of the etiquette to stand up when they do the encores by the end of the show. And so I did. I seem to recall a lot of people raising with me, so I didn't have to stand there alone, wobbling along the music. A good start for anyone's theatre-going career.
I raised to dance a little when I saw the tour the second time in 2008, too - I was still convinced you simply have to do that if you see Mamma Mia! - but some maniac had just shot students in a Finnish school a couple of days ago, so the feeling in the theatre (or actually, ice hockey rink transformed into an auditorium) was less than enthusiastic. Still, I wasn't alone. Maybe the kind people around me thought they can't let the silly-looking girl in a Mamma Mia! t-shirt completely embarrass herself.

Despite doing a standing ovation the first two times I saw a musical I was well aware it was not an usual custom in this part of the world. And when I saw my first non-jukebox musical, the one that made me a Broadway fan for life, the thought of rising from my seat never occurred to me. Never, even though I loved Cats almost more than my own mother. I clapped my hands sore and felt my heart leap when my recently found favourite actor came back onstage, but that was it.

A little later I left for my first trip to West End.
I was having a horrible day when I saw Wicked since we had just heard bad news from home. Maybe due to that, I didn't see anything special in the show. I was very bemused when everyone in the audience, even in the way back where I sat, jumped up from their seats the moment the final note of the show had stopped playing. I had seen The Phantom of the Opera just a day before and found it a lot better, but no one had stood up in the Dress Circle then. I, however, followed the current and rose on my feet. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
The next day it was Les Misérables's turn. The effect of the bad news had vanished a little, and I was actually able to enjoy the show. When people in Stalls, where I happened to sit with my dad, started rising up and my dad whispered "should we stand up too?" to me, I was quick to say yes. It still felt very weird to me, since I had never seen that happen in Finland, but I was starting to like the custom.

Back home, I had time to see almost two dozen musicals before encountering my first Finnish standing ovation. I was absolutely certain Finns would never do it. We are famously shy, famously introverted... How could one of us ever make himself to stand up in a huge auditorium?

But in Wicked's premiere, the moment the final note had finished - again - two girls next to me and my friend stood up. Random thoughts of solidarity between musical fans shot through my brain and I knew I had to follow them. Maybe the rest of the audience would join us? It was the premiere, after all, and the show hadn't been half bad.
But nope. Me, my friend and the two girls to our left were the only ones standing during the curtain call in the great big theatre. It was only after Stephen Schwarz himself joined the cast onstage the rest of the audience felt it necessary to show some enthusiasm.
I felt kind of embarrassed. But maybe the actors appreciated our gesture. At least the girls next to us did, that's what I'm sure of.

Cue many less-than-excited curtain calls. Cue many shows I liked, cue many audiences that couldn't bring themselves to show that with me. Cue many hands clapped sore but no feet tired from standing.

Cue Les Misérables.

I went to see my favourite musical in in Turku, Finland, in Swedish. For the second time. Strangely enough, I hadn't thought that much of it the first time. It was good, that I was certain of. But brilliant? Well... Meh. It was a kind of a cloud between my ears. I know I had been there, but it still felt very unreal and I didn't remember a lot of it. Luckily I had gotten more tickets as a gift. Maybe second time would tell the truth?
It did.
By the very end, when everyone had taken their individual bow, I saw someone rising up in front of me. I jumped up the very second - and soon so did the entire audience. The miracle had happened. A Finnish (though, if you think with stereotypes, Fennoswedes may have a little less inhibitions on average than us Finnish-speaking Finns) audience had overcome their shyness. All thanks to my favourite musical - and a production of it that now, with no doubt, was my favourite too.
Ever since that I've seen two more standing ovations in Les Mis and one in RENT's Finnish premiere. Every time in Les Mis the standing ovation seems to occur earlier. The last one happened in between the actors leaving the stage and the extras coming to take the first bow! If we want to make it even better, I guess we have to rise at about when the final reprise of Do You Hear the People Sing begins...

I love standing ovations maybe more than anything else in theatre.
I love getting to show the actors how much I appreciate their job. I love for once being able to cheer, scream and clap all I want without getting one of those "shh, shuttup, we're in public and people are looking and you're sooo embarrassing, act your age" looks I know all too well. I love showing positive feelings without disdain, I love forgetting all worries and just feeling happy for a moment.

But it doesn't always work.
I saw Next to Normal the last Wednesday again. It was the last night of the spring. With Les Mis, the spring's last night was completely crazy - people actually banged their feet on the floor in the manner you do in concerts when you demand an encore. I know people in Helsinki sometimes think themselves a little cooler than people in the rest of Finland, but this cool...
It started like standing ovations do. Few people popped up, and so did I - solidarity between musical fans was again in my mind, not to mention I had truly liked the piece.
But in a few moments they started to sit back down again. Not even my friends, with whom I was in the theatre, rose up to support me. Suddenly I noticed I was one of the three people standing in the whole auditorium. And the two others were way nearer to the stage than me. I stuck out like a sore thumb and felt embarrassment creep down my spine.
But I didn't sit down. How could I? It's like saying to the cast that I suddenly stopped liking them. I hate when that happens, being in a space full of others and still being very, very alone, but I knew I was going to stand there for the rest of the night and even completely alone if I had to.

Despite some weird experiences, I always look forward to curtain calls, even though they mean the musical is over and my favourite tunes have been sung for that night.
If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands!

P.S. I apologise calling Next to Normal's Finnish translation tired earlier on. Hearing it again, I can say I've heard way more tired. N2N actually had a couple of very inventive moments.


  1. en vois olla enempää samaa mieltä! Wickedin vika näytös oli upea ja nyt oottelen innolla syksyn N2N näytöksiä!

  2. I can see how important applauds can be for a lot of people. Personally, however, I have always hoped that there was some other standard way of relating one's appreciation to the artists. Whenever I go to the concert or the theatre, I go there for the art experience, and in order to invite the performance influence and challenge me in surprising, powerful ways. I can't help but think that the custom of providing instantly loud, ceremonial feedback doesn't entirely respect the range of fragile moods that can result from artistic immersion. It's not my intention to appear somehow rude - and I might well be relatively alone with this view - but I assure that my concern is genuine and born of desire to get close to the art and remain there.

  3. @Scribe of Salmacis - I think I understand where you're coming from. As it shows in my text, I like audience interaction, but I can see applauding can be disorienting, too. If your experience is very strong and you're really sucked into the performance, I see why you wouldn't want to get reminded of reality - and in such a loud way - in the middle of it.