The ubiquity of the standing ovation

My wife and I recently had the chance to see Les Misérables in Chicago. At the end of the show, the crowd gave a standing ovation. It seems that this is no longer unusual: whether it is a high school play, an orchestra concert, or a big-time musical, the crowd gives a standing ovation. Is this a new social norm?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, here is the definition of a standing ovation: “a rousing ovation conferred by an audience standing as a mark of enthusiastic approval, esp. after a speech.” But I have always thought that a standing ovation is not just given when the crowd enthusiastically approves; rather, it is reserved for special occasions, when the performance or speaker has done a tremendous job. This more restrictive definition is supported by Wikipedia: “A standing ovation is a form of applause where members of a seated audience stand up while applauding. This is done on special occasions by an audience to show their approval and is done after extraordinary performances of particularly high acclaim…Standing ovations are considered to be a special honor.” If this is the social norm, how can every performance be worthy of a standing ovation?

So why might crowds be more willing to give more frequent standing ovations? A few thoughts:

1. It has lost its status as something done for a special or noteworthy performance. It is now perfunctory. Crowds think they are supposed to give a standing ovation no matter what.

2. A more nuanced explanation: in the case of something like Les Misérables, the average attendee does not know whether the actors have given a good performance or not. This is a world-renowned musical, the attendees have paid a lot of money to attend, and so it must have been good and deserving of a standing ovation. The key here is that the average person can’t easily distinguish the quality of many performances and is left to judge the performance by other factors, such as its status. Since the theater or going to the orchestra is a rare event for many and it is accompanied by ideas about high culture and fancier dress, the standing ovation may just seem like the right thing to do.

(This is supported by an incident after the musical: a teenage couple was walking out and one said, “Epinone was just terrible.” The other said, “Yeah, her singing was bad.” A few of us who overheard this just smiled and looked at each other. How were we to know whether this was true or not? Presumably, one would have had to see this musical multiple times or listened to the music many times before a judgment could be made.)

If the standing ovation is now normal, what can a crowd do to show extreme enthusiasm or to mark an excellent performance? A few options: a prolonged applause or loud whistling or yelling along with the clapping.