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The theatrical curtain call is more than just bows


And now a curtain call. You're at the theater. The last scene finishes. The cast comes out for applause in reverse order of importance. It's all pretty standard today. But critic Bob Mondello remembers more elaborate curtain calls, and he misses them.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: My first grown-up show - "Oliver!"


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Singing) Food, glorious food...

MONDELLO: Mom and me way up high in the upper balcony, watching all those kids down below. One older character, Nancy, who looked a little like my mom, died in the second act, which I found pretty shocking. And at the curtain, it hadn't occurred to me yet that the actress hadn't died. So everybody else comes out for applause, reprising the songs they'd sung earlier, as was the custom, including little Oliver, who sang a song that Nancy had taught him earlier.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) I'd do anything for you, dear. Anything, for you mean everything to me.

MONDELLO: Then he turned as the rest of the kids chimed in, sounding like a church choir. And they all looked up and sang the song directly to Nancy, who appeared in a spotlight, not down on the stage with everybody else, but way high up on a platform near the top of the proscenium arch, right in front of my second balcony seat. I was a smidge too old to think this was an actual miracle and a bit too young to appreciate the stagecraft that made it all happen. All I knew was that Nancy was in heaven, and I - I was in tears.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing) You're mine alone. I'd do...

MONDELLO: After that, I have to say I expected something special from curtain calls. I don't anymore. They're just bows now - rarely as much fun as I remember from my youth - possibly because, back then, standing ovations were not routine, so shows had to work for them. Sammy Davis Jr. doing part of his nightclub act after the cast went home to keep a lackluster musical running wouldn't happen today. The thing is, audiences love to go crazy. It means the tickets were worth it. In the 1960s, an experimental troupe got audiences to strip and join them for naked curtain calls. In the 1940s, crowds howled at the end of "Arsenic And Old Lace," when 12 guys who hadn't been in the show came out bowing. They were supposed to be the corpses buried in the cellar. And I remember one time it was a costume change that triggered pandemonium - "The Act" with Liza Minnelli. Terrible show in which she'd been all in Halston - silver, white, scarlet. Then, at her bow, you realized there was one color you hadn't seen all night as the spotlights hit her in a gown so emerald-encrusted she'd about dazzled her mom in Emerald City.


LIZA MINNELLI: (Singing) Hit them city...

MONDELLO: It was Liza in her prime, so the crowd would have stood anyway. But with that green dress, they stood and screamed.


MINNELLI: (Singing) Take me home now - city lights. Love them lights.

MONDELLO: Actors may seem sincerely grateful for your applause at curtain calls, but they're performing. I found it moving the first time I saw "Mame," when Angela Lansbury had tears streaming down her face as the audience stood for her. Two years and 800 performances later, when I saw her on tour and again the tears streamed, I wondered if she kept a raw onion backstage. Still, that's showbiz, as is applause - our chance to be part of the act. I had a theatre professor who said that audiences clapped not just to show that they like something, but also to let the performers know they understand it. Say an actor delivers a big diatribe and ends by stomping offstage, slamming a door behind him. When people applaud, they're saying, we get it. The emotion's clear. The moment works. Same thing in a musical when a song has a big finish.


IDINA MENZEL: (Singing) Ah-ah-ah-ah.

MONDELLO: As "Wicked" establishes again and again, end on a high note with an orchestral flourish...


MONDELLO: ...And you all but force an ovation. At the show's conclusion, as at a less flashy song, the audience will clap just out of politeness, but a smart director can give them one last thrill. I remember Yul Brynner touring in a bedraggled "King And I" toward the tail end of his career. The applause was tepid as the others smiled down front. But when it came Brynner's turn, he planted his feet wide at the back of the stage, crossed his arms in that kingly stance of his and glared at the audience.


MONDELLO: It was a command. He was the king, and he wasn't coming forward until the audience stood. So the audience stood. Could only work if you're Yul Brynner.

So is there a model curtain call? Well, conceptually, the one for "A Chorus Line" is pretty great. Though, in keeping with its the-group-is-everything ethos, it doesn't allow for individual bows. Instead, the dancers who've been desperately auditioning all evening in rehearsal clothes dance on one-by-one in gold costumes and top hats - not bowing, but doing the big number they'd been so desperate to be anonymous in.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #3: (Singing) One singular sensation, every little step she takes.

MONDELLO: Individually singular, together they are a sensation. And as the curtain falls and the audience cheers, they're still kicking.

It must be thrilling to be on the receiving end of applause. I'm guessing, of course, based on how good it feels to do the applauding. Always leading the cheers, never getting them - that's a critic's lot in life. Though, maybe my producer could arrange a little audio curtain call for my signoff. Anything in the effects bank?


MONDELLO: Ugh, polite applause - total mood-killer.


MONDELLO: That's more like it. Let me just bask for a moment. Love it. I'm Bob Mondello.

Thank you. Thank you. Very kind. Oh, please, it's too much. Thank you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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