Audience Overtures


The murmuring from Canada was startling, and grew louder. First Toronto Globe and Mail theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck tweeted about the cognitive dissonance of the Canadian national anthem being sung prior to a performance of the musical American Idiot. Various tweets followed, regarding both surprise at the practice and the evident irony of hearing “O Canada” before viewing a show about disaffected and damaged U.S. youths.  Nestruck then fanned the flames by writing a sustained piece about anthem-singing as a practice, which prompted a variety of responses, including one from producer Aubrey Dan, who champions the idea. As a kneejerk reaction, I pretty much sided with Kelly (with whom I had a pleasant lunch last month, pre-uproar). But the whole thing kept nagging at me.

As someone who attends very few civic or governmental gatherings, my primary association with the national anthem these days is from sporting events, which are also infrequent for me, but not alien. I began to contemplate why it is only athletic competitions which sustain our national anthem for so many people, since there audiences gather for many other activities, the performing arts unquestionably among them. Do artists, as some might wish to suggest, disdain our national identity? Are we playing into a negative stereotype by not, when together, uniting to express our appreciation for a country founded on freedom of speech and expression, the very thing we practice?

I then began to answer my own questions – even responding with contrary questions of my own. Gee, we hate curtain speeches and cell phone warning announcements as it is – do we really want to get up and sing? The çlash between an anthem (even ours) and a show likeAmerican Idiot would surely be repeated often; can you imagine the irony of “The Star Spangled Banner” before, say, Enron, Book of Mormon, or even Albee’s The American Dream? Would the famously difficult-to-sing “Banner” really set the right tone even for the most all-American of musicals, Anything Goes or Guys and Dolls? Even if the anthem made sense artistically, perhaps before South Pacific or Of Thee I Sing, should it be used as a commentary on or accessory to art, rather than for its primary purpose, as an expression of national pride?

There is, at least for many of those of my generation and younger, some mixed feelings about the U.S. anthem, as well as for its counterpart, The Pledge of Allegiance. They feel like vestiges of our youth, as we know them primarily from school days, where we first learned them and recited or sang them often. From lack of use, they have become symbols of our childhood, unfortunately, rather than vehicles with ongoing, profound meaning. I have watched many an adult sheepishly remove their baseball cap or place their hand near their hearts, self-conscious about public displays of national affection. The children of irony, we are embarrassed by the earnestness these acts require. All of these factors contribute to the incongruousness of imagining the national anthem being sung before theatre – or dance, opera, music and other cultural endeavors.

And yet…

In the days following the 9/11 attacks, I have heard stories of audiences both in New York and around the country who were deeply moved as they joined together for the anthem or the less-freighted “God Bless America.” Though I did not experience this myself, I cannot help but imagine that it was cathartic for performers and audience alike to unite for these songs and recitations that everyone knew, taking comfort in them as surely as they might find solace in a familiar prayer. The question is: why was this only acceptable for a short time after a national tragedy?

In countless blogs and discussions, online and off, we talk about how to build, strengthen and unify arts audiences, how to enhance the experience of attending a live event. And while I do think that the national anthem before every show, or “God Bless America” at every curtain call, would prove awkward and often undermine the aesthetic or message of many shows, I do wonder whether joining together only in laughter or applause in theatres truly builds the sense of belonging and community that are buzzwords for artistic and management folks alike these days.  Maybe we need to find a theatrical equivalent of these patriotic touchstones, lest our only shared moments at the theatre come as we chat in restroom lines with strangers or in the mega-mix sing-alongs at shows like Mamma Mia!

I do think many musicals would be the easiest place for this to occur, albeit at the “classic musical” primarily. I have this affectionate vision of audiences standing to belt out “There’s No Business Like Show Business” together, essentially warming themselves up for the entertainment yet to come with their own overture. Plays are more problematic in my musing on this subject, not least because no common text springs to mind; yet, imagine if audiences rose to intone, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” a uniting phrase if ever there was one. You might dismiss this as a pipe dream (and it mostly is one), but even the briefest moments of audience consensus through speech or song might could a valuable addition to the live entertainment experience. Perhaps immersive theatre or “audience participation” need not be the only way to break down the barriers between the audience and the stage, or within the audience itself.

After all, even American Idiot brought out its cast for one last tune at the curtain call, with lyrics that might well serve as an anthem for all theatre: “It’s something unpredictable, but in the end it’s right. I hope you had the time of your life.”

This post originally appeared on the website.

  • January 17, 2012