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Applause, Applause

A crowd-pleasing line in Morning's at Seven prompts recollections of lines that have engendered applause in other shows. logo

William Biff McGuire, Estelle Parsons, and Elizabeth Franz
in Morning's at Seven
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Saw Morning's at Seven at the Lyceum. Had a wonderful time. While Chekhov's The Three Sisters may be my favorite play, Paul Osborn's story of four sisters can't be far behind. How I love watching these small-town people, most of whom don't know how much subtext there is in each word they say. We really come to care about all of them and cherish the happy ending in store for each one.

What I like most, though, I won't reveal, because I want every one of you out there to see the show. I will say that Osborn wrote a certain line deep in the play that has received applause in each of the three Morning's at Seven productions I've seen. It happens after Aaronetta--the single sister who's lived with her sister Cora and Cora's husband, Thor, for lo these many years--decides that she isn't wanted there and will leave. When someone asks what her plans are, she tells them simply, and her decision doesn't get just a laugh from the audience. It gets applause, too.

This is an audience reaction that doesn't happen very often--but, when it does, I cherish it. After all, as our 1970 Tony winning musical taught us, "What is it that we're living for? Applause! Applause!" Playwrights must especially appreciate it when an audience responds to one of their lines with a thunderclap of handclapping; for example, Dolly Levi's "Thank you, Ephraim!" or J. Pierrepont Finch's "Venezuela" (though I can't say I recall any line in Applause that ever got applause).

In Once upon a Mattress, we see the mute King Septimus under the thumb of his wife, the very aptly named Queen Aggravain. All night long, she barks out orders while he stands silently and helplessly by--and is destined to continue do so, he's told, until "the mouse devours the hawk." What he doesn't realize is that his son Prince Dauntless is the metaphorical mouse and Aggravain is the hawk. When the boy finally stands up to his mother in order to get the wife he wants, Aggravain is suddenly struck mute..and Septimus finds that he can speak. The audience not only laughs but also applauds wildly when he remarks, "And I've got a lot to say!" That's because everyone has felt so bad about the injustice he's endured all night long that they've just got to clap when the King finally asserts himself.

Walter Matthau and Art Carney in The Odd Couple
(Photo: Joseph Abeles Studios)
By the third act of The Odd Couple, Oscar Madison is officially apoplectic at Felix Ungar's anal housekeeping...and everything else the guy does. "You leave me little notes on my pillow: 'We're all out of corn flakes. F.U.,'" snarls Oscar. "It took me three hours to figure out that F.U. was Felix Ungar." The audience applauded because the first part of the line promised something off-color--especially in 1965, when Broadway had yet to hear the F-word--but Simon dexterously turned it into a genuinely innocent and funny joke. (By the way: Some have alleged over the years that this is a manufactured Simon gag, that the playwright probably named his character Felix Ungar just so he could get in the "F.U." joke. But Simon invented the name Felix Ungar four years earlier. Take a look at his first Broadway hit, Come Blow Your Horn, and you'll find a passing reference to Felix Ungar as a neighbor upstairs. So the name did come first and the joke later.)

Speaking of the F-word, it always got a hand when Jessica Tandy (or Maureen Stapleton, or Julie Harris, or anyone else) said it in The Gin Game. Remember the circumstances? At a nursing home, Weller is teaching Fonsia to play gin but she turns out to be extraordinarily skillful and/or lucky and keeps winning, causing him to use the F-word that she abhors. Finally, he gets her so rankled that she uses it on him, and the audience adores hearing this mouse devouring the hawk.

The same four-letter word also got a burst of applause in Same Time, Next Year, the 1975 smash hit in which George and Doris meet while he's on business and she's on a religious retreat--and the sex is so good that they decide to meet each and every year. At the beginning of the second act, a full 14 years after they've met, the curtain goes up on a George who is visibly older. We feel bad for him and begin to feel bad for Doris, too--even though we haven't seen her in this scene yet--because we know she's going to look much older as well. Except that she doesn't: She enters in trendy jeans, turtleneck, Native American necklace, headband, long hair, and sandals. "Hey man, whaddaya say?" she greets George, then asks: "So, you wanna fuck?" The audience applauds because Doris has cheated the aging process...and has given them hope that they can do so, too.

Sometimes, the audience applauds a line because it expresses what they felt before they came into the theater. This happened during Kurt Vonnegut's 1970 play Happy Birthday Wanda June when Penelope Ryan, married to a World War II MIA whom she's finally given up for dead, finds him on her doorstep years later accompanied by his pal, pilot Looseleaf Harper. We learn that Looseleaf has the distinction of having dropped the bomb on Hiroshima but is ashamed of it now. Harold--a hawk if there ever was one--tells him, "It was the one direct, decisive, intelligent act of your life." But Looseleaf finally decides, "Wars would be a lot better, I think, if guys would say to themselves some time, 'Jesus, I'm not going to do that to the enemy--that's too much." At the Theatre DeLys (now the Lortel) in October of 1970, when the unpopular Vietnam War was still raging, the audience applauded this line for a good, long time.

A few of you may have heard of a commercial comedy called Norman, Is That You? It was a quick fold on Broadway in 1970 but, for the rest of the decade, was a semi-staple of summer stock. Its plot: Norman is gay and doesn't want his parents to know. This rankles his partner, Garson--especially when Norman tells him that they can't be revealed as lovers when the folks visit. But things don't go as well as Norman had hoped and he eventually must come out, first to his father. Dad gets the job of telling mom what's going on but, before he does so, he hires a trashy hooker in hopes that Norman will respond to the bait and forget about this gay foolishness. As it turns out, the mother discovers that Norman is gay just before the hooker walks into the room. Not too swift in matters gay and reaching her own wild conclusions, mom asks the tarted-up tart: "Norman, is that you?" The audience laughs and applauds, not only because they never expected to hear this line from mother but also because they didn't anticipate that they'd be getting the title of the play at this precise moment.

A glorious moment from 42nd Street
Of course, the applause line I like best occurs in 42nd Street...well, sometimes. When Julian Marsh tells Peggy Sawyer that "musical comedy" are "the most glorious words in the English language," not every audience applauds. Certainly, the crowds who saw the show in the early weeks of its original Broadway run in 1980 cheered in appreciation because they mostly consisted of hard-core musical fans who shared that sentiment to the core of their souls. But I have to admit that when I saw 42nd Street after it moved to the Majestic and the St. James--not to mention in Australia in 1991--I was the only one applauding this line. So how nice it was to be at a final preview of the revival last year and hear a musical theater-savvy audience applaud in approval once again.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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