Theater News

Clap Yo’ Hands

Does the Johnny Cash musical Ring of Fire set the audience to clapping in rhythm?

Jeb Brown, Jarrod Emick, and Jason Edwards in Ring of Fire(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Jeb Brown, Jarrod Emick, and Jason Edwards in Ring of Fire
(Photo © Joan Marcus)

We’ve all heard the pre-show announcements that, if we think we’re going to want a piece of candy during the performance, we should unwrap it NOW. The implication is that the sound of unwrapping will disturb other audience members; but at Ring of Fire, the genial David M. Lutken comes center stage and says that we should unwrap now “in case you want to clap along a little bit later.”

Uh-oh! I’m reminded of a terrific song that Douglas Bernstein and Denis Markell wrote for their revue Showing Off. The title of the hillbilly-style ditty, “An Old-Fashioned Song,” was purposely obfuscated so that its main joke would not be given away, but I’ll now give it away: The logical title would be “Don’t You Hate It When They Make You Clap Your Hands?” Yes, in fact, I do. Ideally, we’re all supposed to clap in rhythm with a musical number when we’re so delighted that we just can’t help it. One of musical theater’s most famous stories is that, on opening night of The Music Man, audience members were so taken with “76 Trombones” that when one theatergoer started clapping along, most everyone else in the house happily joined him.

Sometimes, when an audience won’t clap in rhythm, one of the cast members will give the universal sign for them to do so: He’ll move to center stage, look sternly at the crowd, extend his arms wide, and then clap in rhythm while furiously nodding in time to the music. It’s a real do-it-or-else command, and many cowed audience members obey. As Ring of Fire begins, I find myself wondering if we’ll be subjected to it.

There’s no clapping in rhythm during the show’s first song, in which Jason Edwards sings a lyric about how “time keeps draggin'” — a sentiment I sure wouldn’t include in an opening number! Nor is there any rhythmic clapping during “Country Boy,” in which Jarrod Emick sings that he “ain’t got no shoes” even though he’s wearing shoes. But give Emick credit; he sure pours himself into the proceedings, later crying out in song, “Look at that corn! Look at them peas! Look at them beans!” These words invite us to clap in rhythm. So why don’t we?

Is it because we’re reserved Northerners? No, there’s that Music Man example. Is it that we won’t deign to give our imprimatur to country music? That’s not it, either, for the crowd gives recognition/acknowledgement applause when it hears the introductory bars of “If I Were a Carpenter,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” and “A Boy Named Sue.” Yeah, recognition/acknowledgement applause is nice, but it’s not as good as clapping in rhythm.

Wait! There’s a woman fifth-row center who’s starting to do just that, and a few people join her. Will it catch fire at Ring of Fire? No. Most soon give up the fight, and though the woman continues clapping for a few measures more, she soon stops. A little later, some folks in the back left of the house start clapping, but they too give into peer pressure when no one else joins in. Later still, a young man seated next to me begins excitedly crashing his hands together as if they were cymbals, but those around him — including me — won’t cooperate. (So much for Sondheim’s assertion that “No One Is Alone.”) Soon, the young man settles for bobbing his head in time with the music, a silent endorsement that won’t cause anyone to turn around and see what idiot is so moved by Ring of Fire.

Then, in the middle of a spirited song, Jarrod Emick suddenly raises his hands high above his head and gives out with a loud clap — but just one. Emick’s a pro, and a proud one, so he won’t stoop to begging for us to clap in rhythm. He’s just saying, “Yes, if you want to do it, here’s a very good place to start.” But no one does. Emick and company must settle for a “Whoo!” or two at song’s end.

Mirabile dictu, not even the first act finale gets the audience clapping in rhythm. But there’s always the Act II opener. Lo and behold, one audience member starts — but just as he’s inspiring a few more “theatergoers,” the cast suddenly stops singing so that each instrumentalist can have a solo. This immediately short-circuits the clapping-in-rhythm movement, since good manners demand that we all fall silent in order to give these artists their moments. (However, when one guy does some fancy drumsticking on a chair, we do applaud his efforts.)

We certainly aren’t going to clap in rhythm to a song in which a man dispassionately tells about murdering his girlfriend, or during a doleful one about chain gangs. The show continues, and now there’s only the finale to go. Surely, we’ll clap in rhythm here. It just has to happen. But no! Once again, a few start, but the rest of the house isn’t invigorated enough to join in.

Finally, during the curtain call, it happens! As the house lights come up, I look at my buddy Karen Plesher — the only country music fan I know in the tri-state area, and perhaps the only person I know who would accept my guest ticket to this show. As I go into my discourse on “Don’t you hate it when they make you clap your hands?” she says, “Excuse me, but when we went to La Cage aux Folles, there was that song near the end where they started clapping — and you sure clapped along.” I gulp and say, “I did?” She nods slowly and evenly, with a you-ain’t-wrigglin’-outta-this-one look in her eyes. “Not only that,” she says, “when they started swinging their arms from left to right, you did that, too.” Hmmm. Hoisted on me own petard!

By the way, Karen loved Ring of Fire. She intends to go again, and maybe again after that. But while I applaud her willingness to support a show that she likes, I’m not clapping in rhythm.


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