The lights go down. The play starts and the star comes in and the audience bursts into applause.
Entrance applause, the seemingly obligatory practice of clapping at the first glimpse of movie stars or Tony-honored performers, is an odd thing. While it provides a sense of communion between performer and audience, and an ego boost, it can also be disruptive to the show.
We've all been to a show where this has happened. It's a sign of courtesy and respect for the body of work that the artist has accumulated over the years. But there is a big difference in the feeling behind the applause in Chicago and in New York.
In Chicago, the applause generally come in a touring production of a Broadway show or when a big star is visiting at the Goodman, Steppenwolf, or other large house. The applause generally are started by a few people in the orchestra seating and the rest of the patrons join in. Sometimes the the applause feels like and obligation or a duty.
In New York, however, the feeling is quite different. The applause are warm and welcoming; like saying hello to an old friend. Here the moment before the applause is more electric than the applause themselves. The audience knows the play; they know what's coming next and who's entering. The audience is almost vying to be the first and the loudest to welcome the star.
Two very different audiences with two very different groups of artists. New York is a much more theatre savvy city. The audiences know the show and who is in it. Also, they have spent big money to see the star's performance just as much as the are going to see the show itself. In Chicago, more of the theatre is sold on a subscription basis. The patrons have a loyalty to one regional company and will go to all of their shows in a season - the same can hold true with some of the Broadway tours. They are going to see the work of the company regardless; the fact that there is a big name star in the show is a bonus. And the celebrity applause are only for out-of-town start; our local stars are so familiar to us they don't warrant the applause.
No one response is better than another. Certainly it would be a boon to have an audience that is more choosy and knows what it wants to see. But having that build in audience base is essential too. I think the best idea would be to try and combine the two mentalities in a single city. Have the two competing markets of commercial theatre in play against the region theatre/not-for-profit models. It would be an interesting experiment to see which format would win out.
Addendum (Published September 30, 2008) The PBS special Broadway: the American Musical, provided some insight into the origins of the Entrance Applause. Broadway grew out of the Vaudeville scene in New York when Show Boat fused story with music. Vaudeville was formed on an evening containing dozens of individual acts - much like a variety show. People went to see the headliner act and the other acts surrounding them were gravy - much like today when you have a no-name band opening for U2 or Metallica. Logically, people would applaud the starts when they entered to perform their act. If you didn't get the applause (especially if the applause turned into "boos") you could be yanked off stage - perhaps with the stereotypical cane. So of course Broadway retained the Entrance Applause as the performance type went from individual acts to a complete show - and the rest of the nation followed New York's lead.