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Encore: Encore! Encore! Applauding the literal showstopper

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

On occasion, we reach back into our ALL THINGS CONSIDERED archives in search of reports we've done that can offer perspective on today's events. When we rebroadcast an archived piece on the air, we call that an encore. Well, today we're encoring a piece that is actually about encores - the theatrical kind...

(APPLAUSE)

PFEIFFER: ...You know, when the audience likes something so much that it begs the performers to do it again. In 2012, when we originally broadcast the piece you're about to hear, New York's Metropolitan Opera, which had a policy forbidding encores, had just allowed a performer to do one for only the third time in decades. Our critic Bob Mondello says there was a reason that most venues do not forbid this sort of literal showstopper.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BOB MONDELLO: I'm not much of an opera buff, but I've been going to concerts and musicals for decades, and I'd give anything to see another encore. I've only ever seen one real audience-driven, can't-go-on-with-the-show-until-you-sing-it-again - because encore means again - showstopper - lots of fake ones, though. And until I saw the real one, I used to think they were real.

Take the encore that audiences have always demanded after the title number in "Hello, Dolly!" Two-dozen tuxedoed waiters at the Harmonia Gardens restaurant welcoming Dolly - in this case, Pearl Bailey, who'd been away from the theater for a decade at that point - back where she belonged.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FINALE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Wow, wow, wow, fellows. Hey, ya. Look at the old girl now, fellows. Wow.

MONDELLO: There's a runway around the orchestra pit. And right here at the climax of the song, she has led them in an arm-waving parade around it, close enough to touch, and all those waiters arrayed behind her, arms stretched high. And the audience just cheers and cheers. I remember Pearl Bailey really milking that applause, the crowd screaming more and her shaking her head no and grinning. Then after a while, she looked down at the conductor, and he pointed to his watch and shook his head no. But they're still cheering. So finally she walks to the side of the stage, kicks off her shoes, hitches up her girdle, and the audience roars, because now it's clear that she's going to do another chorus, and the conductor raises his baton.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: And they're off...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PEARL BAILEY: Wow.

MONDELLO: ...Bailey whipping up a frenzy all over again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BAILEY: Woo.

MONDELLO: And this time, all those waiters dance off the stage and into the wings, leaving just her to play the next scene, which is when it's clear that the whole thing - all that saying no and watch-checking - was fake. For her to be able to play this next scene, they had to dance all those waiters off the stage - had to. It was going to happen even if nobody applauded - really smart staging, but not a real showstopper.

Real showstopping encores, where the audience takes control and will not let the show start up again until the actors sing the song a second time, I'd read about, but they always seem to be from some previous era.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT RHYTHM")

ETHEL MERMAN: (Singing) I...

MONDELLO: Ethel Merman holding the I in "I Got Rhythm" for 16 bars and the audience making her sing it over and over because they couldn't believe she'd done it. That's a showstopper, so legendary she did it on TV with Judy Garland years later - that's what you're hearing now - just to prove she still could - same reaction, obviously.

Another historic one - Mary Martin singing a little Cole Porter ditty in her first Broadway show.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HEART BELONGS TO DADDY")

MARY MARTIN: (Singing) For since I've come to care for such a sweet millionaire.

MONDELLO: She's singing sweetly like the ingenue she was and doing a sort of mock striptease, dropping her fur coat. And the combination just brought the house down on opening night.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HEART BELONGS TO DADDY")

MARTIN: (Singing) But when I do, I don't follow through because my heart belongs to daddy.

MONDELLO: Remember; this was her first show. So when the audience made her sing it again - 11 times, by some reports - she must have just thought, this is how Broadway works.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HEART BELONGS TO DADDY")

MARTIN: (Singing) I just adore his asking for more, but my heart belongs to daddy.

MONDELLO: Cole Porter ended up writing her some more lyrics so she could vary it a little. He did something similar in a lot of his shows, actually, adding extra choruses for songs the audience loved. But that's more a reprise than an encore. And once it's written in, the audience isn't stopping the show anymore; the writers are.

Like I say, in decades of show-going, I've only ever seen one honest-to-God showstopping number at a 1960s revival of "Annie Get Your Gun." It starred Ethel Merman, then 54, and still playing 16-year-old Annie Oakley - ridiculous, right? But Irving Berlin had written a new duet for her and her co-star Bruce Yarnell for the revival, and audiences loved it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AN OLD-FASHIONED WEDDING")

MERMAN: (As Annie Oakley, singing) I want a wedding like the Vanderbilts had; everything big, not small.

MONDELLO: They'd been sparring all night and now had different ideas about their wedding. He wanted simple. She wanted fancy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AN OLD-FASHIONED WEDDING")

MERMAN: (As Annie Oakley, singing) If it's not a big wedding, I don't want to get married at all.

MONDELLO: The audience had heard all the other songs, but this one was new and cute. So the crowd stopped the show cold until they sang it again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AN OLD-FASHIONED WEDDING")

MERMAN: (As Annie Oakley, singing) I want a wedding in a being church with bridesmaids and flower girls.

MONDELLO: And this time she was hamming it up - you can hear it in her voice - and dancing a little jig around him. And the audience laughed and made them do it again. And the next time, she's pointing a finger at him and poking him in the gut on the line, but not obey.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AN OLD-FASIONED WEDDING")

MERMAN: (As Annie Oakley, singing) Yes, but not obey.

MONDELLO: And even if you know they've done it hundreds of times, even recorded it on the album you can buy in the lobby, you figure they're having a great time up there. And this time when she gets to a line, I want a wedding like the Vanderbilts have, she's pounding on his chest.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AN OLD-FASHIONED WEDDING")

MERMAN: (As Annie Oakley, singing) I want a wedding like the Vanderbilts had, everything big, not small.

MONDELLO: And the audience eats it up and makes them do it again. But the fourth time, she did it just like the third time. And the fifth time, she did it just like the third time. And the audience, realizing it wasn't getting anything new, stopped stopping the show. I saw it again a few nights later - same thing. They sang it six times, not five, so it was real. And if we'd kept applauding, Merman would have kept doing the number. But the director had only come up with three different ways for her to do it. And after that, she, at least, was done.

Compare that with the big news in stadium concerts a while back. Toward the end of the evening in their Watch The Throne concert tour, rap stars Kanye West and Jay-Z performed one song over and over and started making headlines with it. At the first tour date in Atlanta, they sang it three times. In Miami a week or so later, they did it five times. The audience hadn't really been asking for the do-overs at first, but by now it was developing into a matter of city pride. In Boston, they got six encores - in Detroit, seven. By the end of the Los Angeles run, they were up to 10.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KANYE WEST: It's a glorious occasion.

JAY-Z: What a wonderful night, Los Angeles.

MONDELLO: The song, let's note, is almost 4 minutes long. So including applause, that's almost 45 minutes of the same song. And how do you follow that? Well, if you're Jay-Z and Kanye West...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ENCORE")

JAY-Z: (Rapping) Far too kind.

MONDELLO: ...You follow it with a song called "Encore."

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ENCORE")

JAY-Z: (Rapping) Can I get an encore? Do you want more? Cooking with the Brooklyn boy. So for one last time, I need y'all to roar. 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.