To Button, Or Not To Button

I love buttons. For the uninitiated, the “button” is that little bump on the end of a song that tells the audience it’s over and prompts them to clap. Left to my own devices, I would button everything. Actually, I’d triple-button everything: music button, movement button, and lighting button. I have a collaborator who hates this. He’s viscerally opposed to breaks in the action, including applause. I suspect that in his perfect world shows would “button for applause” in only two places: the end of act one, and the end of the show. We debate. We negotiate. We argue. And we end up buttoning about half the numbers in our shows.

This kind of button, obviously.

This kind of button, obviously.

Why am I so pro-button? A few reasons. First, I think theater is more fun when there’s applause. It reminds you you’re seeing something live, it is the fundamental give and take between the performers and the audience, and it builds a sense of community during the performance. Second, buttons and applause let the audience release from the tension of the story for a second and regroup for the next thought. It’s like a period at the end of a sentence. Shows that seamlessly transition from event to event without applause points remind me of paragraphs that use a lot of semicolons rather than periods. Unsurprisingly, I also hate semicolons. Finally, building to the button requires that songs end memorably. And I guess I just like songs with big finishes.

There are also compelling reasons for not buttoning. “Keeping momentum” is often cited (I actually find that applause builds momentum, but I’m in the minority here). Pacing, investment in the story, etc etc. Essentially all of the points I made above can be turned a hundred and eighty degrees and used to argue for seamless musical theater. I’d love to know what audiences think, and how buttoning (or not) affects their theatrical experience, but I imagine this would be tricky data to obtain.

What do you think? To button or not? If only sometimes, when?

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