In watching the commentary track on Dori Bernstein’s Show Business: The Road to Broadway, I was confronted with the issue of the theatre critic. Those on the track, including producer Bernstein, actor Alan Cumming, and songwriter Jeff Marx, can barely contain their loathing for the critics as they watch them partaking in the round table discussions.
But interestingly enough, Bernstein, Cumming, and Marx become critics themselves as they discuss the shows. During the discussion, we learn how much they loved Taboo (though it was not perfect) and Caroline, or Change, and we hear about how great Idina Menzel was in Wicked, though they don’t seem particularly filled with praise for the show itself. By their lack of praise for Wicked in relation to the other two shows, they are basically voicing their feelings (and Cumming goes on record as saying he hates “Popular,” a song I would categorize as great).
So who is allowed to share an opinion?
I understand the aggravation, it’s one I hope to someday have the opportunity to risk experiencing myself, but I don’t know how valid of a concern it is.
No one likes to face criticism. As a writer, I love hearing criticism because it helps me improve, but once that baby is frozen and on its own, it’s got to be awfully hard to hear someone saying, “Well, this part isn’t very good.” As someone very sensitive to critique, it would be a big challenge for me to know how to process that without doubting myself or the final presentation I so desperately would want to love.
We’ve all adored shows the critics have hated or were mixed about—Jekyll and Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Aida, Jane Eyre, Bells are Ringing, Follies, The Wedding Singer. It could be a never-ending list. We vehemently disagree, we get angry at the effect they have on shows and audiences, we return to the theatre to show our support.
But then there are times we like the critics. If Ben Brantley says something nice about our show, then we like him. But if he says our show is boring or unfunny or lacking in emotion, only then he’s wrong. Right?
I love the interview with Boy George on the documentary when he addresses the issue of the critics. Now, for the record, I doubt Taboo ever had a chance to succeed because a show with posters that feature a man standing at a nasty urinal is not going appeal to a mass audience, particularly if it is a case of truth in advertising. And the adoring fan interviewed for the documentary comments that though people say it’s too gay, “it is theatre;” obviously, if gay people were the majority audience for theatre, Taboo would still be running today. I’m sure Boy George wrote some amazing music for the show, and it’d be great if he’d write another score, but I think his comments about critics are irrational. First of all, I wonder how much effect they actually had on the success of the show. Secondly, he despises the critics only because they didn’t like his show. That’s not a logical reason. He is biased—and his comments are important for the discussion—but his opinion of his own show is not a valid point in the grand scheme of things. The completion of his statement (which I here paraphrase) “If you stop shows like Taboo from succeeding” could be “then you get left with great shows.” I wasn’t in New York when Taboo ran, so I’m only playing Michael Riedel’s advocate, but it begs the basic question of any review or critique—Who should be the one to voice their opinion? The artist? Or the artist’s critic?
Obviously you are going to hate the critics if they don’t like your work. Yes, it is frustrating that one paper and one critic gets so much pull. Yet, it is very frustrating to pay $50+ on a ticket for crap when you could have gone to see Hairspray again.
We need to face the truth that musicals are expensive, and the average audience member needs an idea of which shows are going to be worth $50-450. Not everything is going to be good. Something has to be bad. And nobody is going to have the same opinion on any of it.
Often you hear about how critics have changed over the years, that critics during the Golden Age were so much better and so helpful. I can’t comment on that (except to say that the shows were probably better then as well—that statement makes me a critic— though we have actors on stage now who are just as good as any previous generation—that statement makes me a good critic in many people’s eyes). I’m excited for the next Rick McKay documentary because he will be highlighting that as a topic.
The truth is, though, that reviews appear after opening night, by which time the show is theoretically frozen. By nature of the process, I don’t know how helpful constructive criticism can be at that point. Perhaps critics should critique the show with constructive criticism mid-previews (which producers would hate), then reviewers should review after the opening. Essentially, that is the only fix to the complaint available. By opening night, having specific complaints about the plotting, with concrete examples of where things went wrong, seems futile.
Can one person ever be qualified enough to take on the task of critiquing a show, particularly anyone in as powerful a position as Ben Brantley? (And the collective answer heard all over New York is: Well I am.) It is frustrating that people who hate pop operas get to review them and that people who don’t like completely serious musicals review them, but that is the nature of the business. We have to acknowledge that The New York Times, Variety, and all those other respected publishers of reviews have a system and standard in place to select people to be in those positions who have established their qualifications for reviewing. (Except for Michael Riedel, who isn’t a reviewer but just a gossip-monger. Though, I must add that I adore Michael Riedel, his wit, and his charming smile, and should I ever have a show on the boards, I want to go record as saying that I mean gossip-monger in only the kindest way possible.)
So where was I—oh yes, the critics. Those people we hate because they disagree with us, the us we are who disagree with others, the others with the venue we’d love to have, to voice the opinions others would hate us for voicing.
I think we all need therapy.
the Broadway Mouth
November 16, 2007
(P.S. I reserve the right to renounce this commentary the day after my first show opens on Broadway.)