Thursday, February 5, 2009

Critical Interception: Analysis of a Review (Part 1)

It’s a love/hate relationship. Yes, I love reading Steven Suskin’s three Broadway Yearbook volumes (for seasons 1999-2000, 2000-2001, and 2001-2002) and soaking in all I can. The first two are particular favorites because I was actually in New York to see some of those productions with the casts that he writes about in such detail.

I love the books because Suskin is well-spoken, entertaining, and his analyses are always thoughtful and written with a clear knowledge of the subject at hand. At the same time, as I read the individual entries, I can’t help but feel that I am also witnessing some pretty standard crimes against my beloved Broadway.

Perhaps I’m also afraid of how my own work will stand under such scrutiny. Second-guessing what you do can be pretty crippling.

I honestly don’t get to read many New York reviews—I don’t have tons of time to locate and read them online—though I do follow the general leaning of reviews via the various Broadway message boards (I do miss the days when would publish a survey of the reviews).

Yet, I’ve read enough of them to feel like Suskin’s writings in the Broadway Yearbook series are a good representation of the beast, though Suskin also takes the added step of including a vast amount of background and historical detail related to each production.

As a model for analysis, I use his Thou Shalt Not review from Broadway Yearbook 2001-2002. Thou Shalt Not was the 2001 Harry Connick, Jr./Susan Stroman musical that starred Craig Bierko, Kate Levering, Norbert Leo Butz, and Debra Monk. Coming off the highs of Contact and The Producers, Thou Shalt Not was another Stroman baby; however, unlike so many of her other children, this one received a harsh critical backlash and was brutally expelled, as is typical of anything that aims high and thuds hard.

I did not see Thou Shalt Not, so I cannot speak to its quality. My only experience with the work has been through the bonus CD included with the revival recording of The Pajama Game starring Connick, Jr. Despite the considerable talents of the songwriter and Kelli O’Hara, who perform several songs from the show on the CD, nothing on the disc ever registers. As earnest an effort as it is, the recording never rises above in-one-ear-and-out-the-other status.

1. Experiencing the Source Material is Not a Necessity
It would seem reading the book, reading the play, or renting the movie would be a good first step in reviewing a big new Broadway production. It certainly is an honorable thing to do (a tradition that I’m sure could come to an abrupt end if anyone ever writes Portrait of a Lady: The Musical!).

The problem is that “the movie is never as good as the book.” And even if the adaptation is better than the book, no one who’s read the book can recognize that. Nothing ever beats mom’s sugar cookies because you ate them first. The definition of sugar cookie was defined by mom’s recipe. The only place to go from there is down.

As an example, I offer Pat Conroy’s huge novel The Lords of Discipline, his fictionalized account of his years at the Citadel. While the book was not a favorite by any means, I enjoyed much of the narrative and characters and so rented the movie. It’s a somewhat okay movie, but the characters are an abbreviated version of the novel’s characters, the plotting is summarized, and the conflicts are reduced. While The Lords of Discipline as a novel could amble its way through some 500 pages or so, it didn’t warrant a five hour epic on the big screen. Someone had to make some cuts somewhere, and they just happened to make a lot of the wrong ones.

But the problem is that I couldn’t honestly evaluate the movie of The Lords of Discipline as a movie because I was evaluating it as a novel. Whether it succeeds or fails as a movie independent of the novel, I’ll never know. Millions of Americans have not read the novel and will encounter the movie version in an entirely different way. As an aspiring-to-be-produced writer, it’s an important educational exercise to evaluate and learn from the adaptation, but in purely determining its quality as an independent work, experiencing the source material doesn’t allow one to speak to that.

In his review of Thou Shalt Not, Suskin compares it significantly with its source material, the Emile Zola novel Thérèse Raquin, highlighting the differences between what made the novel work and how the adaptation offset the delicate balance Zola created, thereby making for a crappy evening of theatre.

Not surprisingly, Zola’s Thérèse Raquin was far superior to Stroman’s Thérèse Raquin. And I should certainly hope so.

What makes for an effective adaptation is a topic in itself, but in short, the successful adapter needs to decide between faithfully adapting the work for a new medium (think Jane Eyre), revising the work (think Thoroughly Modern Millie), or interpreting the work (think Marie Christine). And to borrow a phrase, it is indeed brain surgery. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. The problem is that if you are bathing yourself in the source material immediately before reviewing the show (and the source material is of high enough quality to have survived generations), there is a statistically higher chance that it is not going to work in the show’s favor. And since most people aren’t out to adapt You Don’t Mess With the Zohan or Zoolander, this is typically a reviewing recipe for disaster. It’s the Mom’s Sugar Cookies effect.

The most annoying example of this was with the comparisons between Judy Holliday’s Ella Peterson in the Bells are Ringing movie and Faith Prince’s Ella Peterson in the revival. As far as film musicals go, Bells are Ringing is a pretty minor work. It’s enjoyable, but I can’t imagine it ever rivaling one’s affection for, say, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Sound of Music, or State Fair. I can’t for once believe that most of the critics dancing the “She’s Not Judy Holliday” ballet were basing the evaluation based upon their Comden and Greene period back in ’89. As much as I love the show, the movie hasn’t particularly stuck to my ribs. So by watching the video—and how else would Holliday’s performance be so fresh (it’s not, by any means, a remarkable film performance, though it probably was so on stage)—people were bringing on the Mom’s Sugar Cookies effect.

the Broadway Mouth
February 5, 2009

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