Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Critical Interception: Analysis of a Review (Part 2)

Note: You can find Part 1 here.

2. Attacking Bold Moves

I’m not a big fan of the “Well, they tried hard” school of thought. Intentions don’t do a heck of a lot to the couple who dished out $125 a ticket for Tarzan.

However, too many critics—those who get their voice heard because they were hired by an editor or those who get their voice heard thanks to the Internet—love to pull out their swords and go on the attack against those who dare to rock the status quo.

In his review for Thou Shalt Not, Suskin comments on one particular dance, saying that the “program called this the ‘I Need to Be in Love Ballet’. . . This was followed, fifteen minutes or so later, by the related song. (In musical theatre, we usually sing the song first and then do the dance, so that the audience knows what the character is dancing about. But we’ll let that pass.)”

How patronizing! It’s so obvious that Susan Stroman doesn’t know the rules, right?

Yeah, so maybe this structure didn’t work for the show, and maybe it landed with a thud like a boulder dropped from the top floor of the Empire State, but isn’t it enough to comment that it was ineffective? Does a critic need to be insulting about it?

The problem is that the creator needs the freedom to experiment. If everyone always plays by the rules all the time, then there’s never an Oklahoma!, a Cabaret, or a Rent. Experimentation leads to innovations and exciting new works with bold moves and daring choices. And yes, sometimes it leads to turkeys, laid eggs, and Bombay Dreams, but without the freedom to try in the absence of holier-than-Thou-Shalt-Not digs, the creator can never find that something new that works.

The famous words one observer had for Oklahoma! out of town was “No legs, no jokes, no chance.” Of course, Oklahoma! was such a smash because it had no legs and no gags. And I don’t want to lose sight of this most important point, which is that Oklahoma! broke the rules and was a smash because it broke the rules to create a spectacular evening of theatre. And yes, at $125 a ticket, no one gets a free pass, and yet, I can’t help but wonder what critics would have intoned about Oklahoma! or A Chorus Line if they hadn’t appreciated the bold moves their creators made. Would Agnes De Mille’s ballet have become “a superfluous reminder that ballet is not Broadway and that Broadway is not for ballet” or “a text book case of why God gave us dialogue and lyrics”? If you’re strictly operating under the “Business as usual” model, then all you’ll ever get is “Business as usual.”

The words of a critic can be harrowingly powerful, and it doesn’t have to be insulting or degrading. Remember that writer Kate Chopin’s The Awakening was so brutally attacked by critics that’s never wrote another novel. The Awakening is now regarded as an important American classic, and even if the book really had been wretched, that’s not to say her next work wouldn’t have been grand.

Instead of attacking the idea of a choice, perhaps it is better to critique the choice itself.

the Broadway Mouth
February 11, 2009

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