Note: You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
I one time wrote a skit about two friends who had been at the same potluck dinner. Sarah was very upset that there had been two tater tot casseroles at the potluck, and while the other dish was all gone, hardly anyone had touched hers. Naturally, she called her pal Barb to vent about the other casserole, “which wasn’t even that good.” Of course, we learn it was Barb who made the other casserole and what follows is an overly pleasant, sub-text heavy advice session laden with such helpful hints as:
Sarah: Honey, I was thinking that next time, you might want to add a little water before cooking your casserole. That’ll help make it less cementy.
Tone is everything. I would have no problem telling my mom that something she made was a little dry, but to say it was cementy is more than just a little brutal.
The same thing is true about reviews. You can easily say that something is ineffective or that it doesn’t work without resorting to bashing or insulting. It’s almost like middle school all over again, with one kid trying to gain popularity by besting another. And true, funny insults get mileage. Years ago, Broadway.com published a selection of funny lines from reviews on works during the prior season, and I laughed very hard. But when you consider all aspects of a review, it doesn’t seem like the most production route, no matter how funny.
In Suskin’s review of Thou Shalt Not, for example, he goes as far as to say that the “I Need to Be in Love Ballet” “looked more like ‘The Laundress Has Conniptions.’” Admittedly, it’s a very funny description. That is until you think about Kate Levering or Susan Stroman reading it. No matter how ineffective the dance was, there was an intention behind it, a bold move to communicate something through dance. And to reduce it to an insult just doesn’t seem productive, particularly when you think about Levering needing to do this choreography eight shows a week after maybe reading such reviews. Again, there’s nothing wrong with the nature of the criticism, it is the spirit in which it is communicated that seems wrong.
Suskin, in particular, has a habit of piling on the criticisms. It’s as if it’s not enough to say that something doesn’t work, but then you have to nit-pick. In Thou Shalt Not, he questions the lyrics “all alone in your all night gown,” asking, “What, pray tell, is an ‘all night gown?’” Call me a fool, but I have a feeling that when Bierko sang this to Levering, all alone except for a bed, the audience didn’t have any trouble answering that question. In earlier editions of his Broadway Yearbook series, Suskin also questions the phrase “welcome hinges on the door” from Bloomer Girl and “secret soul” from Jane Eyre. It doesn’t seem too hard to figure out what “welcome hinges” mean, and as for “secret soul,” not only does it come directly from Charlotte Brontë’s novel, but she likely got it from a hack playwright/poet named William Shakespeare who used the term in an almost-forgotten work he wrote called Twelfth Night, when Duke Orsino says to Viola/Cesario, “I have unclasped / To thee the book e’en of my secret soul.”
Once again, let me clarify that I am not attacking Steven Suskin. As I have written numerous times before, I love Suskin’s Broadway Yearbook series and was greatly saddened that it did not continue, for his observations are invaluable to those of us who got to see the shows as well as to those of us who didn’t.
At the same time, I find reading reviews like Suskin’s to be crippling at times. Plays are like people. You just plain old like some people and dislike others. A personality trait you tolerate in one person, you may readily attack in another simply because you don’t like him/her in general. Similarly, what you overlook in your best friend you may find annoying beyond belief in that co-worker down the hall. In short, it’s all about the adjectives. Your best friend is funny, while the guy down the hall is judgmental. It’s hard to say “which label [will be] able to persist.”
When I think of the plays I’ve written, I wonder what critics would say if the plays actually got anywhere. Would they attack the traditional plotting and lose sight of the humor? Would the unabashed romance help them ignore the number of ballads? Will the review be about the clever show-within-a-show, or about that fact that it’s yet another backstage musical?
I suppose the solution is to always stay close to your original vision, to focus on the act of creating in hopes that you have the talent to make your intentions shine through. Then, I suppose you need to hear the criticism of the creative team, the audience, and the out-of-town critics in order to use what they communicate to improve the show in every way possible for opening night.
Then when that’s done, you try really hard not lose sight of their meaning when someone tries to help you by calling your passion piece “The Laundress Has Conniptions.”
the Broadway Mouth
February 15, 2009