Some weeks ago a couple of media outlets fired their critics. And didn’t replace them. No more reviews of theatre for them. And some of you may be saying “Good. I hate critics.” But think further: The stage community needs criticism, publicity, and a wide array of views expressed for all to see. Taking away “merely” two of the throng damages us. We can perpetrate dreck, unchecked, and then never find an audience. No theatre practitioner is an island; our art depends on connections.
I suppose some might say I’ve such a positive view of critics because I’ve gotten so many raves in so many papers. What’s not to love? One major paper with a very wide circulation reviewed a work of mine in verse, of all things. The critic was so inspired by my clever rhymes, he felt compelled to join the fray. Another time, in another major paper, a show I worked on received a devastating pan. Everything in it was lambasted with the exception of my songs and the fellow who sang them, “a lark among clods.” Remarkably, everybody took that with bemused grace. Also, there was the time Peter Filichia praised my “production that could move to Broadway right now. Right now. RIGHT NOW” as if to light a fire under producers. (Alas, they proved to be soggy wood.)
But the truth is, I’ve an addiction to input. From any source. Public or private. Positive or negative. My four formative years at the BMI workshop are fondly recalled, mostly, because I could play my new songs and hear what Lehman Engel and others thought. The reaction of others is of paramount importance to me. Look, we’re endeavoring to communicate with an audience, right? So, any chance to hear what that hearer is thinking is a golden opportunity.
Just a few days ago was Richard Rodgers’ birthday (114) and I was reminded of the party I threw him in absentia. When he heard about it, he sent a nice letter of appreciation – the sort of thing he did rather rarely. So, in a frame, I’ve this valuable thing, a letter from the most important of musical theatre composers. In another frame, I keep a letter from Stephen Sondheim, who writes back to writers rather more commonly. His letter I cherish because he offers a few thoughts – not particularly complimentary, by the way – about one of my shows, which he saw. Great to hear an experienced and esteemed musical theatre writer’s opinion. But a couple years later, I got a longer letter from someone you’ve never heard of and I value that even more.
The author was someone who’d worked for many years developing new musicals with an off-Broadway company that seems to specialize in that. He’d attended a staged reading of a show I’d been working on. During the many years and many drafts I’d devoted to it, I’d lost multiple collaborators. A director moved to California. A writer-director moved to Florida. A writer and I had such conflicting visions, we decided to part company, and she came up with her own show stemming from our initial idea. But, at this point, I’d been working alone for a long time.
And that meant that everything I wrote existed in a vacuum. No stranger was looking at the thing. I might think something was good, something was working, but I desperately needed the reality check of knowing whether somebody else thought it was good, working. At the staged reading, through a formal feedback chat with the audience, people were invited to speak up. But they kept saying positive things. Nobody named an element that was ineffective. This left me depressed. How was this piece going to improve? What did I need to do next?
Some days later, a five-page letter arrived from that stranger with development experience. He detailed areas that worked and areas where the show seemed unclear, ineffective. The people who mounted the reading, and delivered the letter to me, asked how I felt about this critique. I said “There’s the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence and this document.”
Might be the wrong time of year to put anything on an equal plane with Jefferson’s great screed. But I find myself thinking of the broader implications of there being fewer critics. It would seem to be an indication that media powers-that-be don’t think there are enough people reading reviews, and I take them at their word. Today, more than, say, fifty years ago, there are people coming to New York, interested in catching some theatre, but they’re not considering what critical reaction has been. Let’s imagine there are three realities. One is whether a show is actually good: Forget how we define that, for the moment; just acknowledge that this reality exists. A second reality is that certain shows are widely praised by critics. A third reality is that there are productions that sound good to potential ticket-buyers. Let’s say there’s a TV personality, who is frequently funny on TV but has no playwriting experience, and he writes a play that he stars in. That’s your third reality, right there. This sort of thing sounds good to theatre-goers. Critics see this thing, and they all say the show is terrible, a waste of time and money, insufferable. Fifty years ago, universal pans would close a show on opening night. Now, of course, such a play would play to packed houses as long as the TV star wanted to do it. It would be like shooting fish in a barrel (lights on or off).
Say someone who isn’t famous writes a great show and the critics all agree it’s pretty great. But if too few people are reading reviews, and the show isn’t the third reality, too few tickets will sell, dooming the production.
I read reviews all the time. Not just of my shows. Learning what a critic thinks of anything is an education. These scribes see hundreds of stage-pieces a year, and I think that counts for something. Walter Kerr, for whom a Broadway theatre is named, used to pen think-pieces from the perspective of a professor imparting information that is specifically valuable for us creators. As a kid, I practically memorized a book he wrote: How Not To Write a Play. Yep: I want to know that.