Defending and Reimagining the Theatre Critic
Theatre critics: there is a love-hate relationship for those who write critically about the theatre, especially these power-wielding wordsmiths who used to have a great deal of influence on what shows ran and what shows quickly closed-shop. Walter Kerr, John Simon, Frank Rich, Brooks Atkinson, and Clive Barnes were titans of a field that has been egregiously underrepresented by female writers (thankfully, that is changing as room is being made for a more diverse voices). Nowadays, enthusiastic word-of-mouth, the right star or composer, and a good advertising campaign can overcome the scathing review of a critic’s pen, so their influence doesn’t quite have the impact that it used to. That being said, the theatre critic has always been, and always will be, an essential part of the theatre scene.
I can almost hear the groans that will accompany the reading of this piece, many people despising the theatre critics whose words may have unjustly closed a favorite show. In all fairness to the critics, they are employed for their opinions and for their understanding of theatre as a larger picture. Are they always correct? Well, opinions are not technically right or wrong, but there have certainly been critics who have missed the boat on game-changing musicals that have endured. Wilella Waldorf, an important women’s voice in criticism who wrote for The New York Post in the early 1940s, was unmoved and unimpressed with Oklahoma! and Carousel, dissenting while others cheered from the rooftops. Does this undermine Waldorf’s contributions to criticism? Certainly not. You can respect her opinions without liking them. Oklahoma! has always left me cold, but Carousel has always resonated deeply with me thanks to its complicated, imperfect characters and glorious score. That’s the wonderful thing about theatre, not every show is going to appeal to every individual, but the ones that do speak to us personally become ensconced in our hearts.
Before you poo-poo this way of thinking about critics, let’s remember that no theatrical producer hates a critic for a positive review. Broadway is full of theatre houses where enthusiastic quotes from critics are emblazoned on marquees, helping to promote a show. Clearly their words hold some value to someone, or producers wouldn’t waste their time on such publicity. It is the gamble of opening a Broadway show, to be subjected to the press, for better or for worse. To quote the fictional art critic Blair Daniels in the musical Sunday in the Park with George, “You never minded my opinions when they were in your favor”. Isn’t there some truth in this statement? You can’t have all positives, there are going to be negatives, especially when a person is charged with delivering their educated opinions.
This does not give critics carte blanche to bully and be unprofessional. There have been critics that have made unnecessary, hateful statements about performers and the creative teams associated with the shows they review. This is not the norm, but it does happen and shows a lack of respect for the hard work that goes into creating a play or musical, regardless of whether or not a critic likes it. Critics should maintain tempered opinions that get at the heart of the show’s entertainment value, its structure, its staging, and if the performers are delivering. Does everything work in concert? Does the show add up to something greater than its parts? Are its themes representative of the type of show that it is and/or does the piece speak to some greater purpose or idea? Critics need to employ their educated opinion in a way that isn’t intentionally scathing, but that does point to inherent problems and, more importantly, draws attention to what does work.
A few years ago, when Something Rotten! Opened on Broadway, Ben Brantley of The New York Times did not write a glowing review of what became a popular musical. Instead of being deterred by Brantley’s words, the producers found humor in the situation. They posted this portion of Brantley’s review on the theatre and in print ads, “A New Show That Opened on Wednesday night at the St. James Theatre!”. That’s it. It was a clever, proactive response to what could have been an unpleasant situation. They also chose to focus on the many good reviews the show received and Something Rotten! managed a healthy run and picked up a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Christian Borle). The New York Times review was not the be-all and end-all of the show’s success.
A critic is one voice, one opinion, and we as readers of criticism must take some responsibility for how we synthesize that one person’s words. The more you read a critic, the more you will know whether their opinions align with yours. You have the power to dismiss their views and see a show anyway. You can disagree with their findings and spread enthusiastic word-of-mouth for the plays and musicals that appeal to you. To give one critic’s voice too much weight is to put the power in their hands, or at least give it an ominous power that may not be justified.
An effective critic looks at a Broadway play or musical and decides if there is an audience for the show they are reviewing. If they do their job well, they can guide the right audience to the right show, or encourage people to cross into unfamiliar territory and try something challenging or different. When they criticize, they offer concrete evidence that helps us understand why a show doesn’t work. A good theatre critic should, every time they walk into a theatre, want a show to succeed, but only when the production demonstrates that it does not live up to its potential should they regretfully share their reasons. To be haughty or poisonous just for reasons of humor or to exercise their contrary nature, a critic fails both his or her craft and the audience. They are the first-line contributors to history and how art is being chronicled for posterity, and there is a gravity in this responsibility. In reimagining theatre critics, it is herein that we look to these writers to capture opinion with as much truth as is humanly and humanely possible.