by Mo Brady
It’s a story as old as Broadway itself. With each new musical opening comes scores of opinions from theatre devotees. Yet, some of those reviews have typically been held in high esteem: those of theatre critics.
For decades, theatre reviews from the legitimate press were the industry standard of quality. Both business insiders and loving fans looked to The New York Times and other publications for opinionated, but honest views of productions.
However, there has been a tonal shift in reviews by The Times and others in recent years. Whereas in the past, readers could count on encountering a handful of negative reviews each season, those have been replaced by reviews that are downright mean.
Scanning this season’s reviews, there’s no shortage of pithy takes on Broadway shows.
For King Kong, The New York Times took an surprisingly lazy approach. Instead of asking a single reviewer to create a thoughtful essay with constructive criticism, they used two reviewers to beat up the production. The back-and-forth dialogue feels reminiscent of the tag-teaming in a professional wrestling match.
Ben Brantley: Hello, Jesse. Though I’m not in a playful mood this morning — having just seen the spirit-crushing “King Kong” — what if we begin this dialogue with a game? Imagine you are on the street, having just left the theater, and are asked by a television interviewer to describe your response in one word. Well?
Jesse Green: It can’t be printed here, and I’m not even sure it’s one word. (It starts with “ape.”) So I guess I’ll go with “ugh.”
Ben Brantley: I understand what you’re saying. Since screaming is such a big part of the show, mine would be ‘aaaaaaaaargh.’
The New York Times is not solely to blame for this phenomena of lazy reviewing. In his review of the quickly-departed Broadway musical Gettin’ The Band Back Together, David Cote of The Observer wrote:
“Having sat through the sweaty, janky garbage fire Gettin' the Band Back Together, I strongly suspect that producer and book writer Ken Davenport has a chest tattoo that reads (in Gothic script), ‘No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.’”
What’s the difference between a bad review and a mean review? A few things. Intelligence. Grace. Most notably, a bad review aspires to educate readers while a mean review aspires to entertain them.
There are legions of thoughtful and passionate theatre reviewers working in the press and online today. Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune and Gordon Cox of Variety stand out as two who champion and advocate of shows’ success, even when they dislike aspects of a production. What reviewers like Brantley, Green and Cote lack in their printed opinions is any sense that they like contemporary theatre at all. And if you don’t like most of what’s happening in the theatre today, maybe you shouldn’t be subjecting yourself to review it.
I don’t mean to imply that any of the new Broadway musicals this season are without fault. These musicals have (or had) flaws which should certainly be pointed out by the journalists employed to review the shows. These reviewers are allowed to express their negative opinions, even when they can’t recommend attending a production to readers. But all of this is possible without hitting a production below the belt.