Why the critics are revered (and feared) on the Great White Way…
“I’ve heard it’s so good”.
These five words can send a Broadway buff in to a spiral of questions:
What? What’s good? Who’s good? Who said it’s good? Who’s in it? Where can I get tickets? How much are they? Are they sold out? Is it like trying to get tickets for Book of Mormon?
This frenzy of questioning for most theatergoers in New York will usually be accompanied by checking in with the go-to Broadway critics, whose oftentimes acid tongue still have the power to derail a production.
Even in the age of being able to speak directly to your fans through social media, research shows that the influence of key critics in NYC is still an important factor in the decision-making process for theatergoers, especially local ones. Critical approval can see the run of a praised show extended by between 50 and 100 performances and anecdotally make it easier to spread positive word of mouth if the production can boast the “critics pick” label.
The New York Times, the New York Post as well as the reviewers at New York Magazine, The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal all have a strong impact on the buzz generated for each Broadway and off-Broadway production.
The biggest voice in Broadway critiquing is still the New York Times. And since 1996, the Chief Theatre Critic role has fallen to Ben Brantley, a 57-year-old journalist who once caused histrionics among the theatre sect for dubbing Broadway veteran Patti LuPone, “La LuPone” and recently declared that Hugh Jackman acted like a “flaming queen” in his one-man show. Brantley was named the eleventh most powerful person on Broadway in a poll just released, coming in ahead of both Nederlanders (James, Sr. and James, Jr.) as well as Stephen Sondheim and Cameon Mackintosh.
Brantley’s word is so close to gospel that the website, www.didhelikeit.com, was created to further spread his influence, delivering his verdict and a hand-picked “line of truth” (along with other influential reviewers) for every Broadway show currently playing. Brantley follows in the footsteps of Brooks Atkinson and Walter Kerr (such esteemed critics that they have theatres named after them) as well as Frank Rich, who who defected to New York Magazine and is their writer-at-large.
With a stunningly sharp view on Broadway, the New York Post’s Michael Riedel also wields exceptional influence. Riedel heartily embraces his “mean Broadway critic” role and was infamously punched in the face in 2004 by Fiddler on the Roof revival director David Leveaux. Last year, he enjoyed an infamous and ongoing battle with the creators and producers of Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark after continually reporting and commenting on the show’s epic trials and tribulations. So notorious has he become that he’ll be making a cameo on TV show Smash.
In addition to their at-times punishing views on productions, Brantley and Riedel are none too fond of each other either either. Brantley labeled Riedel “a mosquito” and dismissed his influence on audiences as a reviewer. They do agree on one thing though: they both really, really hate Spiderman.
Quantifying the power of the critic to the bottom line is much harder however and many believe that the critics have more impact with their negative perspectives rather than guaranteeing hit status with a positive review.
The Broadway League’s annual report, the enthrallingly-titled Demographics of a Broadway Audience, continues to try to evaluate and calculate the importance of the critic’s voice. The 2010-11 report showed critics still having a strong influence especially as the research shows that the majority of theatergoers are well educated and will often fall in to the readership of a newspaper like the Times.
However, in the 2010–2011 season, approximately 62 per cent of ticket purchasers were tourists. Probably most of them didn’t consult the Times as they vacationed in New York but the influence of Brantley’s views may have spread and impacted the “buzz” and word of mouth.
It’s not all about the chosen few deemed worthy of critical approval however, there are many success stories which have been panned by critics only to emerge glittering on the Great White Way as a “fan favorite”. Arguably the most consistent economic success on Broadway for the best part of the last decade, Wicked, was panned by Brantley who said it did “not, alas, speak hopefully for the future of the Broadway musical”.
It certainly makes it harder though. Many observers cite the unexpectedly short run of Catch Me If You Can last year as proof of the critics swift hand. All the elements seemed to be in line for this movie-inspired production: bright lights, big dance number,s music and lyrics by powerhouses Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman of Hairspray fame, star power from Norbert Leo Butz, teen idol power from Aaron Tveit. But alas, after just 170 performances, the curtain fell.
Some shows are destined for greatness regardless of their review. The literary praise merely solidifies their place in the Broadway hierarchy. The current Mike Nichols-directed revival of Death of a Salesman is creating all kinds of flutters at the moment with critics tripping over themselves to praise the production and the performances of its stars, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield. New York Magazine’s Scott Brown called it “thunderous” and the grosses in its first weeks are strong.
And then there is the increasing power of the Blogger, the keyboard heroes who are finally being recognized by many producers who host “Blogger Nights”, with the hope the viral word will spread as fast as a Kony video.
Discounted tickets are one of the biggest driving factors though, so maybe no one really cares what the powers-that-be think so long as the price is right.
- The epic Australian musical, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, celebrated its one-year anniversary on Broadway this week with meat pies in Times Square.
- Hopefully it’s a sign that the Broadway economy is strengthening with Disney announcing an extension to the Newsies season before the show has even officially opened.
- The imminent revival of Jesus Christ Superstar is giving me personal flashbacks to when John Farnham, Jon Stevens, Kate Ceberano, John Waters and Angry Anderson came together for the Arena Spectacular version in Australia. Such fond memories!