An Officer, a Gentleman and a very big fuss

TheatreIs it really only a few days since An Officer and a Gentleman opened at the Lyric Theatre in Sydney isn’t it? Or could I have dreamt the extraordinary series of events that have followed the opening of this new musical?

Well, first of all the show opened, I saw it on Thursday night which was apparently called the first opening night. I was surrounded by most of the mainstream critics from all the major dailies, plus a good mix of theatrical royalty and the like. The show opened to what I would call a polite but somewhat underwhelming reception from the crowd. It is not my purpose in this column to review the show itself, so i will just say I found the night interesting and enjoyed the hard work of the actors and the great and talented cast with a couple of great standout star turns.

The following night it opened to the real glitterati and all the investors and they were paraded into the theatre by navy bands, much hoopla, a big opening night party, the usual trappings. Of course while the bands were playing and the actors were performing for what I am sure would have been a super enthusiastic crowd, the critics were writing their reviews and the next day (or later that night if anyone wanted to emulate the way things are done in New York and went searching out early editions of papers)they came out-the two big ones -the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian were  not good.

Over the next 24 hours several more reviews appeared , some of the smaller ones were mildly positive, the Sunday Telegraph echoed most of the problems already outlined in the papers of the day before. Then came Monday and to add insult to injury on top of constructive (but mostly critically negative) reviews in Stage Noise and AussieTheatre, The Australian published a longer version of Deborah Jones’ review and on expounding on her shorter earlier review on Saturday. The review went from negative to just plain bad. (At one point during one song, Ms Jones commented she wanted to crawl under her seat ).

The publishing of a longer review when a reviewer has more time to digest what they have seen is a common practice in Australia and one many theatre publicists applaud as it in effect gives them two bites of the one cherry.

At this point the author of the book of the show and the author of the original screenplay (for which he was nominated for an Academy Award), Douglas Day Stewart, found it all too much and took it upon himself to write an emotional response to Ms Jones’ review in The Australian.

I wont go into detail and pull apart what he said, Erin James has done that very effectively elsewhere on this site, but suffice to say he wrote a piece I would describe as compulsive, ill informed and somewhat irrational. (also read James Millar’s superb response in The Australian-entitled Suck It Up Buddy, She Just Didn’t Like It – a superb and intelligent treatise on the role of the critic and a defence of all Australian music theatre writers)

From this point, the social network sites went crazy, mostly also criticising Mr Stewart for his naive response. James Millar’s reply topped this off to a point that I wondered if there was anything else to say.

But I do have something to say about all this.

Firstly, it is folly beyond belief to publicly criticise reviewers. There is nothing to be gained and a hell of a lot to lose. What is most negative about doing this is that it draws enormous attention to the negative reviews. Whereas only a very small proportion of the theatre going public would have read Ms Jones’ review(s) , by the time Mr Stewart had finished his rant , everyone was rushing to find a copy of the review. By the end of the day, the pros and cons of the whole situation AND the negative reviews had drawn the most amount of attention in theatre circles since Kookaburra decided to edit down some of Mr Sondheim’s Company a few years back.

All this attention may prove highly successful for the show, but it also may be its undoing. Bad reviews, when they are brought into the spotlight thanks to the actions of Mr Stewart, can be hard to forget and they linger badly in the minds of the general public as they contemplate whether to fork out big bucks for a theatre ticket.

The second point is one which I think needs to be seriously considered and one no one else has examined as yet. Why was a brand new musical, that had never been performed before, be thrown headlong into the laps of the Australian reviewers only eight days after the first preview?

This has to be folly of the most serious kind. Nowhere else in the world would a brand new musical, written in the style of a Broadway show, be given over for elaborate professional examination when the cast were just feeling their way and the director and the creatives were still cutting and pasting right up to the final preview.

This is not the tried and true Wicked, Jersey Boys or Annie, where you rehearse up a talented cast, put them in front of a preview audience a few times, then feel pretty secure you will have a dandy opening night with reviewers chirping appropriately.

Yes there had been early workshops of the show, but these achieve nothing compared to putting a full scale production up in front of a paying audience. This is when the real work is usually done with a brand new work, over a number of weeks. On Broadway, depending on how new a show is, its about 4 weeks of previews before officially opening. Quite often shows heading for Broadway will play out of town for a number of weeks, sometimes months. Major changes occurred with Wicked when it was in San Francisco before it headed to Broadway. The classic story of Rodgers and Hammerstein is the one where they realised only days before the show Oklahoma was reviewed that the second act needed a bouncy eleven o’clock number , henceforth the famed title song was born.

It is beyond comprehension why Officer was not given some runs well and truly out of town, in smaller cities where the spotlight would not be on the work so much and reviewers would be more forgiving. By putting the show under the immediate glare of Sydney with reviews that will quickly travel  via internet to theatre producers around the world (keen to hear about the musicalisation of a movie hit), they may well have killed the baby before it had a chance to crawl.

Now I am all for producing of new works in this country, both local and the international, but if you are going to do it, give the show a chance to grow and develop under less critical eyes.

In the last few days I have been inundated with friends in New York and London and the over riding question has been “is it as bad as these reviews seem?”.

If one thing that has been made clear from this incident , it is that Officer needs more work. When Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh were faced with genuinely poor reviews for their shows Love Never Dies and Martin Guerre respectively, they pulled them off for a while, rejigged,cut, pasted, added songs, changed songs, wrote new songs and put them back together again. In the instance of those shows LND needed a grand new Australian production team and cast to make it work and Martin Guerre eventually faded into obscurity. Is it possible for Officer to take some time off and then replay for the reviewers? A question that perhaps needs to be considered.

I conclude on the old adage – shows aren’t written, they are re-written. Perhaps it is time for Mr Day Stewart to stop sharpening his pen to attack Ms Jones and the like and use that pen to make some changes to his brand new, barely formed baby.


One thought on “An Officer, a Gentleman and a very big fuss

  • I gather AO&AG sits pretty low amongst other Australian turkey theatre experiences… I saw the (mainstream) opening night of What the World Needs Now several years ago in Sydney, a tuner that shuffled together numerous hit songs penned by Hal David and Burt Bacharach and threaded by a dismal plot line.    When the female lead turned to the main male, asking, deadpan, “So, Alfie.. what’s it all about?” the entire audience collectively groaned and, I swear, you could smell the stench of death settling over the production…   the producers wisely pulled the plug on the show a few weeks later, cancelling an anticipated national tour.


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