EXCLUSIVE: Deadline theater critic Jeremy Gerard and Jujamcyn Theatres president Jordan Roth discuss the hottest topics on the Rialto, the only precondition being: no holds barred.
GERARD: Welcome to the new season, Mr. Mogul, with the Boss, the Mouse and the Angels in your bullpen. Let’s talk about Frozen and Jesse Green’s review in The New York Times. When Peter Bart hired me as Variety’s chief theater critic in 1991, I cockily announced that in addition to Broadway and off-Broadway, I planned to review tryouts on the Boston-New Haven-D.C. axis as well. Gerald Schoenfeld, he should rest in peace, called from the Chinoiserie-swathed Shubert cocoon atop the Shubert Theater in Shubert Alley and hollered that I was “going to destroy the American theater,” which, translated, meant, if I did that, Frank Rich would follow suit for competitive reasons. I reviewed Crazy For You in Washington (“This is going to make a lot of people very happy and some people very rich”) and Park Your Car In Harvard Yard (“Blecccchhh.”) The industry survived but I soon realized I had little more to say once those shows opened on Broadway, and so I reverted to using stringers. When I became the chief critic at Bloomberg, I went back to reviewing out-of-town shows, tryout or not, that would be of interest to readers, including The Bridges of Madison County, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (causing a Big Stink in our Little Pond) and Finding Neverland at the A.R.T. Up till then, the Times’ er, fungible, policy was not to review out of town shows that had a commercial producer attached (bogus, since there is no show at any nonprofit theater in the U.S. that doesn’t have a commercial producer attached). Ben Brantley reviewed Finding Neverland at A.R.T., and the doors swung open.
But enough about me. So now we have Jesse Green’s full-blown review of Frozen, coming to your theater in the spring, complete with those coloring-book-for-grown-ups photos that now seem to take up 75% of the real estate in the Times culture section. The Disney show is likely to be a juggernaut regardless of what the Times or anyone else says (so many princesses, so few premium seats). My opinion? Critics don’t work for producers, and newsworthiness alone should determine what we review (and when, but that’s another column). So good on the Times. Still, I wonder what this will mean for other shows in the pipeline.
ROTH: In this case, it worked out great for Frozen with terrific praise and useful feedback from the Times and the many other outlets who chose to cover. But in general, there’s both good and bad here for the pipeline. The bad: Many shows go out of town without every element in place – full capitalization, a Broadway theater, etc. Bad reviews out of town can make it impossible to complete that puzzle and stop a show right there. Even if a show is able to make it in anyway, first impressions are very hard to shake. The good: Some shows out of town need a jolt of attention and praise to get momentum. Would A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love & Murder have done what it did without its Times rave at Hartford Stage?
Of course, by your determining factor of “newsworthiness,” none of the good would happen. I’m intrigued by that word. Since we’re not talking Russian election-fixing here, the newsworthiness of out-of-town musicals isn’t that people should know, it’s that people want to know. That advance interest often translates into a box office advance, which you and your colleagues often hold against a show. You cover it because people want it, but you also seem to begrudge it because people want it. So people’s interest and excitement about a show is great when they’re your readers but not great when they’re our audiences?
And before you try the consumer protection argument that they should know if they’re buying tickets, recall that these are works in progress so the shows you’re reviewing out of town are quite different from the shows they’ll be buying tickets to in New York.
GERARD: You’re also involved in bringing the National Theatre’s revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, with Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn, to Broadway (though not in one of your theaters). It’s a limited run of a serious eight-hour, two part epic, reputedly costing $7.5 million to mount for its limited run. Memories of George C. Wolfe’s landmark production in your Walter Kerr Theatre, as well as the Signature Theatre’s estimable revival of Tony Kushner’s masterpiece, not to mention Mike Nichols’ HBO film – and this production’s recent telecast via NT Live, are pretty fresh. So how does this make sense, let alone dollars?
ROTH: If it doesn’t make sense to bring one of the most important American plays of all time by one of our most masterful thinkers in a rapturously reviewed and sales record-breaking production by one of our most innovative directors featuring revelatory performances by one of our most beloved Broadway stars and one of our most talented young stars then I’m not sure what any of us is doing here. The great work emerges when we need it. Sometimes even before we know why…
GERARD: A less salutary reminder of the recent past came with the awful news of composer/lyricist Michael Friedman’s death from complications related to HIV/AIDS. He was just 41 and created two of my favorite shows, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Fortress of Solitude, among a wild range of work. His death stunned everyone, not only because of the loss of a brilliant and beloved talent, but because we thought the days of reporting the deaths of young men from AIDS ended 20 years ago with the introduction of protease inhibitors.
ROTH: I loved Michael. No, I don’t like that tense – I love Michael. Both as a human being and a writer. I always left any time with him feeling more brave, more clear, more empowered, more possible. It is unfathomable to me that he is gone. We’ve all repeated the slogans that it isn’t over, over and over, but the shock of losing Michael shows that somehow we didn’t wholly believe that. We do now. So as we continue to tell the stories of our warriors, onstage and onscreen, let no one invoke the dangerously misguided and frustratingly smug “that’s dated.”
GERARD: In 1974, Hal Prince published Contradictions, a candid and revealing account of his life in the theater as manager, producer and director that took us up through his first collaborations with Stephen Sondheim. He’s revised and updated that book under the title Sense of Occasion that brings us right up to the present, ending just before the reviews of Prince of Broadway, and like this most recent show, it’s a disappointment. Some of the most provocative observations from Contradictions have been cut. The material that takes us from Evita and Phantom of the Opera through the unforgettable Show Boat, Kiss of the Spider-Woman and the like, sometimes have more to do with settling old scores than self-revelation. (Prince’s account of choosing the Shubert-owned Majestic Theatre for Phantom over the smaller Jujamcyn-owned Martin Beck – which co-producer Cameron Mackintosh preferred – is self-serving, but there’s an amusing anecdote about running into a future President and his future ex-wife on opening night.)
Prince doesn’t care much for critics, except when we’re praising him. When Kiss of the Spider-Woman opened at SUNY Purchase in suburban Westchester County, he knew it was a mess but was irked when the critics agreed. The revised show opened on Broadway and became a hit, yet he doesn’t mention that Frank Rich, in his extraordinarily thoughtful Purchase review, had written that the show demanded a bona fide leading lady like Chita Rivera in the title role. Guess who starred in the show on Broadway?
And in a chapter about A Doll’s Life, the 1982 musical by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Larry Grossman, Prince offers “A note about critics” in which he accuses The Times’ Michiko Kakutani of writing “a hatchet job,” about the show, as a result of which, “we had gotten killed by The New York Times before we even came to New York.” Not true. I wrote the “hatchet job” he’s talking about (read it here), having spent nearly six months with the company, from the first rehearsal through its disastrous Los Angeles tryout. While my Times story in advance of the Broadway opening was complimentary (with those talents, how could it not be?), Prince was furious that it included a reference to the fact that the show lost $1 million during the pre-Broadway run. Still one of my all-time favorite misfires (it has a place of honor on the Wall of Flops at Joe Allen) A Doll’s Life closed after just five performances at the Mark Hellinger Theatre. Meanwhile, Kakutani (who recently announced her retirement as chief book critic of The Times after 34 years of reviewing, wrote a detailed post-mortem that ran after the show had closed. She simply gave it a worthy burial.
ROTH: So ’twas ever thus on the out-of-town reviews debate. And as Jujamcyn lore has it, losing Phantom to the Shuberts led then-owner Jim Binger to clean house and hire Rocco Landesman to run the company, which in turn led to me joining the company. So thanks, Hal!