EXCLUSIVE: Deadline’s Jeremy Gerard and Jujamcyn Theatres majority owner and president Jordan Roth talk about the state of the industry, the only stipulation being no holds barred.
GERARD: I’m feeling unusually protective of my critical colleagues this week, and especially Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood at The New York Times. Here’s why: On Wednesday morning, the Paper of Record ran a fulsome story about American Psycho, in which reporter Alexandra Alter took Bret Easton Ellis to the show and, after, backstage to meet the cast of the musical based on his novel. Although Easton Ellis was circumspect about the show (“Mr. Ellis chuckled quietly a couple of times”), the reporter was not:
“Pretty soon Mr. Ellis was reveling in the punch lines,” Alter wrote. “The show features music by Duncan Sheik and a punchy book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa that captures the novel’s over-the-top-satire and its slick, stylish send-up of late-’80s Wall Street hedonism…The musical may be the ultimate rebuke to Mr. Ellis’s early critics. As Bateman dances around in his underwear or in a dapper pinstriped suit, there’s little doubt that the story works best as a hallucinatory, pitch-black comedy.”
That extremely friendly critical endorsement was made before the show had opened — i.e., before the Times drama critic weighed in. It’s a Tiffany wrapped gift to the producers and the kind of thing that would never fly in my Pleistocene days at the Times. Opinions were the exclusive prerogative of the critics. (A reassessment of the novel, by The Times‘ brilliant book critic Dwight Garner, published the weekend before in the Book Review, is exempt from Gerard’s Complaint.) I can see such an article coming out after the review, but before is a no-no. (The reviews, including Brantley’s and mine, ran last night.)
A more serious issue affects not only Times critics but all of us in the ranks of daily criticism, and that has to do with the Pulitzer Prizes announced Monday. Not the one for drama — all hail Lin-Manuel Miranda and the enormous cultural touchstone that Hamilton has become. But the prize for criticism went to Emily Nussbaum, television critic of The New Yorker. She’s a terrific writer — astute, funny and knowledgeable. But she writes for a magazine, and how the heck did that happen?
It turns out the Pulitzer rules were quietly changed last fall to allow magazines to compete in certain categories, namely feature writing and criticism. So the best magazine in the U.S. scored two of the most prestigious newspaper awards in journalism (the second went to Kathryn Schulz, for feature writing).
That’s a stinging slap to journalists who work a daily beat under deadline pressures that magazine writers don’t have. The now-distant memory of a news cycle has increased the pressure on all of us, but it’s still worth noting that Nussbaum generally writes when she’s ready, has had time to assimilate a mass of information on a given topic and decides the moment is right to deliver a verdict on a show or shows. All of which she does extremely well, but that’s what the National Magazine Awards are for.
Awarding Pulitzers to magazine writers at a time when newspapers are shaving off arts journalists like so much annoying callus is a shocking expression of disregard. If The New York Times found its brilliant and brave war correspondents competing with the brilliant and brave war correspondents of The New Yorker, I’m pretty certain the rule change would be reversed before we woke up in the morning.
ROTH: I too always took it as a given that no other critical assessments would run until the review did. But thinking about it now, I’m not sure I can say exactly why. Is the issue that criticism was printed before the official review? That it wasn’t written by a critic — or that it was positive? I remember when Vincent Canby’s reviews appeared in the Sunday Times, a counterpoint to the weekday review. Multiple opinions enhanced our understanding of the show, but yes, both opinions were from critics and the Sunday review always followed. And while I know your argument was based on the first two issues, I do wonder if this wouldn’t have jumped out as much as it did if the assessment had been more negative. The snark that can creep into show announcements or coverage of the sometimes rocky road to Broadway can also be a kind of pre-reviews review. And not just before the reviews run, but in most cases before the writer has even seen the show. That’s not good for critics either. Nor for shows.
As for the Pulitzers… First, we agree that Emily Nussbaum is a brilliant critic, not to mention brilliant tweeter, and she deserves this recognition. Your issue is not about who was selected but who was eligible. And while I’m totally sympathetic to how this feels for you and other colleagues, it goes beyond newspapers versus magazines, and is a wider conversation that’s been happening for some time about content versus distribution. Remember the Cable Ace Awards? Once the Emmys decided that their awards were for a kind of content not a method of distribution, cable shows could compete with broadcast shows, and a separate cable awards became unnecessary. The Emmys went even further by including streaming — again, putting content over distribution as the criterion.
How long will it be before Deadline and HuffPo are eligible for the Pulitzer? For writers like you who aren’t in daily criticism either, but rather hourly criticism. Or even minute-ly criticism. When the award becomes just for content, the issue will be less about how long you have to write it or where it’s read, and solely about what you said.
GERARD: And that’s a good thing? Next subject: Speaking of Hamilton, much has been reported about the agreement under which producer Jeffrey Seller will spread some of the wealth to cast members from the original workshops and off-Broadway production at the Public. The question of remuneration for actors and other artists who contribute to a show’s development is a gnarly one, debated for decades. This agreement is being hailed as a landmark, but if it sets a new precedent, it could put a broad new onus on producers (and, ultimately, the creators) that will have a limiting effect on production.
ROTH: I’m very happy that an agreement was reached and that with so much success to go around, the actors who were such an important part of the development process will now share in it. But we’re talking about profit (and a lot of it), not about a weekly royalty on a show that may be struggling to run or struggling to recoup. Different shows in different circumstances need different arrangements. The workshop arrangement didn’t work for many producers, now the lab isn’t working for many actors, so more nuance needs to be built into one or both.
Currently, actors who participate in a “workshop” are entitled to share a weekly royalty whether the show is doing well or not, as well as a portion of subsidiary rights from all future productions. On the other hand, actors who participate in a “lab” (as with Hamilton and many other shows) get no ongoing participation. The Hamilton agreement, as I understand it, adds a share of the show’s success (i.e. profits), but that wouldn’t burden a show in failure. If there’s no profit, there’s no profit participation.
We also need to remember a few things as we work towards the right nuances. First, a producer can take a show out of town to a resident theater, get a full production and the benefit of reviews and audience reactions, pay actors less than they’d get in a workshop and owe them no ongoing participation. That’s why the lab has made sense. But when there is so much success, it also makes sense to share it with the people who helped make that success. Second, some shows come into their workshops/labs with rough ideas to be shaped with and by actors. Other shows come in with fully realized scripts — even based on source material where the characters and songs have been fully realized in another medium. Our nuance could treat those cases differently. Third, shows are developed over a series of developmental steps, not just one, so we may want to take into account how many of these steps an actor has participated in when calculating profit participation. Couldn’t an actor who has been with a show for years of development participate more than an actor who just did the last workshop?
And speaking of the time committed, one of the sensitivities here is that a royalty can imply co-authorship — which some authors object to, especially when they think of the 4-to-6 weeks of a workshop or lab versus the 4-to-6 years they might have spent writing the piece. Profit participation, on the other hand, says you contributed to this success so you deserve to share in it.
Ultimately, once the artists are all together in a rehearsal room, no one should have to keep score of what idea was whose and who contributed what so everyone can be paid accordingly. Any agreement (or lack of agreement) creating that atmosphere is detrimental to the process we’re all there to support. And no one — actors, producers, unions, no one — wants to limit the creative process or limit productions. So any adjustment that ends up having that effect will need to be further adjusted until it doesn’t.