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 don’t usually scream at my TV but I whooped with pleasure when Mark Rylance beat the odds, not to mention the Hollywood punditocracy, by winning the Oscar for his work in Bridge Of Spies, a performance as rich as any in this incomparable actor’s Santa’s bag of a resume that ranges from Boeing Boeing to Rooster Byron in Jerusalem to Shakespearean leads and, in Steven Spielberg’s quietly powerful film, a Russian spy who maintains his dignity and honor in the face of a political circus.
The thought occurred to me, watching the 215-minute Oscars broadcast, that there were lessons to be learned for the Tonys. The ratings for the Oscars fell precipitously. Some blamed the politicization of the ceremony and particularly Chris Rock’s mildly caustic jokes about racism in the Academy. But as I watched (and commented on our live blog), I had a different reaction: Chris Rock appeals to the demo advertisers want, so I think that criticizing him is off the mark. More to the point was the mind-numbing string of boring acceptance speeches — this year accompanied by an eye-numbing crawl with the same litany of family members, agents and spirit guides no viewer knew or cared about. Why, I wondered, would anyone stick around for 3-1/2 hours of this, especially in categories like film editing and sound mixing and other esoterica of importance only to the trade?
And for the first time in 35 years of writing about Broadway, I realized that this is exactly the same problem confronting CBS and the producers of the Tony telecast. Sure, Jordan, you and I and our colleagues care about lighting designers and which LORT theater gets its turn in the regional theater roundelay and other categories essential to the art of the industry. But why should we expect the mass audience to care? Shoving our arcana in their faces won’t teach them anything — it will only make them switch to the NBA finals or HBO.
So my heresy for the week is this: Cut the Tony telecast to 90 sharp minutes featuring only the top categories in musicals, plays and revivals. Ignore the whining of industry insiders who will doubtless complain about the declining dignity of the show — frankly, that argument was lost with the first national telecast of the Tonys in 1967. Keep the show tight and focused on the awards regular viewers care about and hand out the rest before or after the broadcast. If the Tonys are to be nothing more than a promotional tool for Broadway, acknowledge it and make the show the best promotional tool possible, instead of the current mash of entertainment and spinach.
ROTH: I’m pretty sure you should expect a garbage truck filled with spinach to be backed up to your office and dumped on your door, courtesy of United Scenic Artists. Veggie characterizations aside, this is what’s already happening, but it doesn’t take just 90 minutes. The last few years, the only awards presented live on the telecast were the best musical/play/revivals and the actors and directors. All others were presented either before the telecast or during the commercial breaks with a brief clip of the winner’s speech on air after. But that’s still 14 televised awards plus 10 or so musical performances plus commercial breaks — and that equals 3 hours. To get to 90 minutes, you’d have to make it only these 14 awards and no performances (no singing and dancing on Broadway?), only performances and no awards (Tonys with no Tonys?), or performances plus pick just a handful of awards to present (who would you pick now?).
The big scream at my Oscar party was for Spotlight‘s thrilling win, and Brian d’Arcy James was welcomed back to Something Rotten! with a hero’s banner and cake and a standing ovation from all. My gathering this year was not so much a viewing party as a live-broadcasting party. Periscope asked a handful of users to live broadcast a scene re-enacting a Best Picture nominee during commercials. A group of friends and I took the challenge and created mini-musicals of all the nominees. The Revenant Into the Woods: “Was that me? Was it him? Did a bear really kiss me, and kiss me, and maul me, and did I maul him back?” The Hamilton Room Where It Happened: “They were only in the Room for half the movie, the Room for half the movie, the Room for half the movie.” Les MizMartian: “I use my pee in outer space to grow potatoes just in case. One day more.”
GERARD: Steady, astonishing work is what links Mark Rylance and Brian d’Arcy James. What a year Brian has had, beginning with his performance as King George in the first six weeks of Hamilton before segueing into Something Rotten! in your theater and then his beautifully detailed work as Matt Carroll, the nerd on the investigative Spotlight team.
When I asked him last fall whether Spotlight had his phone ringing off the hook with more movie offers, his response was typical of this actor who’s as humble as he is talented: “No. I don’t think that answer will ever be yes. I’m old enough to know that I should never expect anything, but I’m also aware of how special this is. Maybe Spotlight will change people’s minds and say, ‘Well, he can walk and talk at the same time in a film.’ But my theater experiences working with people like John Lithgow and Laura Linney — what you inevitably learn every time is that they’re just like you. They have to show up every day at 10 o’clock and sign in for rehearsal and try to figure out what the hell to do. That has been a valuable lesson in terms of applying my own sense of belonging, when all of a sudden I’m doing a scene with Michael Keaton. I know that my knees are knocking because I so adore this guy — but I also know that he’s also just a guy trying to get it right, trying to get a good scene done and do it well. How do you do that? You actually show up. You have to go to work every single day.”
I think Mark Rylance’s answer would be similar. Brian also said that making Spotlight, he’d learned that journalism, like acting, is a calling and not a job. How can you not love this guy? And here’s the News Of The Day — he was just cast as the co-lead in Superior Donuts, CBS’ comedy series adaptation of Tracy Letts’ under-appreciated play (a hit in Chicago, where it’s set, but a flop on Broadway). I suppose that means we’ll be seeing less of him in these precincts if Jim Burrows’ pilot goes according to plan.
Speaking of journalists, I wonder what you made of the reviews for Forest Whitaker in Hughie. Ben Brantley in the Times and Linda Winer in Newsday were moved by the performance and the play. Joe Dziemianowicz in the Daily News called both “hooey,” and he wasn’t alone in his disappointment (I fell in that group). These are all knowledgeable, experienced critics, and this was another case where I can only imagine readers scratching their heads and wondering how critical assessments could be so drastically different. I know I’ve asked you this before: Who do you believe?
ROTH: Last time, I answered that a split decision makes me want to see for myself. This time I answer with a question: Who do you believe? Does reading those positive reviews make you think maybe you missed something? Does it make you want to re-explore, see it again? Or does it make you double down and think they’re the ones who got it wrong?
Or even if there isn’t much disagreement, do you ever find yourself reassessing over time as a show you dismissed takes root in your mind or one you praised disappears for you? Thinking here of the unanimous pans of the early productions of Waiting For Godot, which some critics revised as they kept marinating on the play.
These split decisions do remind us though that reviews can’t be objective fact. A good thing for us to keep in mind when you and your colleagues all agree that a show is bad. Or good.
GERARD: The key difference between the journalists of Spotlight and the journalists who write reviews of movies, books or Broadway shows is that we critics have to go with what our brains and our guts tell us. We don’t compare notes to achieve consensus. We have to believe in our own voices. That said, I think readers really appreciate it when we admit not that we may’ve been wrong (never happens) but that we can modify our assessment or even do an about face. That happened with the Signature Theatre’s brilliant 2012 revival of Edward Albee’s The Lady From Dubuque, a play about dying that most of us savaged after its 1980 Broadway premiere, despite a luminous performance in the title role by Irene Worth. It closed after 12 performances. Seeing the play again was a revelation, as I wrote four years ago: “Thirty-two years ago, I felt befuddled and assaulted. Perhaps because I’ve buried so many friends and loved ones since then, and death inevitably expands in our consciousness as we grow older, I found The Lady From Dubuque deeply moving, a play that finally the times have caught up with.” Possibly “the times” in that last sentence should be replaced by “the critics,” but you never know.