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: Plus ça change, the saying goes. Here we are in the final days of the season for Tony eligibility, with one opening following the next. It’s hard for critics to convince civilians that seeing and writing about a couple of dozen Broadway shows, one after the other, constitutes hardship duty, but it does. It seems unfair to producers as well; how does any show get a fair shake? Because I also have to produce stories about likely Tony contenders (or eventual also-rans), I occasionally see shows twice – early in previews and then again with fellow critics before opening night. These days, there’s not much difference between them, but with musicals, hearing a score twice can have a real impact as it did with me in the case of Amélie (and which I noted in my review). A few years ago, the New York Drama Critics Circle, of which I’m a longtime member and past president, recorded its frustration over this rush to the Tony deadline with the Broadway League, to no avail. Yet there are tens of millions of dollars, not to mention the fragile sanity of reviewers, on the line with these openings. Do you think this will ever change?
ROTH: Nobody likes this, but it doesn’t happen because we want it to. Shows that open in the last few weeks of eligibility are for the most part musicals, nonprofits, late announcing or shows working around director/star schedules. First the musicals: The show that vacated the theater they’re opening in most likely wanted to play through the big Christmas/New Year’s weeks and get out before the challenging winter weeks. Count the weeks for that show to load out, for the new show to load in, tech and preview, and you’re at now. Next the nonprofits: The only way for them to get three shows into one house in a season is to open the last one as late as possible. The shows that announced late, presumably because they got their theater late, need every day they can get. And then there are the shows that are working around a director/writer/star’s schedule. Add all those shows up and you get a very busy April.
What would change all this is moving the eligibility deadline, but that too has a knock-on effect. Every day of the six weeks between nominations and the awards is used to create the telecast, so pushing the deadline would likely push the awards themselves. Moving the telecast any deeper into the summer risks losing significant viewership – not good for anyone. Which leaves us with moving the awards to September, a kick off to the new season by way of awarding the past season. Interesting. Not uncomplicated, but interesting.
But I want to go back to your point about second viewings. In addition to Amélie, you just wrote in your Oslo review last night that it was even better the second time around. It absolutely makes sense that to fully take in and evaluate a piece of work, one viewing just isn’t enough. And certainly having to spit out first reactions without time to marinate and allow the work to take root inside you isn’t great either. To those who argue that most audience members will only see it once, I say true, but most audience members aren’t passing public judgment on that show that will influence what hundreds of thousands of other potential audience members will believe. So if we can figure out not opening 20 shows in one month, will you and your colleagues figure out seeing shows more than once before reviewing?
GERARD: Well, in the case of most of the non-musicals and even some musicals opening on Broadway, we do in fact see them twice. This season, that was true for Dear Evan Hansen, Significant Other, Sweat, Indecent, Natasha, Pierre etc., Sunday In The Park With George and, as mentioned, Oslo – all of them imports from off-Broadway. Several colleagues also reported on the out-
of-town runs of War Paint, Anastasia, The Play That Goes Wrong, Groundhog Day, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (which has been revamped since London) and Come From Away. I do believe there’s a strong case to be made for seeing new musicals twice. But I think most of your colleagues would prefer giving my colleagues less time, not more, to post our notices – as in the bad old days when we were charging up the aisle to make deadline, not just to beat the paying customers to a cab. Nostalgia – however misplaced – for the adrenaline rush.
Next topic: Leaving the island nation of Manhattan for a moment, Sousatzka opened (and has now closed) in Toronto, following withering reviews and mediocre box office despite much pre-opening press about the post-incarceration return of producer Garth Drabinsky and the show’s planned move to Broadway. That seems to have been somewhat premature. You expressed interest in the show. What’s your report?
ROTH: Unfortunately, I couldn’t get up to Toronto to see it, so I can’t report on that one.
GERARD: The Pulitzer Prizes were announced this week, with two of the winners Broadway related: Playwright Lynn Nottage won her second Pulitzer for drama, for her timely play Sweat, which recently opened at Studio 54 (and which, as a side note, makes two commercial productions running in the three Broadway houses operated by the nonprofit Roundabout Theatre Company, joining Beautiful, at the Stephen Sondheim). And the prize in criticism went to Hilton Als, of The New Yorker. The last drama critic to win the Pulitzer was Walter Kerr, in 1978. Sweat was developed in the nonprofit world (New York audiences first got to see it at the Public). And Als writes for a magazine that only recently became eligible for Pulitzer consideration by a group that traditionally restricted nominations primarily to daily journalism.
That last point got me thinking: The Pulitzers got real, one journalist told me, by recognizing that if they really represent the best journalism, they needed to embrace all forms of the trade. I mention this because there seems to be a parallel for the Tonys to consider (or reconsider, since it’s a subject of perennial debate): Isn’t it time to include off-Broadway in the celebration of the best American theater?
ROTH: Funny, I was just thinking about this the other day. A hundred years ago when my mother produced Wit off-Broadway with MCC Theatre, we couldn’t understand why it couldn’t be eligible for the Tonys, especially when it had won all the awards for which it was eligible against Broadway competition. That was before either of us actually worked on Broadway, and now we know. It’s interesting that you’re suggesting including off-Broadway would complete a celebration of the best of American theater, when really it would just complete a celebration of New York theater. Actually not even that, it’d be a celebration of New York theater greater than 100 seats (otherwise known as the Drama Desk awards). The point is, every award has to define its pool, and the Tonys have defined theirs as Broadway. Not all theater, not the American theatre, just Broadway. An award for American theater seems all but impossible as it would require nominators and voters to see every major show in every city throughout the year. The closest we have to an award for all American theater is the Pulitzer that started this conversation, but even there, the committee evaluates by reading scripts not just seeing productions. We love the theater because it has to be experienced live, but that also makes it logistically tough to compare.
(And speaking of MCC Theatre, ’tis the season for nonprofits to announce their upcoming seasons, and MCC’s caught my eye. Of their five plays, four will be directed by women and one by a transgender male. Leigh Silverman, Liesl Tommy, Rebecca Taichman, Jackson Gay and Will Davis – accomplished, successful, compelling artists all. It turns out the way to close the gender gap is to just close it.)
GERARD: Well, at least the Tonys deign to give out a “regional theater” award. And don’t get me started on the number of Tony voters who don’t actually see all the nominated shows. The fact is, this and nearly all the problems we’ve discussed, would be remedied if the industry didn’t invest so much in the June awards telecast. With all due thanks and respect to CBS for its commitment to keeping the Tony program alive, the only reason there’s that traffic jam in April is because of a show that puts a costly burden on producers for a comparatively small audience in an age where the Internet has taken on the dominant role in promoting live theater at every level.
ROTH: No, the Tonys start on live TV but in the days and weeks that follow, millions of people watch and share speeches and performances from the show online. It is a fountain that feeds tons of social content that in turn feeds tons of audience engagement with new shows – for many people, their first introduction to these new shows. And while the live telecast’s 7 million audience may be small compared to, say, the Oscars, it is huge compared to the number of people we need in order to fill all Broadway houses every night.
Next topic: This week’s grosses included a shocking number: One. Three new plays all posted grosses in the $100,000s for 7 or 8 performances. While in past seasons, there may have been a certain struggling outlier play grossing that low, I can’t remember this many, and this many great plays. Yes, two of them just started previews (Indecent and A Doll’s House, Part 2) and one just posted a closing notice (Significant Other), but all are significant new works that deserve to be seen and we’d expect all to be doing better. These three account for half of the new plays currently running on Broadway, and while the others (Oslo, Sweat and The Play That Goes Wrong) are selling somewhat better, none is setting the box office aflame yet (Sweat‘s Pulitzer win this week and Oslo‘s raves today could change that).
People bemoan the low number of new plays on Broadway, and this is why. If audience’s aren’t consistently coming to see new plays, why wouldn’t we expect producers to present fewer and fewer of them? It’s actually surprising we have six this spring as it is. If we as a Broadway community want to ensure the long-term health of the new play on Broadway, we’re going to have to do something serious about it. A thought-starter: a special new play contract for everyone – theater owners, advertising media, vendors, unions. Everyone agrees to defer let’s say 25% of their usual fees and expenses from the capitalization budget and for each performance week under breakeven. If a new play that costs $4 million to mount and $400,000 to run every week (average these days) could now cost $3 million and $300,000, maybe more of them could be mounted and more of those survive. There are plenty of reasons why this particular idea couldn’t/wouldn’t happen, but if we believe that new plays deserve a significant place on Broadway, then we’re going to have to start talking big and systemic ideas for them.
GERARD: I’m all for an industry-wide plan to reduce costs that would mean lower ticket prices. Go any night to the Signature Theatre on 42nd Street or the Public Theater downtown and you’ll find theaters packed with patrons taking a chance on new plays because the cost of the wager is reasonable and the communal experience is more welcoming than Times Square. But that’s a topic for our next tit-for-tat.