Broadway Follies: Gerard & Roth On Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Burton, Mean Critics, Long Previews

Jeremy Gerard has covered the shifting fortunes of Jujamcyn Theatres since it became a formidable competitor to the larger Shubert and Nederlander organizations in the late 1980s. In 2013 producer Jordan Roth became Jujamcyn’s majority owner and the Street’s youngest power broker. In this weekly email conversation they talk about the state of the industry, the only stipulation being no holds barred.

UPDATE, Noon: Adds new information about Hamlet and previews, in last paragraph.

ROTH: This week, several London critics didn’t just write the headlines, they were the headlines. Breaking with the long-standing tradition of waiting for a show to play several weeks of previews before attending a designated press performance, writers from The Times, The Telegraph and the Daily Mail caused an uproar in theatrical circles by filing reviews of the very first performance of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican. A 2-star pan, a 3-star, and a 5-star rave complete with iPhone photos of the production. If a show is a major hotly-anticipated event as this is, I understand covering the first performance as news with those great stories of people traveling from the other side of the world to be there, but I don’t understand reviewing it. Given that the artists are continuing to rework and refine, what’s the point of a review that’s out of date as soon as it runs? Would a restaurant critic sneak into the kitchen, take a spoonful of soup off the stove and print that it needs more seasoning? And if she did, how would that be indicative of what that chef is capable of and how would that help readers decide if they wanted to eat there?

Benedict Cumberbatch as HamletGERARD: Ah, a subject dear to my heart for more decades than I care to reveal. First, let me concur with our mutual friend Mark Shenton, chief critic of The Stage, who told the Daily Mail that theater critics ought not to review a first preview: “It is our job to respect the artistic process; and part of the process is an acknowledgement that they need previews to work on their show before we pass judgment.”

But until quite recently, West End shows were reviewed after just two or three previews. London has regrettably begun to emulate Broadway’s habit of extending previews; Hamlet wanted critics to wait three weeks before weighing in, which has become the minimum for major New York shows, which often run a month or more at full price before “inviting” critics. Moreover, previews used to be defined by discounted tickets, which alerted theatergoers that they were participating in a work-in-progress. These days, as Linda Winer, Newsday’s chief critic, has frequently pointed out, not only are discounted previews a thing of the past, one has to work really hard to determine whether a show has opened. Cumberbatch’s run was sold-out a year ago and tickets to Hamlet are selling for 1,500 pounds – that’s $2,336 – on the secondary market. So I’m not surprised that there was heightened interest in this show.

Sian Brook as Ophelia in 'Hamlet'I’m a journalist, and I’m not comfortable with anyone telling me when I may or may not review a show. That’s why I ignored the producers’ wishes and reviewed Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark when the opening was postponed for the third or fourth time. Some of my colleagues took me to task (even though they soon followed suit). We weren’t sneaking into the kitchen; we just did what the paying customers do. By the way, I’m amused to read that Benedict has gone all Patti LuPone on audience members who text and photograph his performances. Do you still think Broadway needs to be more welcoming of these ninnies?

One more thing: This production of Hamlet will be shown in movie theaters on October 15 via the invaluable NTLive program. Now there’s something British that I wish Broadway would emulate.

ROTH: Well yes, I do still think we need to be welcoming, and I think we can be a bit more welcoming than calling audiences ninnies, no?

I’m having trouble squaring your and Mark’s respect for the artistic process and for the need for previews before you pass judgment with your discomfort at being told when to pass that judgment. Isn’t the invitation to review just a way of saying the artistic process is done? If you want the artists to have that process, are you in a better position than they are to decide when it should be done?  Isn’t 3 performances or 3 weeks just arbitrary?

That discount argument never fully computed for me. Audiences decide what they’re willing to pay for a show and when, and for most preview audiences, that does involve a discount. Separate from what they pay, many audiences who come to previews do so because they value being among the first to see it. They are the early adopters, the experts in their circles. I imagine that first Hamlet audience felt they got more than their money’s worth by being the only ones who’ve seen the show everyone’s talking about.

And isn’t that really why the first performance was reviewed? Nothing to do with theater or process or judgment, and everything to do with traffic. When all press outlets respect the review embargo and all reviews run at the same time after opening night, readers can see a review in whatever paper or website they want to read. But when only one paper has a review, every reader interested in that show has to go there to read it. Good for the paper, bad for the reader, the artists, the theater and ultimately for professional criticism.

Benedict CumberbatchGERARD: We’re not children; we’re capable of telling our readers when a show is still in the process of coming together. That makes us part of the conversation, and I’m always willing to return, just as my colleagues and I did with Hamilton, knowing it would go through changes between its Public Theater run and the Broadway opening.

I forgive producers for doing whatever they can to protect their investments, but as a journalist, I don’t have to go along with their plans. To return to your restaurant analogy, legitimate food critics don’t sneak into kitchens, they go as paying  customers, preferably incognito, and they don’t co-ordinate their reviews with the competition. By contrast, we New York performing arts critics live with a devil’s agreement: We accept free tickets in exchange for allowing the producer to tell us when we may publish our reviews. Sadly, if that were not the case, there would be even fewer professional reviews than there are today, because only a handful of publications care enough about the arts to be willing to pay (even as they budget tens of thousands of dollars for their restaurant critics).

The system works fairly well until you have a situation like Spider-Man, or last season’s Honeymoon In Vegas, when the producers held up the opening for three months not because the show wasn’t ready but because they didn’t want to open during a holiday window, when tourists are less likely to care about reviews. And we let it happen.

I do applaud your restraint regarding audiences, however. If I’m lucky enough to see Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet and my seat-mate whips out a mobile phone, “ninny” will be the mildest epithet of which I will avail myself.

One last thought: Among 20th century major New York productions of Hamlet, the first one I can find that had previews was Michel Rudman’s, starring Sam Waterston, at the Beaumont, in 1975 (14 previews). Raymond Massey, Leslie Howard, Maurice Evans and Ellis Raab opened cold.

Richard Burton opened in John Gielgud’s history-making modern-dress production on April 9, 1964 at the Lunt-Fontanne. The Times review appeared on April 10 — a very long night indeed for critic Howard Taubman, who wrote, “The first and most impor­tant thing to be said about the Hamlet that opened last night at the Lunt-­Fontanne Theater is that it is Shakespeare, not a self­indulgent holiday for a star. Richard Burton dominates the drama, as Hamlet should. For his is a performance of electrical power and sweeping virility.”

And not a single preview!


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