EXCLUSIVE: Deadline’s Jeremy Gerard and Jujamcyn Theatres president Jordan Roth talk about the state of the industry, the only stipulation being no holds barred.
ROTH: I just saw the most astonishing piece of performance art. After viewing Sweet Charity, a musical in which the entitled male gaze constantly aims to eviscerate the indomitable female spirit, The New Yorker’s critic Hilton Als expertly continued that theme in his review. By hurling every sexist cliché in the book at “woman’s director” Leigh Silverman (yup, he even got that one in), he takes her to task for daring to put herself and other “woman artists” on a dance hall stage for anything other than his (or rather all men’s) mindless enjoyment. Now that the greatest collective character assassination in all the land has been mission accomplished against Hillary Clinton, we’re all free to take down women of purpose everywhere. It’s open season, guys… Ready, aim, fire!
There are so many highlights it’s hard to pick a favorite. Als describes Sweet Charity star Sutton Foster’s charm as “clear and unaffected as her complexion.” There’s comparing Foster with her “only rival, Kelli O’Hara” because, of course the only thing two talented women of similar age in the same field could be are cat-bitching enemies. But the best is so extraordinary it deserves to be quoted in full: “The director, Leigh Silverman, is adept at throwing ash on soap bubbles. The problem is that she’s too serious about theatre; she wants her shows to count — to have a moral purpose. Sometimes a play is just a play, and not all of her productions can bear the weight of her imperative.” So basically: Leigh, sweetie, you should really smile more and stop furrowing your pretty brow with all that serious stuff. Don’t try to say something that matters. No man likes a girl who thinks too much.
GERARD: Some time ago, I wrote a dissenting review of Terrence McNally’s acclaimed play Love! Valour! Compassion!, prompting threats against me and accusations of homophobia from outraged readers. I think that you and your colleagues reading our reviews sometimes forget that we, too, stick our necks (or at least our bylines, with our real names) out every day. Frankly, it goes with the territory, and I don’t need or intend to speak for Hilton Als (who politely declined my invitation to comment). Recalling the pinch of those responses to my L!V!C! review, however, I will say that a sweeping judgment of anyone, critic or artist, based on one example taken out of context, is misguided. The week before, the same critic you charge with sexism lavished praise on two serious plays (including one, Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, that just announced its move to Broadway in the spring) written and directed by women. That’s not inconsistency, it’s context. Sometimes, a review is just a review, and not a position paper. One upside of hopping-mad responses to reviews (especially from those who’ve read for more than one): It tells us someone’s paying attention.
Next: Now we read that the seriously underperforming Paramour will be dispatched from the Lyric Theater (complete with a reputed $20 million payoff) to make way for Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, after renovations that will slim down and reconfigure Broadway’s ungainliest barn. You’re also setting out on a renovation, of the St. James, to accommodate another likely blockbuster, Disney’s Frozen. Is this a trend? And if it is, is that a good thing for Broadway, or just for producers and landlords? The more theaters get locked in with “now and forever” shows (to quote the Cats slogan), the less movement there will be, the fewer new shows will get the chance to play in the Broadway marketplace.
And along the same lines, with all due respect to Frozen and Harry Potter, I see Broadway on track to become vertically integrated with the Hollywood Global Entertainment Complex that began, in its modern iteration, with Disney’s takeover of the New Amsterdam and the subsequent return of the Hollywood studios to Times Square. In the old days, the studios backed new work like My Fair Lady, that provided material for films. But now the studios seem more intent on excavating their libraries in the hope of finding the next Lion King, or School Of Rock … or Frozen.
ROTH: I always wonder about this argument. it’s so hard and rare to make a successful show that can run a long time, and the odds are so stacked against it happening — yet when it finally does, we should want it to close so we can try again to do that same thing we just finally accomplished? How about being happy it happened and welcoming all the many people who are excited to come to the theater? Those are the people you left out of your question.
You asked if it’s only good for producers and landlords, implying not good for audiences. But you mean local avid audiences who, thankfully, want more and more new shows to see. But you’re leaving out all the more infrequent theater goers, both local and tourists, who are fueling a show into that long run. Getting those people into a theater expands the audience for all of us, because once they’re there, they’re likely to return to the next show. Ultimately, the answer industry-wide is both: We want both long running hits and we want turnover. And on the whole, we have it. This season, a high mark of 13 new musicals will open, all while Phantom and Lion King and Book Of Mormon and Wicked — all of which were once new musicals hoping to become long-distance runners — hold their theaters now and forever.
As for what Disney brought to Broadway, an answer you’re ignoring is that thing we all say we want: new audiences. Disney shows have brought more first time theater-goers to Broadway than any company in history. And those people have gone on to see many more shows, both short and long runs. This season, that will include new shows like Great Comet, Dear Evan Hansen, Groundhog Day, Come From Away, Amelie and more. How can you look at a season like that and see Global Entertainment Complex doom?
GERARD: Most of the shows you name here have come to Broadway through a side door. But I’ll grant that Disney’s taken the lead in investing not only in its own back catalogue but signing up writers, composers, lyricists and other theater artists to create new work. Others have followed, and no complaints there. Nor am I arguing against long runs, in theory. Yet we all know that for creative artists — not to mention producers — there’s a crisis in theater availability on Broadway. The result has been a greater emphasis on the booking of stars and branded material, whether that means limited-run revivals that will only be seen by the wealthiest patrons, or cookie-cutter adaptations that replicate, usually poorly, what can be found on Crackle or Netflix.
ROTH: That’s not because of the challenge of finding a theater. That’s because of the challenge of finding an audience.