Are theatre critics redundant?

Musicals are breaking box-office records even as reviewers pour on the vitriol

Critics be damned on Broadway

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

This past Christmas could go down in history as the moment when theatre critics officially became redundant. That’s because Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark grossed almost $3 million in a week, an all-time Broadway record. Spider-Man is a musical that got two separate sets of witheringly bad reviews, first for the preview performances, then for the heavily revised version now playing. And none of it seemed to matter. Rick Miramontez, the Spider-Man spokesman who spent a year being upbeat about the show’s chances, has finally been proven right. “It occasionally happens,” he says, “that the theatre-going public takes a show to its heart that critics didn’t.”

Musicals have always found it easier to survive bad reviews than smaller plays. But they never used to be able to weather the kind of abuse that the New York Times’ Ben Brantley gave Spider-Man (he wrote that it went from “jaw-dropping badness” in tryouts to “a bore” in the final version) or the negative word of mouth that came from all the bad critical attention. “Previously, if the New York Times loved or hated a Broadway show, the life of the show could be affected dramatically,” says Aubrey Dan, a Toronto-based producer whose shows include the upcoming Broadway-bound Prince of Broadway. Today, the critics and the public are often so out of sync that when the New York Times’ Patrick Healy listed the top-grossing musicals, he went out of his way to mention The Book of Mormon was “critically acclaimed”; almost everything else on the list was not.

It may be that with a show like Spider-Man, the bad publicity—including the dismal reviews—actually made people want to see it. The production became legendary for its accidents, including a stuntman who fell 30 feet onto the stage, and the producers fired director/writer Julie Taymor after she kept the show in tryouts for months. The disasters brought the show coverage that dwarfed anything a theatre reviewer could give. “The sometimes dramatic headlines have certainly generated a huge, international interest in the show,” Miramontez says. Who needs Ben Brantley to attract people to a musical when Conan O’Brien spent weeks making fun of it for an international audience?

Spider-Man may also be helped by its connection to a popular brand name, which can make audiences happy to see it no matter what the critics say. The Addams Family, which recently closed its run with nearly full houses, also got bad reviews and overcame them through a combination of star power and familiar subject matter. So did Broadway’s second-highest grosser, Wicked, which may have started the decline of critics’ power by becoming a gigantic hit despite bad notices. Dan thinks this kind of brand appeal is even more important in road tryouts and tours: “Shows must have their own built-in audience beyond the regular musical theatre fan.” Since modern productions, like Shrek: The Musical, often depend heavily on touring shows to make money, the reactions in New York may not even matter that much.

Does this mean theatre reviews are completely irrelevant? Dan, for one, doesn’t think so: even when a show is highly publicized, people won’t spend their money to see it unless they get “some form of validation that they are seeing a good show and they are getting their money’s worth.” The difference is today the validation may not come from full-fledged reviews, either in print or online. Dan says that today’s potential theatregoers are as likely to listen to “bloggers, radio DJs and television personalities” as professional reviewers, and sometimes those alternative sources count for more than a newspaper review.

That means producers may still have to woo people who can give them favourable coverage—just maybe not full-time critics. Other shows have benefited, almost surreptitiously, from media that doesn’t usually deal with theatre. Last year, Glenn Beck spent time on his TV and radio show telling his audience that he loved Spider-Man, and his fans flocked to the show. In today’s fragmented media world, theatre critics are no match for a falling man or a crying pundit.

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