The sometimes tricky relationship between press and PRs is a recurring theme of this blog, and I am sure that journalists, myself included, have sometimes made unreasonable requests of PRs. I’ll never forget the utter bafflement of a press agent at the Young Vic when she ushered Nicholas de Jongh, then theatre critic for the Evening Standard, into his seat immediately behind me one opening night there, and he violently objected: “I do not like this seat”
She had to swap the seat she’d allocated to him with the one for Benedict Nightingale’s on the other side of the auditorium. When she returned, she said to me how she absolutely couldn’t understand it — she’d specifically called him and personally discussed precisely which seat he wanted. But what she’d failed to factor in, I replied, is to tell him where I was sitting!
But last Friday I got a strange PR request myself: to remove tweets I sent about The Leisure Society that opened the night before, linking to some of its reviews. As is common practice, in mentioning the actors in it who included model-turned-debut actress Agyness Deyn, I had used her @Twitter account name — which meant, coincidentally, that the tweets would show up in her ‘mentions’ feed.
The PR wrote to me to complain, “Certainly Agyness did not want to read reviews at all. So she really isn’t being given that choice by dint of you tweeting it to her personally. Please can you take this down /delete it off their personal tweets as soon as possible. Not really cricket…..”
But as a public figure, Deyn puts her Twitter user name out there If she does not wish to see her reviews, that’s entirely up to her. She doesn’t have to click on the links (and I didn’t say whether they were favourable or not; I merely linked to them). She can’t maintain a public profile and also insist on being kept in the dark.
She was also on the front page of the Evening Standard last Friday. Was the PR and producer going to remove all copies of the paper from being distributed near the theatre in case she saw that, too?
To be accused of tweeting the reviews as “not being cricket” was, well, not really cricket, either….
Michael Billington’s ongoing A-Z of contemporary theatre in The Guardian has reached M this week, which inevitably meant an entry on M is for Musicals. He calls them “the dominant theatrical form of our generation”, citing the fact that “there are 21 of them running in London’s West End” and the fact that they “make big money: it’s estimated that Cats and Les Misérables between them have taken more than three-quarters of a billion pounds at the box office.”
Yet Billington goes on to assert that, despite its obvious commercial success, its “a form in crisis”, arguing that they’re mostly locked in the past: either from being around forever (witness Phantom, Les Mis and Blood Brothers), or recycled from existing film hits (Ghost, Shrek, The Lion King, Singin’ in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz, Billy Elliot) or pop repertoires (We Will Rock You, Rock of Ages, Thriller, Jersey Boys). The sole new hit he can find is Matilda, “which, although based on a Roald Dahl novel, does not derive either from a movie or a composer’s songbook.”
From this he survey he concludes, “There’s something unhealthy about a genre that persistently fails to generate exciting new work.” Yet he admits, too, “I haven’t been to New York in some time so I can’t pronounce on the merits of acclaimed show The Book of Mormon”, and he also notes that he managed to miss London Road (the Critics’ Circle winner for Best Musical this year, so he was one of the few critics who did miss it). He also presumably missed Next to Normal on Broadway, too. But he still suggests, “There seems little room any more for a musical that is not some form of cultural juggernaut or that trades on wit, lightness and charm.”
Musicals have become both bigger and safer. “Nowadays musicals have become so industrial in scale and expensive to produce that any form of risk has to be minimised fom the start. Like the banks, musicals have become too big to fail.”
But London Road and Next to Normal may be exceptions that prove the rule, but they’re precisely the sort of shows he’s looking for and not finding — or more importantly, seeing. And he’s also out of touch to suggest that a possible solution would be if “an enlightened producer such as Cameron Mackintosh might subsidise an annual public showcase for new musicals: something like the old Royal Court ‘productions without decor’, where the money went on the talent rather than on sets and costumes.”
Both Perfect Pitch and Mercury Musical Developments (the latter of which I am a board member of) have been offering just such public and private showcases for ages. Its true that we don’t have anything like the annual New York Musical Theatre Festival, where Next to Normal (and much else) got their first viewings. But MMD are working actively towards promoting just such an event.
Some quotes of the week:
Edward Albee, interviewed in the New York Times: ”If you write plays because you just want them to be liked, you have to lie too much. People like theater that is safe, generally speaking — things that are easy, that are not too deeply troubling. In other words, people want to go to the theater and waste their time.”
Michael Frayn interviewed in The Guardian on Wednesday on learning from bad reviews, and the pleasures of re-writing as opposed to writing, as a result: “It’s very painful reading bad reviews, but you can learn from them. You can see what’s put the reviewer’s back up - and with a play you’ve got a chance to do another version. I get more enjoyment out of rewriting, I think, than writing the original. The great difficulty is getting from nothing to something; going from something to something else is always easier.”
Michael Billington, talking over dinner in Sheffield about going to the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guilford to see a matinee of The King’s Speech: “I was the youngest person there!” (Michael is now 72). When I tweeted this, I got some interesting comments, including one from Mark Ravenhill who said, “An audience member in Stoke assumed I must be selling ice creams as I was the only person in the matinee under 75 years old.” (Mark is 45).