The public editor of the New York Times Arthur S Brisbane, who deals with public complaints to the paper, recently wrote about the responses he’s had to deal with to the paper’s many critics, and referred to the steady flow of correspondence he receives: “never in a crescendo, always diffused across various themes, this muted chorus of discomfort swells when opinion cuts too deep.”
He proceeded to comment, “A certain backwash of discomfort is perhaps inevitable, given the scale of The Times’s body of work, which is poured out every day in the Arts sections and weekly in the Book Review. Approximately 40 people, staff and freelance, produce reviews, and that does not count the Book Review, which taps outside reviewers and is operated separately. We are talking about thousands of reviews every year.”
So, just as it is often asked who polices the police, who polices those thousands of reviews? Nowadays, of course, the public have their own opportunity to answer back publicly, in the comments sections that every review comes with online; but unlike other forms of news journalism, the New York Times culture editor Jonathan Landman insists the objectivity isn’t the stated aim of his paper when it comes to reviews. His critics, he tells Brisbane, “are not supposed to be objective; they are free to champion certain kinds of work. They are free to like or dislike anyone or anything.”
But, he adds, there are limits to this principle. “You don’t want a TV critic who decides in advance that all reality TV is stupid, or a theater critic who hates musicals. What’s crucial is that whatever a critic’s philosophy or taste, whatever he might have written about an artist in the past, he approaches each work honestly, with an open mind.”
Perhaps inevitably, this column itself provoked readers’ responses. One enquired about the source of the critics’ expertise. Philip McGrath asked, “Did they extensively study art, or are they painters or sculptors themselves? Are they experienced architects or designers with portfolios of their own? Have they taken or taught writing courses, or written and published novels, biographies, short stories or poems? Have they produced, directed, acted or danced in movies or live performances?”
Culture editor Landman replies, “The credential that marks a great critic is great criticism. Think of some big names in criticism of the last century: Clement Greenberg and Kenneth Clark in art, Andrew Porter in music, Lewis Mumford and Ada Louise Huxtable in architecture, the list goes on and on — none were professional-level practitioners (Greenberg managed clothing stores and worked for the Customs Service)…. Among famous movie critics, Andrew Sarris and Vincent Canby had nothing fancier than bachelor’s degrees, and Pauline Kael dropped out of college, yet millions devoured their work with pleasure and respect. There are also journals full of articles by credentialed film scholars. Whose stuff would you rather read?”
Never mind the critics; as it is often said, everyone’s a critic now, thanks to Twitter, Facebook and the like, and social media can arguably have an even bigger reach. Particularly if you’re well known: Justin Bieber, for instance, has 25.5m followers — and his fans care about what he says.
Morgan James, whose own celebrity status can be indicated by the fact that she has less than 2,500 followers but recently had a featured role in the flop Broadway revival of Godspell, earlier this week set off a mini Twitter firestorm by attending the very first preview of Into the Woods at New York’s outdoor Delocorte Theatre in Central Park, and tweeting afterwards, “Question: HOW can you ** up Into the woods?? I fear musicianship is dead in musical theatre. And acting, for that matter. #horrified”
She has since deleted the comment, but it lives on in the commentary that has unfolded in its wake, as reported in a comment thread on Broadwayworld. Composer Scott Alan replied: “We should support one another in this industry. If you don’t want to be kind, get the fuck out! And, yes, that even goes for friends.” As he also said, “Theatre is already judged by so many. WE are the ones who need to SUPPORT.”
And there’s the nub of it: it’s a close-knit community, and there are already enough naysayers around (including people like me, who are paid to give our opinions!). If you’ve a performer, though, and you’ve not got anything nice to say, don’t say it at all. You may need to work with the people you’ve dissed in the future.
Or at least be sure of your facts if you do: in the semi-final round of his Superstar! star search earlier this week, Andrew Lloyd Webber commented on the lack of leading men in the West End right now. As The Stage’s Scott Matthewman has said in his blog surveying this series’s multiple failures, “Are we looking for a rock singer who doesn’t have to act too much — or a new West End-calibre leading man? The panel seem to change their minds from sentence to sentence. Either way, Lloyd Webber’s comments last night about the paucity of leading men unfairly denigrated those who are currently working, I feel — although I’m sure that wasn’t his intent.”
I could think of a few myself, not least Michael Ball whose own star status was confirmed when he originated one of the leading roles in Lloyd Webber’s own Aspects of Love. Ramin Karimloo and Hadley Fraser are, its true, not in the West End right now, but they both recently graced Les Miserables and before that might have been spotted by Lloyd Webber in the 25th anniversary production of The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall; Karimloo, too, played the entire run of Love Never Dies for Lloyd Webber.
The list of West End leading men is, its true, somewhat smaller than that of leading ladies, but I still managed to come up with a sizable list when I blogged my own list a few months ago. Perhaps Lloyd Webber needs to go to the theatre a bit more.
The West End is in the midst of one of its perennial culls, with Dreamboats and Petticoats and Chicago both closing August 4 and September 1 respectively. But things are looking even more brutal on Broadway, where the next few weeks see the departures of Memphis (closing Aug. 5), Sister Act (Aug. 26) and now this week Ghost posting a closing notice for Aug. 18 inbetween them. As Michael Riedel noted in The New York Post yesterday, “The show took in just $600,000 last week, and yesterday the producers announced it will close Aug. 18.The total loss is thought to be a scary $15 million. A lot of big theaters are going to be empty in the coming months — the Lunt, the Broadway, the Richard Rodgers, the St. James (Bring It On is a limited run). Are Broadway’s salad days coming to an end?”
Regular readers of this blog will know how exercised I am by bad behaviour in the theatre. And this week, a follower on Twitter reported what’s a first even for me:@IssyVB attended a performance of the National’s new production of Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma, and tweeted, “couple next to me were playing MUSIC! #newpethateididntexpectanyonewoulddo”.
They had apparently also arrived 40 minutes late, and “were chatting too, but the music topped it!” What’s amazing is that no one from the National intervened. Or that no one from the audience protested loud enough to stop it.
Quote of the week: from Complicite’s Simon McBurney, quoted in The Guardian’s Portrait of the Artist - “In the theatre, we’re all charlatans and liars and scavengers and fly-by-nights. Those are honourable traditions, but the fact that you’re constantly moving can make you wonder where your home is. Like a nomad, you have to put up a tent-pole every place you go.”