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by Michael Portantiere

The Critics Be Damned?

  • Addams.jpg

    "I have to say, I'm happy The Addams Family and a few other shows that got bad reviews are selling out week after week. I love it when people ignore the critics and just go see what they want to see."

    As you might imagine, I was taken aback when a friend of mine expressed this sentiment, especially because he works in the theater industry. It's not unusual to hear regular theatergoers badmouth the critics, but when people in the business do so, it gives me pause.

    I think it's accurate to say that all of us have an egalitarian bent to our belief systems, as when a show we love is generally dismissed by the critics but becomes a hit anyway. But here's something that's vital to remember: There has always been and always will be great value in the opinions of people who have education, training, and/or experience in a certain field, whether the performing arts or food preparation or auto mechanics. This doesn't mean that an individual who has a degree in theater and a solid resume is necessarily a good critic; nor does it mean that some unknown blogger with comparatively limited knowledge of theater might not be an excellent critic on the basis of his or her good taste (whatever that means!) and native intelligence. Still, it would be foolish to deny that credentials are worth a great deal in this area, as in all others.

    Folks who know nothing of art, for instance, may have trouble making a qualitative distinction between a painting by Picasso and the work of some hack, whereas those who study art have a solid basis and a context for their reactions. Even if you believe that the ultimate value of an artwork is in the eye of the individual beholder rather than in the consensus, the fact remains that there's a big difference between an informed and an uninformed opinion. So if you're unimpressed by a painting that's generally considered a masterpiece or, conversely, if you love a work that many critics view as negligible, I think it behooves you to at least try to understand why others strongly disagree with you.

    Analogies to the sports world are difficult to make because, in most cases, achievement in that arena is easily quantifiable. In baseball, a batter with a .300 average is much better than one whose average is .230 -- case closed. But consider: If I attend a gymnastics competition with no prior knowledge of the sport, I might not see any difference between the various athletes' performances, barring a major stumble. But a commentator who is or has been a gymnast himself/herself or has followed the sport avidly for a decade would be able to render a critique of form, balance, flexibility, etc. that I'm unable to make because I simply don't know what to look for. Please remember this the next time you ask a theater critic about a popular show, you receive a negative response, and you think: "What a picky, snobbish twit!"

    If the public is indeed paying less and less attention to reviewers, it's particularly unfortunate that this is happening at a time when critical voices are of greater value than ever before, especially in the Broadway sphere. As a perceptive person recently remarked on the DataLounge message board, "Why do you think there are NO STRAIGHT PLAYS running on Broadway right now? Flash over substance [is the norm]. Producers think audiences don't need to be moved or touched or told a compelling story, as long as they laugh and walk away saying they enjoyed the show. That's what sells tickets, and that's what they care about."

    I shudder to imagine what the Broadway landscape might have looked like over the decades if there had been no discerning critics around to help push people towards the good stuff and away from the schlock. It's probable that Stephen Sondheim's career would have been far less brilliant without so many critics in his corner. I'm not by any means suggesting that Sondheim's shows received universal raves; but the notices were generally positive enough to prompt many theatergoers to attend his complex, intellectually stimulating, often dark-hued musicals rather than limit their ticket purchases to frothier fare or those frequently awful imports from across the pond.

    And what about today? Given the current state of affairs, any Broadway show that's not based on a hit film or television series, doesn't have a "score" consisting of established hit songs, or lacks at least one major movie or TV star in the cast is going to have a rough time at the box office. Do you think such musicals as Spring Awakening, In the Heights, and Next to Normal would have run more than a couple of months on Broadway had so many critics not gone to bat for them? If the influence of the critics continues to wane, I fear we can expect to see a lot more in the way of The Addams Family and Million Dollar Quartet and a lot less in the way of shows with new scores by Duncan Sheik, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tom Kitt, and other real talents.

    So please, everybody, let's not overreact. If you find a particular theater journalist to be pretentious, elitist, and prone to set forth opinions that are vastly different from your own, you can avoid that person's writings and seek guidance elsewhere -- though it should be kept in mind that we often learn the most from people with whom we disagree. Whatever you do, please don't accept the anti-intellectual argument that critics are superfluous because "the public knows best." As has been proven time and time again, this is not always true.

    Published on Monday, September 6, 2010

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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