There was a time when the New York Times review meant more than anything to the financial health of a Broadway show. Their last chief drama critic was called The Butcher of Broadway because if Frank Rich didn't like it, the show would surely close. But if the Times raved, well, pop the champagne. This is the reason opening night parties were held at Sardi's. Everyone involved with shows wanted to gather as close as possible to the New York Times on 44th Street, so that they could be the first to get the review, literally hot off the press.
Why did the Times have such power, and not, say, the Daily News? Superior journalism on most of its other pages meant that more people read the Times every day, and trusted it. For most of the 20th Century, Broadway-goers had great faith in the Times, and purchased tickets to whatever they said was good.
Did you notice that, this past season, there were a couple of musicals that Ben Brantley really enjoyed? I’m thinking of the new musical comedy Honeymoon In Vegas (“deeply satisfying”) and the revival of On the Town (“takes your breath away”), which got the sort of notice that, in days of yore, would have meant a line around the block next morning as the box office opened. And yet, both shows sold so few seats, they’ve never covered their weekly nut. That is, their budget exceeded their monetary intake. Honeymoon In Vegas ended its brief run a while ago, and On the Town hobbles along, selling less than half its seats.
The reverse happens as well. I can remember the days with a Times pan meant a certain quick closing – people edged their way to the Sardi’s exit and slipped away. And yes, plenty of shows today meet with Brantley’s disapproval, such as Finding Neverland (“fatally ersatz”) and Something Rotten (“flails like a parachutist in a windstorm”). Used to be a response like that was a death warrant, but those shows, this month, have been earning over a million dollars. Good news, right? Ding-Dong, the Times is dead!
Well, I’m reminded of a trip I took, many years ago, to London. I’d a night free, so I wandered over to Leicester Square to see what I could see in the West End. The titles were unfamiliar to me – I hadn’t educated myself about what was playing. So, when I found out that two famous British actors were in a play about Churchill, I nabbed a seat. And there I sat, with a few other American tourists, in a nearly empty theatre, watching a terrible play the two stars sleepwalked through. I blamed myself for not being an informed theatre-goer.
And in New York, an informed theatre-goer reads the New York Times, and, to some extent, cares what its critics think. Remember that reviewers all feel they’re doing a service to their readership, steering them away from certain plays, and towards worthy entertainments. So now, it seems, we’ve come to the point where most Broadway ticket-buyers don’t read the Arts & Leisure section of The Paper of Record. And so they make the sort of myopic decision I did that night in England, and opt to see familiar faces like Matthew Morrison and Kelsey Grammer rather than, say, On the Town.
If the audience is uninformed about theatre, one wonders what else they might not know about. That post-war era of Broadway masterworks happened, in part, because writers could count on an audience smart enough to know certain things, get certain jokes. A line in The Music Man knocks me out every time: “I pray for Hester to win just one more A.” The author could assume his audience had read The Scarlet Letter, because back when the show was written, everybody had.
Now, I’m not maintaining that the Times is the only true barometer of quality. The critic’s not always right – for sure. But what gets me worried is the idea that the quality of a show doesn’t matter to its box office. Producers can mount poorly-written tripe, cast Hollywood stars, and seats will sell. The toothless clawless Times will say Fish In the Dark is horrible and Larry David will laugh all the way to the bank, selling out night after night. We all strive to be the best theatre artists we can be, and yet quality too frequently loses to celebrity in the battle of the box office. It’s enough to make one give up the theatre for a job selling subscriptions…to something or other.