or: The Famous Thesis
Over the past few years I've gotten numerous requests for a copy of my "infamous" thesis I did at NYU. A little backstory:
Musical theater has had a huge impact on me. Obviously. I am a professional musical theater artist. But I've always been aware of a bit of a stigma about musical theater not being a "high" art form. This was exemplified most obviously in the horrified responses I would get from fellow Tisch students when I shared that I had been greatly affected by the musical Wicked. In fact, all of Stephen Schwartz's work in general.
While I was at NYU I worked as the editorial assistant on the first biography of Stephen Schwartz Defying Gravity by Carol de Giere (http://www.amazon.com/Defying-Gravity-Creative-Schwartz-Godspell/dp/1557837457/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1346347978&sr=8-1&keywords=defying+gravity%2C+the+career+of+Stephen+Schwartz). Through working on that wonderful book I got to read dozens of fan letters to Stephen - letters in which people's lives were literally changed by his work, and also every review he had ever received - which seemed to go out of their way to be as cruel as possible. Why was no one even mentioning this dichotomy in a school where we were being trained to be the next generation of musical theater artists and creators?
Long story short I ended up doing a voluntary undergrad senior thesis at NYU under the mentorship of the fantastic Steve Nelson (take his class!) I wanted to explore the dichotomy between critical and audience reception in contemporary musical theater, as well as the validity of being deeply moved and affected by musical theater as an art form. In addition to my written thesis, I created an original musical (for those of you who regularly read my blog - this is the one with a structure that paid homage to Regard Of Flight) then called Changed For Good (http://changedforgoodmusical.com/)) that used an experimental structure (see above) and music by Schwartz that had rarely, if ever been heard, including new arrangements of well known songs. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3JPBXKPA6PM) (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mEiMH8xbiiY) The show received interest from The York Theater Company, and was the beginning of my collaboration, and artistic relationship with the incomparable Gabriel Barre (http://gabrielbarre.com/), who most recently directed Twilight: The Unauthorized Musical Parody.
A disclaimer: this is an actual thesis, meaning that it is much longer than a usual blog entry. Because of all the requests I wanted to post it in its entirety for those interested. So if you'd like to read the whole thing, go grab yourself some hot chocolate, and curl up with your favorite blanket, cause it'll take more than a couple minutes. :)
Changed For Good
The spiritual power of art as seen through musical theater, and the dichotomy between critical and audience response exemplified in the work of Stephen Schwartz.
By Ashley Griffin
Stephen Schwartz presents one of the greatest dichotomies in musical theater history. Audiences love his work, a love that goes far beyond mere enjoyment to life changing experiences. Critics hate it. A hate that goes beyond criticizing his music and lyrics to reviews that sound as if they were especially thought up to be as mean and cruel as possible. There must be a factor at play that is extremely rare, for this dichotomy has almost never happened with any other show, with any other writer in musical theater history.
It is typical to hear an audience member say, “I really liked that show”, or “the music was so catchy!” Less so to hear the kind of responses Schwartz’s work garners. For example one man wrote the following to Mr. Schwartz: “My wife and I were about to get a divorce, when we went to see Pippin. We were so deeply moved by the show, especially the bittersweet love story between Catherine and Pippin that we decided to give our marriage another try – we’ve now been married for fifty years.” Talk about a life change.
Just open the Grimmerie (the behind the scenes book on the making of Wicked) and you will find dozens of stories of people who claim their life was changed by seeing Schwartz’s work. Now, say you were entertained by a show – such a reaction is welcome and expected (even a terrible show can be entertaining. Look at the now cult hit Carrie: The Musical!) Say you were intellectually stimulated, all right too. Even say a show resonated with current issues in society, all still well and good. But say you were deeply moved, and that your life has been changed by seeing a show, and suddenly your very sanity is called into question.
If one of the purposes of art is to change people – why is it so unacceptable if it does? Is it that we don’t trust the strength of a personal change brought about by exposure to art, especially when it occurs in someone over the age of 15? Is it an experience so rare that it only exists as a mythic idea in the back of our collective unconscious? Or is it just that it’s incomprehensible that a show that is far from perfect, indeed is quite flawed when analyzed could still carry huge impact?
Is it true that the idea of being moved in the theater is all just smoke and mirrors in the end? The result of careful manipulation by the creators? It is a running legend on Broadway that amongst “saccharine” hit musicals the Stage Manager has written in their script the exact time the audience will begin to cry – and it happens every night at exactly that time, down to the minute on cue. Like clockwork. If you say your life has been changed in the theater – are you merely a naive, emotional victim - a state mainly attributed to fanatic tween girls? Or are the intellectuals missing something – something that makes them very, very uncomfortable when they find it demonstrated in other people? Are all Critics judgmental, unfeeling intellectuals? Or are all audience members lemmings?
How do critics, artists, and audience members differ in how they experience art? Why?
In order to understand how and why art is experienced differently by different groups of people, we must first discern some basic facts about art itself.
The question “what is art” has plagued students through out time. Theater intellectuals have debated it probably since the first caveman drew on the first wall. If I throw a crumpled piece of paper onto the sidewalk – is it art? What if I had a very clear statement I intended to make with it? Such a question will probably never be satisfactorily answered, and so it is perhaps best to instead ask the question: What is the purpose of art?
In reality there are many: to entertain, to accuse, to show a slice of life, to comment, to shock, to make money, to change the lives of those watching. In order for the latter to be successful, it most likely needs to have the majority of elements listed above, though not necessarily. There is one element, however that is not commonly addressed in contemporary discussions of theater, but which, never the less is an intrical part of the theatrical experience; that of spirituality.
Theater began, (at least, based on what we know of ancient history, how we believe the basis for contemporary theater began,) as a religious activity in Ancient Greece. Theater was only performed as a religious ceremony, and was done to relate the stories of the Gods, but more importantly, to put the people in touch with the divine, to make the invisible, visible. This was especially true when the first actor Thespis (from which we derive the word Thespian) stepped out and spoke as the god directly, not about the god. The invisible was made visible – the god stood before the people, speaking directly too them, helping them to get in touch with the spiritual nature of being human. Indeed today one of the highest honors we can give to a theatrical piece is that it showed our humanity – the greatest characteristic of Shakespeare, O’Neill, Shaw, etc. Theater continued to only be performed at religious ceremonies –the greatest play competition in the ancient world was part of the Dionysian festival. Humanity itself was not the only issue – it was humanity’s tie to the spiritual world. Even their rowdiest comedies had a strong religious element.
For some reason it seems easier to make the jump with this idea from ancient Greek theater to the classic plays of contemporary theater. What about musical theater? Isn’t that in an entirely different category? After all, breaking out into song isn’t exactly going to reveal the spiritual nature of humanity? Is it?
It’s easy to forget, partially because we do not have detailed records, or instructions of how such elements were performed, that ancient Greek plays, weren’t plays at all – they were musicals. All had musicians onstage, much of the text was sung, and there was dancing. Dancing and singing as revealers of the divine? Today they are much more closely linked with pure entertainment. But it was not always so. The second most commanded Christian practice in the Bible (there are approximately 100 places in Psalms alone) is to sing, to sing God’s truth, to sing God’s praises. Why would music be that important? Martin Luther says: “If you want to comfort the sad, if you want to terrify the happy, if you want to encourage the despairing, if you want to humble the proud, if you want to pacify the aggressive, there’s no more effective means than music.” That idea is generally accepted – but it still plays into the idea that music is merely a great stirrer of emotions.
Ashley Kahn, music critic, and author of A Love Supreme: The Story Of John Coltrane says in her book “As I listened to the album again, and again, I felt impelled to address Coltrane’s spirituality. Though I consider myself a dedicated agnostic, and a diehard rationalist, I am ready to admit that there is much that can be seen as the handy work of some eternal force under spiritual direction.” The great composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein said about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony “Beethoven turns out pieces of breathtaking rightness, rightness, that’s the word. Our boy Beethoven has the real goods, the stuff from Heaven. Beethoven has the power to make us feel at the finish of his symphony that there’s something right in the world. Something that checks through out. Something that follows it’s own law consistently. Something we can trust. Something that will never let us down.” Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, regardless of the intellectual analysis of art, it can not be denied that there is something inherent in music and singing that links us with something divine outside of ourselves. And it also can’t be denied that it seems to be something we all need, and desire. The ancient Greeks knew this, and so placed music, and singing in all of their plays. The same is true with dance, though because of the focus on Schwartz I place the emphasis on music.
In both the examples above, the art that inspired such an experience – the album A Love Supreme by Coltrane, and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are both considered masterpieces. The question, however, remains: does flawed art, that is, art that may be technically lacking, still retain that same power of the divine? If so, if every attempt at music contains the ability to show humanity it’s true nature, to change their lives, why bother with technique? Should we tell all students of composition “just write what you feel? Don’t worry about craft and technique! For you will move the people anyway!” The thought is laughable. Both of the examples above were also serious works of art meant to achieve the pinnacle of what music can achieve. Does popular entertainment hold the same power? Can something be both entertaining for the masses, and high art? How do we know if a work of art successful in whatever its aim may be – including linking us to the divine, and reconciling us with our humanity? It is up to the three major players in this debate to decide.
The Theatrical Trinity: Who decides if art is successful?
Namely, the artists involved in any theatrical piece, specifically those who contributed to the show’s creation: the composer, lyricist, librettist (also referred to as the book writer), the director, choreographer, designers, and performers. For the purposes of this essay I will use the term “Creator” to specifically refer to the author of the show – mainly the composer/lyricist. I do this for three reasons: 1.) The idea for a show often starts with the writer, and they are the carriers of the theme, and inspiration of the show through the entire creative process. 2.) Stephen Schwartz – exemplar of the dichotomy between critical and audience reception, in that all of his shows have been central examples of this debate, is himself a composer/lyricist. 3.) Because of the unspoken “chain of responsibility” inherent in theater, the composer/lyricist seems often to get the short end of the stick when it comes to assigning responsibility (or blame) for a show’s success or failure. It works something like this:
If the show is a success, the credit tends to ultimately fall on the director. He/She is the one who marshaled the troops, who made the final decisions, and who brought out the best performance from each member of their team. The writers of the show are often completely overlooked, which to some extent, is as is should be. In a good show, no one should notice the writing – it should be so seamless that it seems to have sprung fully formed from the actor’s mind.
If a show is a flop, however, the situation is reversed. The actors can’t be held responsible since they were just “following orders” from their director, the same goes for the designers, and the director of course can’t be held responsible, since he/she did the best they could with poor material. Since there’s no one left to blame, the composer/lyricist/book writer usually ends up having to take the credit.
This is of course not always true. For example, the Broadway production of “The Little Mermaid” was heralded for many of its songs (by Howard Ashman and Alan Meinken) but received strong criticism for it’s direction as well as set and costume design. But it is still more likely that the writers will end up being criticized than, say, the set designer, and so we must take it into account.
Ironically, the Creator of a theatrical work actually has little bearing on the critical vs. audience debate. They are the silent element. The Creator is in an interesting position. Everything they have to say is (or should be) in their work on stage. Their work will be commented on, but they have no opportunity to respond to those comments, whether positive, or negative. They are the only member of our trio (creator, critic, public) who can never be a part of the audience. They can watch the show, but they will never be able to experience it in the theater for the first time in the way that someone not involved with the production can. The only factor from the Creator is: what did they put onstage? Even their intentions in what they put on stage are irrelevant. The work is the only say they have in the matter.
The Oxford American Dictionary defines a Critic as “a person who judges the merits of literary, artistic, or musical works, esp. one who does so professionally.” But it goes on to another definition: “a person who expresses an unfavorable opinion of something.” Now this latter definition is meant more in the sense of a common adjective. “Don’t be such a critic!” We might exclaim if someone is pestering us about our negative qualities. The job of a true, theatrical critic is not to criticize (though it is an association that tends to ring true – something we shall come back to.) What is the job of a theater critic? There are three possible answers:
1.) To act as theater historians. This is both true, and not. Many reviews put shows into a larger context, and comment on their merits alongside other shows in the musical theater archives. There have been books published containing archived theatrical reviews, and indeed critical judgment of a show tends to go down in history along with the work itself. However it is impossible to truly record the historical merit of something when you are writing your review in the present, not the future, and don’t have the benefit of hindsight. Therefore a Critic’s review will inevitably be seen just as much as a product of the time it was written in as the show it is reviewing, and will not necessarily herald the future interpretation of the show.
2.) To sell papers. To be honest, I don’t know how much this truly comes into play, but the truth is that a scathing review (or at least a very creative review whether good or bad) will sell more papers. (“Did you SEE what they said about the new Disney musical in the Times?”)
3.) To tell potential audience members what they will most likely think about the play, the experience they will most likely have, if they decide to see it. This is based on a.) The fact that the critic should be a reliable source who has a greater theatrical education and understanding than the average theater goer, and b.) The fact that theater, especially Broadway Theater nowadays is very expensive, and audiences cannot afford to go and see every show. They must be selective, and so they need someone who HAS seen every show to help guide them in their decision.
I believe #3 to be the most crucial, and the trickiest. The Critic’s review will of course be based on what THEY thought of the performance, and that is not always the best indication of what an audience will think of the performance. Sometimes, perhaps it is simply a matter of two peoples opinions differing. I enjoyed “Wicked.” My friend did not. Easily understandable. The problem occurs when ALL the Critics agree that they liked, or disliked something, and ALL the audience members disagree with them. In this instance something has gone wrong. But then again, not all Critics, or all audience members are the same. And the more we investigate, the more complex the types of Critics (and audience members) become.
The Three Types of Critics:
1.) The Critic who loves theater, whose dream was to grow up to be a Critic.
2.) The failed theater artist – that is the writer/actor/director who for whatever reason did not succeed in their chosen field, and, because they were so knowledgeable about the theater world (or not, as the case may be) became Critics instead.
3.) Journalists who were arbitrarily assigned the job, and could just as easily be a food and wine, or book critic. Ultimately not really qualified to comment on theater.
These three types of critics all play an integral role. However, the one thing they all have in common (at least all of the major, well respected Critics) is that they are educated, are very familiar with theater, and have seen more different shows than probably anyone else in the world. They are also required to approach the theater from an intellectual standpoint, and have the unique job of analyzing what they are seeing.
The “X” Factor: The Audience
The audience is the most illusive aspect of the equation. You can probably count the major New York Critics on two hands. Likewise (stretching a bit) the major contemporary musical theater writers currently active on Broadway. They are identifiable.
Each night the Gershwin Theater on Broadway, currently home to Wicked is capable of holding 1,933 audience members. Multiply that by eight performances a week, five years and counting… that’s a gigantic number of people who can be included in this category. That means that there are many different types of people of different ages, education levels, career, and cultural backgrounds. A Critic is even technically an audience member when they go to see a show.
Because of this wide diversity it is impossible to lump “the audience” into an easily definable category. We cannot say that they are “the general masses, less educated in the theater than Critics”. Most people tend to generalize, and assume that all audience members fall into the category of the Vacationer, or Fanatic (see below), but to quote the Gershwin brothers, “It ain’t necessarily so.” The audience is truly the X factor in the equation. By all rights it should be almost impossible for such a large, diverse group of people to have a unified (or close to unified) reaction to a show.
Types of Broadway Audience Members:
1.) The Frequent Theater Goer – Someone who enjoys theater, and attends often. This group generally makes up the majority of theater company subscribers, and are typically middle aged or older. Seeing theater frequently, they are probably more aware than others of what works, and what doesn’t about a show, and why.
2.) The First Timer – Someone who is having their first Broadway, or general theatrical experience. Typically this person is younger (teenager or younger), sometimes they are older, though rarely. There is probably some bias at play. Unless this is a first time Broadway patron who is being dragged to the show, and KNOWS they won’t like it (and they probably wont), they are very excited to see whatever the show may be, and generally love it.
3.) The Vacationer – Someone who does not have easy access to Broadway, and is on a trip where they plan to see some theater. They are probably intending to see several (or at least a couple) shows in a limited amount of time, and while they probably favor some over others, overall they enjoy the theater, and have a good time. This category includes families, and people who see theater occasionally on a special occasion. People who come to see theater for entertainment. The widest category, and hardest to define.
4.) The Fanatic – Typically a tween, or child they have typically seen several shows, or at least one over, and over, and over again. They are obsessed, know everything about the show, and the performers (though typically are not as knowledgeable about the Creator behind a show.) They frequent the stage door, and own most of the merchandise.
5.) The Theater Hater – Rare, but true. The person who hates theater, especially musical theater for whatever reason, and is usually being dragged to the theater. Typically older, they generally dislike everything they see. Occasionally they may see a show they enjoy, and then have an experience more akin to a pleasantly surprised Vacationer.
6.) The Theater Professional – People who work in the theater that go to see a show they were not involved in. Normally there is an unavoidable amount of bias – they inevitably know at least one, more likely several people involved in the show, and are either rooting for it to succeed, or secretly hoping that it fails (perhaps they were turned down a position working on the show.) Critics fall into this category as well.
With such a diverse group, how do you then explain the overwhelming, and universal audience response to a show like “Wicked?”
Critic vs. Audience dichotomy
“Make them laugh…and while their mouths are open pour truth in.” – Harold Clurman, founder of The Group Theater
The work of Stephen Schwartz falls into an unusual grey area. His shows are some of the most successful musicals of all time. He credits include such musical theater mainstays as Godspell, Pippin, Working, Children of Eden, and of course Wicked. In terms of their success, they are “commercial” entertainment. Yet his shows also deal with heady subject matter, not often found in popular shows. Is it possible for a work to be at once commercial, and accessible to audiences, and still deal with “high art” concepts?
Schwartz was something of a wunderkind, achieving unequaled success on Broadway while still in his twenties. When he was twenty-three, he was asked to write a new score for John-Michael Tebeleck’s masters thesis show Godspell (1971) (a retelling of the Gospel according to Matthew told in a contemporary clowning style) which had just moved off-Broadway for a limited run. Schwartz wrote the score in five weeks, and collaborated on the arrangements in an ensemble environment with the cast and creative team. The show became quite successful, moving for extended runs at The Cherry Lane Theater, and The Promenade Theater off-Broadway, and eventually (after his second show Pippin (1972) – a reworking of his college show Pippin, Pippin had already opened on Broadway) Godspell also moved to the Great White Way.
With two hits playing to sold out houses, Schwartz gained instant stardom in the theatrical community and was nominated for his first Tony Award. Schwartz Godspell score was of the first influential pop-rock scores on the Broadway scene, second only to Hair in its cultural impact when it was introduced in the late 1960’s, making musical theater, and the Bible accessible to a new, contemporary audience. There are numerous stories of people being significantly affected by the show. Beth Blickers (Literary agent at Abrams Artists agency) recalls:
“The first time I saw Godspell, Oh God! I don’t know what it was! Something just happened to me. It was at the end, when Jesus is up there on the fence, after being betrayed by Judas, and he says: “Oh God, I’m dying, Oh God, I’m dying”. I’m not a terribly religious person, but I started weeping. I don’t know why. For some reason, I felt personally responsible for killing him. I was still crying all through the end of the show, and the curtain call. The whole audience got up and left, and I was still there, sobbing. I couldn’t move. Finally, the cast found out that someone was still in the audience, crying, and they all came out, and comforted me. I just kept looking at that stage, and, I don’t know. Something happened inside me that day. Every time I see that show, even if it’s some random high school production, I just lose it when it gets to that part. It was… unquantifiable.” – (Personal interview Feb. 2005)
Although it is clear that Godspell had a significant, and hugely positive impact on audiences, critics felt quite differently, and their reaction to Godspell would prove to be a foreshadowing of the critical response Schwartz would continue to receive through out his career. Critics enjoyed Godspell, however, they had serious issues with Schwartz’s music and lyrics. They found the lyrics too simple, and objected to the fact that most had been taken directly from classic hymn. They were also not in favor of the type of musical score that Schwartz had written for the show in general, feeling that the music was much more suited to the contemporary pop genre, and was not what anyone would consider a great musical theater score.
“Stephen Schwartz who wrote the music and lyrics (for Godspell) went on, if that is how it must be described, to do the songs for Pippin (1972), and The Magic Show (1974), both of which are still running. As he modestly points out in his biographical notes, that makes him “the first composer-lyricist in Broadway history to have three hits running concurrently in New York” The shows may well be still running despite his scores, which are musical in the technical sense only, if that. “Day by Day,” the hit song from Godspell, is but eight measures long and is repeated endlessly. Perhaps Schwartz wrote himself out with it. “ (Martin Gottfried, Post)
Although the technical arguments against Schwartz’s work may be valid, what is more difficult to reconcile is the mocking, almost bullying tone with which the reviews that are unfavorable of Schwartz are written –a tone which is hinted at in Schwartz’s Godspell reviews, but would become much more pronounced with his later shows. The late 1960’s and 1970’s were the beginning of the “death of Broadway” as some theater academics have dubbed the current state of theater in our society, raising the question how valid was the audience’s response to Godspell, or to Schwartz’s shows in general? Does their favor of a score that critics deemed “less than adequate” signify a lowering of the tastes, and standards of American musical theatergoers?
Schwartz’s next show Pippin became one of the most important musicals in Broadway history. It was also one of the most controversial. Pippin began as Schwartz’s college show Pippin, Pippin, and after his success with Godspell, Schwartz was finally able to get it produced. A true story for the 70’s, Pippin told the story of a young prince in search of complete fulfillment, reflecting the popular sentiment, and struggle of the younger generation. Guided on his journey by The Leading Player – played by Ben Vereen, Pippin explores education, war, sex, politics, and married life all to no avail. When he is ultimately offered complete fulfillment in the form of suicide, he elects to stay with the woman he has fallen in love with, leaving him “trapped, but happy.”
Choreographer/Director Bob Fosse was brought onboard to helm Pippin. Fosse had a totally different interpretation from Schwartz as to how the show should be done. For example, Schwartz had written a simple love ballad for the first act called “With You” meant to be sung by Pippin in a sincere and emotional way to a single girl. When Fosse invited Schwartz to come see how he had staged the number, Schwartz was appalled to find that Fosse had turned the number into an orgy involving Pippin and the entire ensemble. The historic partnership culminated in Fosse barring Schwartz from rehearsals. To this day Fosse is credited with just about every aspect of the show’s success. Many people feel that the Schwartz/Fosse “feud” may still be affecting the critical view of Schwartz’s work today. Ironically, Schwartz would later become the biggest champion, and protector of Fosse’s vision of the show.
Critics were again less than kind to Schwartz on Pippin. Some of the highlights include:
“A phalanx of Marine Corps MPs would not be able to keep audiences away from Pippin. Does this mean that it is one of the pinnacles of the art of musical comedy? Hardly. What Pippin possesses is splendiferous theatricality, the kick of a lightning bolt and a passionate professional knack for being entertaining. The show satisfies the popular non-platonic ideal of a U.S. musical.” (T.E. Kalem, Time)
Pippin is a Broadway musical that tells a hackneyed, mush-headed, pseudo-serious story by means of the most aggressively up-to-date, sleek, chic, pseudo-innovative showmanship. It will probably be a very big hit…Neither Rodger O. Hirson who wrote the book for Pippin, nor Stephen Schwartz who wrote the lyrics as well as the music, seems to have realized that Pippin’s real problem is a thundering excess of stupidity. Stupidity onstage is all very well when it is satirized or otherwise criticized; it becomes difficult to endure however when, in this case, the authors seem to share it.” (Julius Novick, The Village Voice)
What will certainly be memorable is the staging by Bob Fosse, The cast also lives up to Mr. Fosse rather than down to its material.” (Clive Barnes, New York Times)
Many of the songs however became mainstays in American pop culture, such as “Corner of the Sky” and “Morning Glow.” The lyrics retain the simplicity that Schwartz had established in Godspell, but they are able through their simplicity to communicate large themes in a beautiful, and accessible way.
“Everything has its season
Everything has its time
Show me a reason and I’ll soon show you a rhyme.
Cats fit on the windowsill
Children fit in the snow
Why do I feel I don’t fit in anywhere I go?
Rivers belong where they can ramble
Eagles belong where they can fly
I’ve got to be where my spirit can run free
Gotta find my corner of the sky”
- “Corner of the Sky”, Pippin
Many critics also argued that Pippin (and later Wicked) were successes only because of the marketing strategies of their producers. Pippin was the first Broadway musical ever to advertise with a T.V commercial. In fact, Pippin had already run for a year, and had sold out for much of that year, and was on its way, now dipping when they ran the television commercial, allowing the show to run for much longer. Schwartz was nominated for a Tony award for his work on Pippin, and lost once again. Bob Fosse did win a Tony for Pippin. In fact, that year, Fosse became the first person ever to win the “triple crown”, winning the Tony for Pippin, the Oscar for Cabaret, and the Emmy for Liza with a Z all in one year. But the Pippin criticism extends far beyond Fosse and the original production. Recent reviews of Deaf West’s L.A revival of Pippin criticize the saccharine quality of the show.
“There's a good reason why this shaggy little puppy has never had a Broadway revival. It's a period piece, with a simplistic '70s message and a not-very-likeable protagonist. Pippin, the eldest son of France's mighty ruler, Charlemagne, is obsessed with a problem that consumes only children of privilege: how to give his life meaning… Late in the story, Pippin finally stumbles onto the secret to happiness in Catherine, a kindly widow (charmingly played by Melissa van der Schyff) with a large estate. Miraculously, she tolerates his moody restlessness and appears at a crucial moment to remind Pippin that what really matters in life is a good relationship with a true-blue person. Duh! I suppose that was big news in 1972. The story's sappy, simplistic platitudes won't matter to Deaf West fans. They're going to see Calhoun's wizardry, and they won't be disappointed. “ (Paul Hodgins, OCregister)
Although, New York Times Critic Charles Isherwood, in his review of the Deaf West production goes to great lengths to acknowledge the overwhelming power Pippin has amongst audience members.
“Pippin is generally considered a fey relic of its hopeful-troubled era. It has never been revived on Broadway and is probably most often seen in high schools and colleges, where its singsongy charms and simple sentiments can still work their magic on hearts and minds unsullied by cynicism.
But the original-cast album is a touchstone for generations of musical theater lovers, and even listeners only casually exposed to Broadway music in childhood. Anecdotal evidence suggests there are great swaths of the American population between the ages of 40 and 55 for whom Mr. Schwartz’s tuneful score is a Proustian trigger for all sorts of warm memories.
Anecdote No. 1: In the 1980s a college roommate of mine played the show’s opening number, “Magic to Do,” incessantly in the year we lived together. I countered the assault with toxic doses of the Cure’s most relentlessly dirgy album, “Pornography,” and yet I can still sing along with Ben Vereen from first note to last.
Anecdote No. 2: I recently spent an evening at the funky West Village piano bar Marie’s Crisis with a female friend who refused to leave until she heard “Corner of the Sky.” Her plaintive wailing (“Pippin! Piiipiiiiin!”) eventually exasperated the pianist and she won her point. The need in those cries still haunts me.” (Charles Isherwood, New York Times)
Schwartz has said that he truly believed the critic’s negative response to his work until he started receiving fan mail telling him how much people loved his score for the show, and how the story moved and inspired people.
“I actually believed (that Pippin succeeded because of the triumph of style over content) until I started getting all those letters from people about how the show changed their lives, and saved their marriages and made other choices…People still say to me, it was the first show I ever saw, and it meant so much to me. You don’t feel that way about shows, which have no content. So obviously the content was speaking to someone. It just wasn’t speaking to the Broadway establishment in the same way the content of Wicked doesn’t speak to the Broadway establishment, therefore they don’t understand that there is any.” (Stephen Schwartz, personal interview Feb. 2006)
It was around this time that Schwartz adopted the policy to never read his reviews, whether good or bad. In an online interview Schwartz said:
“Every review is the individual opinion of a single person, influenced by their personality, prejudices, personal agendas, knowledge and ignorance. This is why the power given by the New York theatre community to whoever the critic is for the New York Times has such a pernicious effect on the quality of theatre in New York. Most reviewers are journalists who know nothing about the theatre and less about music -- they've simply been given the gig and moved from some other unrelated department. It would be like me writing reviews of architecture -- I can say what I like or don't like about a building, but I really don't know anything about it and am completely unqualified. I find good reviews almost as destructive as bad reviews, because the seduction is so powerful to believe what they're saying -- and of course, once you give power to anyone else's opinion about your work, you're in trouble. So, I have an unbreakable policy not to read them at all.” (www.stephenschwartz.com)
Over the next several years, Schwartz went on to write the music and/or lyrics to The Magic Show (1974), The Bakers Wife (1976), Working (1978), Rags (1991), Personals (1998), and Children of Eden (1998). His critical response to these shows followed the same pattern that had been set by Godspell and Pippin – in most cases the show got excellent reviews, while Schwartz’s scores received overwhelming pans. Children of Eden, which told the story of the Bible from the Creation to the flood, was especially criticized for many of its lyrics:
And quasars and quarks
Let there be
Let there be
Let there be
Apple trees with dappled barks
And granite mountains and flaxen plains
Giant lizards with tiny brains
Fluorescent fish and crescent worms
And a million bugs and a trillion germs.
- “Let There Be”, Children of Eden
Despite it’s technical shortcomings, the show seemed to deeply resonate with audience members.
“The summer after I graduated high school I was cast in a production of Children of Eden as Adam. I was familiar with the show seeing it twice before once as a community theater show and the other as the professional touring company. I had been dying to play the part of Adam. “A World Without You” and “Close to Home” were my favorite songs in the score. During the rehearsal process I came to so many realizations about the depth of the script and the true beauty of the music. Several times, when performing the finale, I would be moved to tears by what the lyrics were saying. I think that Children of Eden is Schwartz’s best work and most moving. It deals with human nature, suffering, and reconciliation in a touching a heart-wrenching way. My dad came to see the show, he likes theater, but he never shows much emotion about anything. Even when he was diagnosed with renal cell cancer. When I saw him afterwards he was crying Apparently the music and story had affected him so much, this man, who I had rarely seen moved to tears had been shown a side of his mortality, and the precious gift of life. To this day it has been his favorite show he has ever seen me in, and compares all others to it. To be involved in a show that touches people this profoundly is a rare treat. I love this show and Schwartz’s music. (Anonymous, personal interview 2005)
Schwartz was nominated for Tony awards for his work on Working (both book and score) and Rags. Again he lost both of them. Slightly fed up with the Broadway community, Schwartz accepted an offer at Disney to replace the late Howard Ashman, one half of the songwriting team of Alan Menkin, and Howard Ashman (the duo responsible for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and most of Aladdin). Together with Meinkin, Schwartz wrote the lyrics for the Disney films Pocahontas (1995), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996). He was supposed to continue at Disney with Mulan until a disagreement with Michael Eisner over his participation in another animated musical The Prince of Egypt (1999) caused him to leave. Interestingly, Schwartz’s music and lyrics for these animated films were all extremely well received, and garnered him three Academy awards He would go on to collaborate with Menkin on the 2008 Disney hit Enchanted.
Having been absent from Broadway for some time, Schwartz’s next big musical Wicked would become one of the biggest hits of the decade. Based on Gregory McGuire’s novel of the same name, Wicked told the back story of The Wizard of Oz, its tag line being “so much happened before Dorothy dropped in.” Wicked had several workshops, during which time the focus of the story shifted to the relationship between Elphaba (The Wicked Witch of the West) and Glinda (The Good Witch) and how they change each other “for good.” Wicked took on challenging material for a musical, including racism, political corruption, and animal rights. And it did so with a large amount of Broadway spectacle – one of the primary things that has been criticized about musical theater in the past several decades. And, once again though the show (and especially the performers) got generally positive reviews, Schwartz was slammed for his score, as was Winnie Holzman for her book:
“The show’s twenty-two songs were written by Mr. Schwartz, and not one of them is memorable. The talk is festooned with cutely mangled words "swankified," "thrillified," "gratitution" that bring to mind the language of Smurfs. Ms. Menzel miraculously finds the commanding presence in the plainness of her part, and she opens up her voice in flashy ways that should be required study for all future contestants on "American Idol." The talented Ms. Menzel dazzles audience members whose musical tastes run to soft-rock stations.” (Ben Brantley, New York Times)
However, what happened with Wicked was very similar to what happened with Pippin – audiences loved it. In fact it has become more than just a successful musical, it has become an institution, with hordes of tween and teenage girls flocking to the stage door each night as if they were at a rock concert. Many critics feel that one of the reasons for the shows success is that it is the only musical currently on Broadway that tells the story of a friendship between two girls, and that has strong women as it’s role models thereby finding a huge fan base in young girls and their mothers. However, for every story of a tween girl being moved, and inspired by the show, there is a story of a middle aged man who was dragged to a musical and ended up in tears at the end of the show, and now can’t stop listening to the cast album.
What is especially interesting about Schwartz’s score for this show (and likewise for his other scores) is that, when analyzed from a theory standpoint, there are large flaws with his songs. “Popular” for example, is sung by Glinda in the first act of Wicked as she is giving Elphaba a make-over and contains one of Schwartz’s most criticized lyrics:
“Don’t be offended by my frank analysis
Think of it as personality dialysis
Now that I’ve chosen to become a pal
A sister and advisor, there’s nobody wiser
Not when it comes to Popular
I know about popular
And with an assist from me
To be who you’ll be, instead of dreary who you were
There’s nothing that can stop you
From becoming popular...lahr"
- “Popular”, Wicked
Schwartz was also criticized, as he has been in the past, of recycling musical phrases. The opening of Wicked sounds remarkably like a combination of
“Let There Be”, and “The Spark of Creation” from Children of Eden. Likewise, one of his most famous musical lines (sung with the lyric “My beautiful young man, and I”) in perhaps Schwartz’s most praised song “Meadowlark” from The Bakers Wife was used again in his children’s musical Captain Louis (sung with the lyric “My little big red plane, and I” in the song “Little Big Red Plane”.) Even the lyrics line up a little too closely.
Although Schwartz is the most startling example of this critic/audience dichotomy, he is by no means the first. One of the most stunning examples is the critical/audience response to the original production of The Sound of Music. Although the reviews were decidedly mixed, and in general leaned towards the favorable side, the show was subjected to intense, almost mocking criticism.
"Before The Sound of Music is halfway through its promising chores it becomes not only too sweet for words but almost too sweet for music. The people on stage have melted long before our hearts do." (Walter Kerr, New York Herald Tribune)
The Sound of Music would of course go on to become one of the most celebrated musicals of all time. It is also interesting to note that this “too sweet” show deals with the horrors of the Nazi takeover of Austria during World War II. Much like the underlying themes of prejudice, political corruption, and animal rights in Wicked, this is unusual, and very dark fare for a musical, and interesting that in both cases the underlying themes were ignored by critics, though they strongly resonated with audience members.
Mythic Archetype: Why A Universal Response To A Show Might Not Be That Out There
So, what’s different about Schwartz’s work from other shows that don’t lead to such a consistent dichotomy?
With the possible exception of The Magic Show, Schwartz’s musicals all incorporate spiritual themes, and likewise deal with theme, and character on a mythic scale. Carl Jung developed the idea of the Collective Unconscious, and, along with Joseph Campbell, the theory of universal Myth.
Jung perceived that the journey of transformation is a key element of religion. It is a journey to meet the self and at the same time to meet the Divine. Unlike Sigmund Freud, Jung thought spiritual experience was essential to our well-being. Since transformation is so tied to the roots of spiritual experience (Jung even went so far as to tell one of his patients, a struggling alcoholic, that the only way he could become sober was to have a spiritual experience. It is believed that this “prescription” lead to the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous.) Interconnected with this idea of spirituality is the idea that there are a certain number of universal myths in the collective unconscious of humanity. Myths such as Control, Crusade, Justice, Luck, and Preparation are known and understood by all people. Jung believed that the reenactment of Myth, in whatever form is vital to our wellbeing, for the basic reasons that it reveals truth, and shows us that we are not alone. “You are not alone in feeling unjustly treated – let me tell you a story about someone else who was unjustly treated, so that you might be better equipped to handle your unjust treatment.”
Schwartz’s shows, unlike some musicals, deal with mythic stories. Schwartz was quoted as saying that part of the success of Wicked is that “there’s a green girl inside us all.” Elphaba is a crusader. She is mocked for being different, and then discovers that those things that make her different are in fact what make her special, and powerful. And she decides to fight for her power, fight for what’s right no matter the cost – even if it means she will be branded as “Wicked” for the rest of her life. Those mythic ideas are universal, and can be seen in other classic, moving theatrical works for example Shaw’s St. Joan. But the difference is that Wicked is a musical, complete with Broadway sized spectacle, and such mythic stories are more expected in serious dramatic works. This mythic idea is inherent in all of Schwartz’s works. Children of Eden tells the Biblical story of the Creation through the flood, focusing on generational themes of parents and children, forgiveness, and redemption. Godspell tells the story of Christ according to the Gospel of Matthew, Pippin deals with the meaning of life, personal fulfillment, and the “value” of suicide. Heady themes for musical entertainment. And yet, entertain they all do.
Schwartz said in a 2006 interview: “My speculation about it…obviously it can only be speculation, is that I tend to deal with that (type of) subject matter. I deal a lot with family conflict with parent child relationships reconciling oneself to the realities of life, to the inevitable disappointments and compromises, the need for forgiveness, for the need to be true to oneself, consequences, and things like that that people wrestle with. I don’t think you can actually change someone with a work of art. What you can do is galvanize someone to do something that they already were on their way to doing or that they were perhaps afraid to do, I think you could encourage, and I think you can energize and I think you can make people think sometimes, but I don’t think you can ever change somebody’s mind. But, if somebody’s open to think about something another way I think a work of art, a movie, or a play can open horizons for people. And I think that the fact that maybe some of my work seems to do that, as I have antidotal evidence, is because I’m dealing with things that concern me but also seems to concern a lot of other people. So I guess what I’m saying in a very long-winded way is that I think the subject matter has a lot to do with that.”
It is perhaps easy to see the mythic underpinnings of high concept musicals – for example Into The Woods is a musical completely based of fairy tale myths. But ironically, Mamma Mia! Typically considered a “fluff” show is incredibly mythic in scope, dealing with a young girl searching for her identity by finding her father. This mythic tale wrapped up in a fun, silly, escapist package may be just as important as a high concept, serious work. On the flip side, when The Little Mermaid was adapted to the stage it’s mythic elements (which helped make it one of the most successful animated musicals of all time) became vague and unfocused with the emphasis being placed so much on creating a “girl power” politically correct show, that the inherent story was lost. It is ironic that many producers wishing to create a financially successful Broadway show look to, and copy the surface elements of a successful show, instead of examining why that show was successful in the first place – mainly the story being told. “Tell the story and the ideas will emerge. If you focus on the ideas you will lose the story and the audience.” – Jeffrey Fiske
Universal, mythic, galvanizing themes don’t seem, however to be the focus of the Critic. In fact, such things are almost never mentioned in reviews, and it is interesting that Critics who don’t seem to be dealing with, or addressing such issues, rarely, if ever seem to have a life changing experience themselves at the theater. Is it possible that they’ve just made up their mind, and are not open to the possibility of having such an experience?
Why is there a dichotomy? Who is right?
The Critical Dilemma
The difficulty with being a highly educated theater Critic is that while you may have a better understanding of the technical elements that make up a show than the average audience member, you are also much harder to please than most theatergoers. On the first day of classes in many university arts programs (in subjects ranging from acting to performance studies) it is not uncommon for the Professor to begin class by saying “Congratulations. This is the last day you will ever enjoy theater.” Are education and enjoyment mutually exclusive? Regardless of whether or not they are, it seems to be a merit badge of sorts to be removed, and unemotional in response to a theatrical event. Perhaps the idea is that in order to be logical, and unbiased, emotion must be removed from the equation, much like the disassociation required from doctors when working with a patient. In the Robin Williams film Patch Adams Dean Walcott says to the new Med. Students on their first day: “Our job is to rigorously and ruthlessly train the humanity out of you and make you into something better. We're gonna make doctors out of you.” It would be a poor Doctor who let his emotions affect how he operates on a patient. Is a Critic likewise best able to do his job when he is can stand back from, and analyze a theatrical experience from outside of the emotion of it?
C.S Lewis writes: “Human intellect is incurably abstract…the only realities we experience are concrete – this pain, this pleasure, this dog, this man. While we are loving the man, bearing the pain, enjoying the pleasure, we are not intellectually apprehending Pleasure, Pain or Personality. When we begin to do so, on the other hand, the concrete realities sink to the level of mere instances or examples: we are no longer dealing with them, but with that which they exemplify. This is our dilemma – either to taste and not to know or to know and not to taste…As thinkers we are cut off from what we think about; as tasting, touching; willing; loving; hating, we do not clearly understand. The more lucidly we think, the more we are cut off: the more deeply we enter into reality, the less we can think. You cannot study Pleasure in the moment of the nuptual embrace, nor repentance while repenting, nor analyze the nature of humour while roaring with laughter. But when else can you really know these things?” (C.S Lewis, God in the Dock (Myth Became Fact.))
The job of the Critic is to think about, and analyze what they have seen. But in order to do so, they must first experience it. Interestingly, even those in the medical profession recently have begun to acknowledge that emotional connection is not only beneficial for the doctor/patient relationship, it is essential. Medical schools are now encouraging their students to become (within reason) emotionally involved with their patients. The question is, after all their education, the pressure to “get the emotion out of them”, and working for years in such an analytical job, is it still possible for Critics to be moved in the same way as audience members? If it is, is it up to the Critic to seek such an experience out? To hope for the best, and give themselves up to each production to they review? Is it a comment on the quality of musical theater, or on the attitude of the reviewer that Critics seem to rarely, if ever have such an experience?
Regardless of the answer, it seems that Critics themselves are not terribly concerned with the question. The way many reviews are written they seem more concerned with displaying superior opinions and intellect, and tearing down the negative aspects of a show then in praising the successes. Regardless of the true role of the Critic, the term critic (as in the adjective Critical) has a negative connotation. The term positive criticism denotes putting a positive, or constructive spin on possibly negative feedback. There’s no need for the term negative criticism, since criticism itself carries an automatically negative meaning.
This may simply be a result of the fact that a Critic is holding the thing they are reviewing to a much higher standard than the average person. An audience member may be thrilled by the fun songs and exciting singing of a particular show. The Critic however will know that in fact the orchestra has been cut in half from what it was originally meant to be, as have the vocal orchestrations, and that, plus the fact that the fourth alto from the left is off key make the music a poor, and shoddy replica of the original. In that respect, Critics are the unflinching truth tellers of the Broadway community. The fact that they are not critiqued themselves means that they can indeed say whatever they want and fear no reprisals. The irony is that, if they say something shockingly negative they become such a truth teller. But profess an unpopular, often positive opinion and the entire community, including other critics will make sure you hear about it. Often it boils down to: say something negative – great! Say something positive – watch out. This is not always the case, and certainly not for minor elements of a show, but for the show as a whole it seems to be. Sunday in the Park With George was hated by all critics except one – who dared to stand up to the critical establishment and praise the show in his review. Apparently he was all but ostracized for his opinions. Perhaps it is merely a matter of pride. The idea that “after all our experience and education, we’re not going to be taken in by the ridiculous shows that make preschoolers jump for joy.”
The other difficulty of being so educated, and so familiar with shows, and artistic creators, is that there must be a bias before the Critic even steps into the theater, whether he intends it (or is even aware of it,) or not. News travels fast on Broadway, and even if it is possible to walk into a show with absolutely no knowledge or opinions of it (an impressive achievement in itself,) it is not possible to not have some feeling towards the artists involved in the project. The same bias occurs with all people. If I’m not a fan of Angelina Jolie in the films I’ve seen her in in the past, I probably expect that I’m not going to like her in her new film when I go to see it. But Critics also hear about the “dirt” on artists and shows, information which can affect them just as much as an individual performance can. It is a running theory that Schwartz’s early success, plus his heated dispute with Broadways “Golden Boy” Bob Fosse put Schwartz on the Critic’s “hate” list. A position that has lasted to this day.
Critics as Creators
Another irony is that Critics, in some sense are themselves Creators. They use words, sometimes in a very artistic way to communicate an experience to an audience (the reader.) Ben Brantley wrote in his 2008 review of the Broadway production of The Little Mermaid (titled Fish Out of Water in the Deep Blue Sea):
“What this Little Mermaid feels like, above all, is a cynical reversal of a once-traditional pattern of art and commerce. It used to be that the show came first, followed by merchandising tie-ins. Thoroughly plastic and trinketlike, this show seems less like an interpretation of a movie musical than of the figurines and toys it inspired.”
The imagery is elegant, descriptive, and paints a clear, and thought provoking picture. Many of the qualities required to be a theater artist are the same qualities required to be an effective critic: faculty, and creativity with words, knowledge of linguistic, and argumentative structure, and an ability to tell a story, and communicate information. They are attempting to “move” their audience, albeit in an intellectual way, to the feeling or opinion they are trying to communicate in their review. They cannot be completely logical, analytical creatures.
The question then perhaps is not whether or not Critics can be moved in the theater, but whether or not they even want to be. Especially where certain shows are concerned. Does being a Critic become just a job after a while? Do Critics go from “recreational theater fans” to “cynical theatergoers”? And is that position a matter of pride? Even if they have lost that initial joy, with the state of theater in our culture what it is, can you blame them?
Innovation: The Exception To The Rule
The exception to “chain of responsibility” mentioned above is the “hot” word: innovation. When a composer creates music unlike any ever heard before on a Broadway stage, or a lyricist seems to have found a completely original rhyme – then the writing is said to be “new and innovative” and immediately takes center stage. Stephen Sondheim is a perfect example, and whether or not the show as a whole is liked is besides the point since it will go down in history as an advancement of the art form (whether or not it was in and of itself a touchstone, or merely that it heralded a show, or artistic movement which would take up an important place in the musical theater cannon.)
It is this idea of innovation that can help explain the difference between critical analysis of straight theater, and musical theater when it comes to the dichotomy between critical reception and audience reception. Straight theater, and musical theater are just plain treated differently, and have been since their inception. They tend to attract different kinds of audiences (see above), and, where as musical theater, having evolved out of “lower” entertainment such as burlesque, vaudeville, operetta (as opposed to opera) and ethnic theater (such as the Yiddish theater, and minstral shows) it is still not considered as “high art” as straight theater. After all, would you put “Mamma Mia!” in the same category as “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?” No. And why should you? But the difference isn’t in their worth, it is in their intent. After the tragedy of 9/11 it was musical comedies that flourished on the great white way. Sometimes people just need to have fun, and sometimes they need to take a cold, hard look at themselves. While I don’t believe that there should be a class distinction, there is. And I believe it has to do both with heritage (after all, even screwball comedies are treated reverently, so it can’t be a factor of genre), and financial success (which we will address further below.)
Innovation is the factor that can link musical theater to straight theater, and indeed is one of the only things that can cause as much reverence in a musical as in a straight play (Stephen Sondheim is a perfect example.) Even if the shows themselves are not lauded (after all, most of the reviews for Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George” bashed the show, but then again, so did many audience members) it is ultimately treated with great reverence by both critics, and audiences. To this day there are people who can’t make heads or tails of “Sunday...” yet they go to see it anyway for the same reason that it is emphasized in Musical Theater History books and classes – because it did something new with the medium. (This is not to say that there aren’t those who are moved by “Sunday…” but merely to demonstrate a point.)
Schwartz’s The Bakers Wife was in some ways part of the “innovation” exception. The Bakers Wife, a small musical told in the style of a French folk tale, and utilizing a simple score influenced by Debussy, and French folk music was horribly received when it first opened. However, in more recent years it has received praise for being a new, and innovative musical, and has begun to receive some success. The big number from The Bakers Wife “Meadowlark” is generally thought to be Schwartz’s best song by those in the theater community. It is an epic story song, different from the style in which Schwartz usually writes, and both they lyrics, and the music develop in a classical way, while still retaining the simplicity needed for a musical theater score. Children of Eden has also received more praise in recent years, and is thought to be Schwartz’s best score. Like “Meadowlark” the score for Children of Eden is much more classical than pop in structure, and has a much more “epic” sound then some of his other work.
Who critiques the critic?
The Creator of a theatrical event must reconcile themselves with the fact that everyone, audiences, other members of the theatrical community, critics, even those who haven’t seen their show, will be commenting on their work; analyzing it, and picking it apart. They can make their artistic statement, but cannot comment on it. A critic however, finds himself in the opposite situation. The critic judges the work of others, but receives no judgment himself. There is no one in the position of holding the critic accountable for their reviews, (I mean only for their opinion, not the technical requirements for writing a review.) If they praise, or trash a show, no one is in the position to publicly say, “wait a minute, their review was careless, prejudiced, and inaccurate.” It is inevitable that somebody will disagree with just about everything the creator does. Even with a successful show, there will be at least one person who didn’t like the music, the costumes, etc. No one disagrees with the critic, at least not in a public forum where disagreement might have an impact (the possible exception being of course online blogs, which we will address later.)
Does this position of absolute power have an affect on the critic? The opposite position certainly affects creators. Some have been accused of altering their vision in order to please the critics. Some experimental artists even specifically create works meant to “thumb their nose” at the critical establishment. If nothing else, it forces them to consider the impact of every decision they make, very, very carefully, since every decision will be just as carefully scrutinized. However, the job of the creator is to affect those watching their show, and that job would not change even if their shows were never reviewed. They would still have to carefully weigh every artistic decision, although the idea of doing certain things to impress critics would be a mute issue.
However, would a critics review be affected if they knew there was someone who would be critiquing it? Perhaps. More importantly, what if there was a way to measure the “effectiveness” of their review? Perhaps there is – in the response of audience members. If audiences go to a show that received a negative review, or, in the rarer instance, avoid a show that received a positive review – that action in and of itself may herald a disagreement, it may also anticipate a decline in the importance of the critic, or may simply be a result of the personal tastes of various audience members. However, once the audience has seen the show, it is possible that their collective opinion may differ from that of the critics, as in the case of Wicked. It seems that rather than take the feedback as a type of “review”, critics instead become defensive, and defend their position against that of the general population. This reaction may be the result of several factors.
Do success and popularity matter? (Financial Success)
Musicals today tend to fall into one of two areas: the commercial Mamma Mia! type shows whose primary purpose is to make money and provide fun for audiences, and the innovative concept musical best exemplified by Stephen Sondheim, and more recently by Adam Guettel, and even Michael John LeChiusa, which place value on being artistic, and intelligent above being commercially successful. None of Sondheim’s shows in their original incarnations have been financially successful (his revivals of course have been.) Especially in recent years the gap between these two categories has widened, though it has always been present. In recent years, with Broadway budgets skyrocketing, and movie studios becoming theatrical producers, the point of many new musicals is merely to entertain and make a profit. In the age of “if it works, make ten more just like it” we have had an influx of such new musical categories as the Jukebox Musical, and the Movie Musical. While they may or may not succeed at their goal (for example, Jersey Boys – a Jukebox Musical utilizing the song catalog of The Four Seasons was hugely successful, even winning the Tony Award for Best New Musical. Good Vibrations, the Beach Boys musical, however, was a disastrous failure) critics treated them, and responded to them as “fluffy, popular new musicals”, and, justifiably approached them differently than they would an “artistic” new work.
High concept musicals have also attempted to succeed over the years on the great white way. Recently shows such as The Light in the Piazza, and Grey Gardens garnered critical raves for their theatrical innovation, and high concept themes. Interestingly, while both these shows ended up being successful, neither was a run away financial hit, and were both embraced more by an intellectual theater crowd, than by the “screaming masses.” However, when “high concept” shows go bad, they go very bad, and shows such as the “Vampire trilogy” Dance of the Vampires, Dracula, and Lestat, as well as In My Life, Hot Feet, and even the off-Broadway Frankenstein were ridiculed by both audiences and critics alike.
Schwartz seems to fall in-between these two categories, into a grey area. His shows are certainly commercially successful, in fact he has written some of the most successful shows in Broadway history. However, his shows also deal with issues that one would normally associate with those in a high concept musical. For some reason, this is never addressed in any reviews of his work. Perhaps the fact that Schwartz favors a more popular style of music over the types of classically inspired, sometimes atonal work of more high concept composer/lyricists such as Stephen Sondheim (there is a running joke that all of Sondheim’s songs are written in impossible meters such as 13/64, or 24/18) has put off theater intellectuals. Or, it may be that shows which are financially successful – meaning runaway financial hits, not just shows that begin to make a profit after recouping their investment, tend to develop a stigma about them. Theater is a difficult business, and the unofficial mantra “art for arts sake” has become a guiding philosophy for theatrical intellectuals, and struggling artists alike. It’s almost as if the only true, moving art worth doing is not financially successful art. To be a true artist you must suffer. When a show is a run away hit, and is making quite a bit of money, the creators seem to automatically fall into the same category as big movie studios who are mainly producing art in order to make a profit.
This view has been compounded in recent years because of the skyrocketing cost of tickets. It is not unusual to pay upwards of four hundred dollars for an orchestra seat at most Broadway theaters. This practice began with The Producers who raised the top ticket price in order to compete with the ever-growing scalpers who were taking in hundreds of dollars regularly for a ticket to a top show. This only increased the sentiment that theater was now being created for financial gain, not for the sake of art. After all, who but the wealthiest could afford to go to the theater at those prices?
The mega blockbuster musical is also a relatively new concept. Shows have certainly always been successful, but until about thirty years ago none ran longer than a few years. A Chorus Line was the first truly long running musical by today’s standards, and the British import “McMusicals” exemplified by The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, and Les Miserables went on to set new records. The Phantom of the Opera is still running (and even still has an original cast member in it), and Les Miserables was revived on Broadway in an almost identical production only a couple of years after the original had closed. The general consensus is that the longer these shows run, the more their quality deteriorates. So what is the benefit of running them for so long, besides the financial gain? Is it possible that a show is still just as moving after running for twenty years? Regardless of the answers, many in the theatrical community feel that successful, popular shows end up running for decades, quality deteriorating, taking away potential theaters from new shows, with ticket prices ever increasing. Like it or not, there is a bias against financial success in the theater world.
“Everyone’s A Critic!” – With new online reviewing, do professional Critics matter?
In the Golden Age of Broadway, a pan in the New York Times meant the closing of a show. Likewise, a rave spelled sure success. Nowadays, the New York Times is often not the first stop for the general public trying to decide whether or not to see a show. For that, they turn to online blogging, chat rooms, and youtube. In some ways, this is potentially a more accurate gauge for the success, or failure of a show. If you are an average theatergoer, and you want to find out what you’ll think of a show, why not look to another average theatergoer? Better yet, why not read the comments of two hundred average theatergoers? Word of mouth has been proven to be the most effective marketing tool, and mass blogging is word of mouth, taken to the next level. With so many opinions available, is there any reason to have official Theater Critics anymore? Even if there is for historical archiving purposes, do they really affect whether someone goes to see a show or not?
Bloggers themselves have interesting responses to this topic. Several posters on broadwayworld.com said:
“I never base shows off of reviews. I usually will go to a new show's website and look at video clips, music clips, and pictures to see if it interests me. If it interests ME, I see the show.”
“The majority of the theater-going audience relies on the NY Times to tell them whether or not they'll like a show. I don't remember what I saw a few weeks ago when a woman said to the Usher "I don't know why I'm here, it got terrible reviews from the Times." The Usher replied, "I like to remain optimistic," then nodded to the woman that the show wasn't so hot.”
“"Who'd make a living out of killing someone else's dream? I mean, what kind of man would take a job like that?" - Curtains
No, critics almost never affect if I go see a show or not.”
“The primary problem with most critics is that they have no background in theater.
Brantley started life as a fashion critic - he was the editor of Women's Wear Daily for a long period of time, before jumping over to theater. Of course, through the years, he's grown more familiar with his subject. Only occasionally does he write cohesive, intelligent negative reviews. Most of the other times they're just catty, non-sensical babbling. “
“To be a critic - you have to understand how it all works. And once you do, then you can point out the flaws. Of course, critics think that they could do it better, but once they have, they've seen it's not as easy. Case in point, Nicholas de Jongh's new play that opened in London to poor reviews. Clive Barnes and Frank Rich love the theater. Both were the most valuable critics. Ken Tynan, as well, wrote some lovely criticism, all of which is compiled in books. What we have today doesn't compare to the age of them.”
“In programs, we read bios of the actors and production team. I have longed believed that newspapers should publish the background and qualifications of their critics.”
“I once heard a critic speak, I don't remember who is was, who said, when he got the job he was thrilled but six months into the job, he wanted to kill himself.
Going to the theatre every night, sometimes twice a day, he got jaded very quickly and then it was like writing a school essay every day. Being a critic for a big paper or magazine is slightly different because there are several of you and you can do one or two a week, but it is still grueling.”
“The art of theatre criticism - and it is an art - is waning. Mainly because people do not understand the difference between critics and reviewers. A reviewer should essentially be able to tell you whether the show is worth spending your hard earned dollars on or not and why. Theatre critics are a different breed. They are there to write educated analysis of each play and point out specific flaws. The idea originally was to encourage the authors to avoid these same pitfalls in subsequent shows. Of course, much of this is highly subjective but good critics can write perceptively without alienating their readers. The last good critic the New York Times had was Frank Rich, and he burned out very quickly. It’s an occupational hazard of the job when you are faced with reviewing so much total drek.”
It seems that, for whatever reason, Critics have lost at least some of their power. There are just so many opinions available now; it’s not necessary to rely on one. And even if it were, the verdict of someone you know personally will carry more weight than someone you don’t. Even though the “friend” may be only an Internet acquaintance, and the Critic may be a theater scholar. This is only enhanced by the view that many Critics may have just been assigned their job, and actually know little about theater.
Interestingly, some in the theater community, while they believe that the “Age of the Critic” is on a decline, disagree with the assumption that most theater critics have just been assigned to their jobs, and have no background in theater. They cite reviewers such as Frank Rich, and Clive Barnes who were known for their love and passion for theater as examples, not exceptions to who most theater critics are. Unfortunately, without a true survey of the backgrounds of New York theater critics, it is difficult to know for sure. Most likely, it is a combination of these two perspectives, begging the question, how do theatergoers know who “really knows what they’re talking about.” The fact is, we don’t always know why we should listen to a particular Critic. A friend – even an online friend needs no such recommendation
Some people take the middle ground between complete rejection, or idolization of Critics.
“I do listen to critics, which is stupid-- I loved The Little Mermaid and I like the score for A Tale of Two Cities. But I'm a high school theatre critic (I review other high schools' shows for local newspapers) and I'm always really interested in professional reviews. I usually never pay attention to reviews that are completely negative or completely positive, though, because I've never seen a show that had no strengths or no weaknesses.”
“I certainly do not rely on the critics. Nor do I rely on blogs like these where sometimes the responders are as nasty and intolerant as the critics. If I relied on the critics I would have missed many shows that I have loved. For me, it's a combination of the source material, the director, the stars, the composer/lyricist (if it's a musical). The critics come way down my list. If only I felt they were looking for the good in a show with as much diligence as they look for the bad. I'm a retired teacher, and honestly, if I had reported on my students with as much meanness, indifference and sarcasm as they report on many of the shows they view, I would have been fired in my first year. They have the best job in the world, if only they knew it. Isn't it blatantly obvious by now that the more the critics think a show will be a big hit with the public, the harder they try to come down on it? They have a vested interest in proving that they know better.”
This middle ground is probably a bit closer to the norm, with Critics acting as advisors, but not edict givers. This does mean, however that Critics must work harder and harder to get people to listen to, and even simply read their reviews. Some Critics acknowledge that they make their reviews as negative as possible in order to attract readers. Is this predicament the fault of the Critics? Or lack of interest, or trust from audiences? Why is there a lack of trust? Or are audiences just foolish in their choice of who to listen to? Are they listening to their peers over more intelligent commentary?
Are Audiences open to an experience Critic’s aren’t? Or are they “lemmings”?
“There is a certain tone in the voices of some critics that I detest -- that superior way of explaining technique in order to destroy it. They imply that because they can explain how Theron did it, she didn't do it. But she does it.” – Roger Ebert’s review of Monster starring Charlize Theron.
One of the rising criticisms of audience members is the over abundance of standing ovations. The frustration comes not only from the critical community, but also from those directly involved with the creation of a show. Why would artists be upset that they are consistently getting standing ovations? The issue goes to the heart of one of the growing concerns about audience response. Are audiences really being moved? Or are they creating a false experience for themselves?
In the golden days of musical theater, a standing ovation was something to be earned. Something rare, and special. If a show did not receive a standing ovation, it didn’t mean that the audience didn’t enjoy it. It simply meant that the show did (or didn’t – but in that case there would most likely be a few boos) what it was supposed to do: provide an entertaining evening at the theater. A standing ovation was only given when something truly extraordinary occurred. When audiences felt they had experienced something life changing. Nowadays standing ovations are given at almost every performance of every show on Broadway. Has something changed in the quality of Broadway shows over the past fifteen years? Are they functioning at a level high above previous productions? Highly doubtful. It therefore stands to reason that something has instead changed in audiences.
Going to the theater is no longer a common, regular activity. Though it has always been a special event, it is even more so now. In order to have an evening at the theater, a person starts out by spending about $200.00 on a ticket. If they bring a spouse, that’s $400.00. If they get a babysitter that’s another $50.00 or so. Parking in the city can be around $40.00. Dinner and a nice glass of wine is another $75.00. Of course you want to buy a program and a t-shirt which will run you $60.00. When all is said and done, this couple has now spent $825.00 on an evening out at a Broadway show. It better be the most extraordinary experience they’ve ever had. Some feel that this expectation, this internal demand for justification ironically does not lead to a let down, and disappointment in the evening, but rather a false over -enjoyment. They are going in planning on being wowed, and therefore allow themselves to be wowed by everything.
This is only exacerbated by the fact that in our media heavy society, shows are extraordinarily hyped. T.V commercials, print ads, billboards reading “Tony award winner for Best New Musical!,” blogs, you name it. Rarely is the average theater goer researching all the shows currently running, learning about the cast and creative team, and making an informed decision on what they feel will most appeal to them. Instead they base their choice of show off of who won the best musical Tony, what their friends like, or what the hotel concierge recommended. In some ways they are simply being told by the outside world what they will like, spending money on it, and liking it because, well, if they don’t, they’re out $825.00 for nothing. This would seem to indicate the lemming theory: people will like whatever you tell them to like.
However, many people end up not enjoying shows that the go to see, regardless of how much money they spent on the evening. So there must be something going on, even in the most criticized shows that genuinely caused a strong emotional response in audience members. As Roger Ebert expressed in the quote above, just because a critic can tell you how something in a show was done, doesn’t mean that the show didn’t do it. Often critics get caught up with analyzing and dissecting what they are seeing, trying to identify the “man behind the curtain.” Does knowledge of technique mean you are unable to appreciate the illusion that technique is creating? Is it a mentality of: if they expect something to seem magical, than they’d better create real magic? Perhaps critics feel that, since they have such a vast knowledge of technique, that ultimately they could create a better show. But just because we know how Houdini escaped certain death, doesn’t mean he didn’t do it. Perhaps critics are loathe to acknowledge that artists are able to do something that they cannot.
Likewise, just because there may have been a stronger, or better artistic choice the creators could have made, doesn’t mean that there is no merit in the way the creators chose to do it. After all, a creator would never choose to do something that didn’t speak to them in some way, so there must be something inherently there from the beginning, whether it is effectively communicated or not. Perhaps critics, having seen so much theater, require more to give them the same experience that general audience members have much more easily. Perhaps it’s that they’re walking in with a different set of expectations. There is an old theater adage “fake it till you make it.” If you walk into a show wanting to be moved, perhaps it is more likely that you will be moved. If you walk in not expecting to, perhaps it is less likely that you will. But does looking for a moving experience mean you’re deluding, or manipulating yourself? We often forget that that mentality can work both ways. As Abraham Lincoln said: “If you look for the bad in mankind, expecting to find it, you surely will.”
Same Show Eight Times A Week. Truly Moving? Or Manipulative Machine?
Is it possible to create a formula that, tapping into the universal mythology of our collective unconscious can make us laugh, cry, or cheer on cue? Is it the story, or the machine that makes us respond to a show that has been running for two decades the same way we responded to it on opening night?
One of the original cast members of Cats on Broadway was in the final performance, having never left during the entire eighteen year run. Cris Groenendaal, the original Monsieur Andre in The Phantom of the Opera is still in the show twenty-one years later (he switched roles several years into the run, and now plays Monsieur Firmin.) Special effects, such as the falling chandelier in Phantom…, that were once revolutionary now appear old fashioned. Stories are rampant of the things cast members do to keep themselves entertained doing eight shows a week of a show that runs multiple decades. A recent Forbidden Broadway number parodied such a situation replacing the lyrics to “On My Own” from the long running hit Les Miserables to “On My Phone,” implying that the cast members are just going through the motions, and are so bored, that when they are supposed to be dead on the barricades (or waiting to die) they are actually texting, and having full blown conversations with family members, and friends in other Broadway shows on their iphones:
“I’m standing upstage where it’s dark, there isn’t anyone to talk to
I say my lines, I hit my marks, but I keep looking at the clock too
Until I enter next, there’s lots of time to send a text
On my phone I check up on my voicemail
On my phone behind the Les Miz rubble
Without lights the murky shadows hide me
In case I’m feeling bored, I keep my iphone close beside me
On my phone while Jean Val Jean is weeping
I can call the jerk with whom I’m sleeping
In the darkness I still can text a message
And gossip with my girlfriends while I’m singing “On My Own”
(Spoken) Hello? Where are you guys? You’re in Act 2? I’m still in Act 1. Guess I’ll see you later.
So hate me
Then shoot me
But only on my phone”
David Rooney, in response to the Les Miserables section of Forbidden Broadway: Rude Awakening, said in his Variety review:
“ The delirious turntable action from a cast of living dead, condemned to spend eternity in an embalmed British '80s import, showcases (writer) Alessandrini's indestructible comic broadside with all guns blazing.”
Much of the criticism of the machine-like quality of long running shows stems from the way in which a long running show is maintained. Once the original production, with the original cast is frozen (meaning that no more changes will be made to the script, blocking, or choreography) the creative team departs, going to work on other shows. They will occasionally come back to see the show, and the choreographer may have pick up rehearsals, but it is often several months at least between such visits. Often the creative team is not even a part of the casting process once the show opens. Instead, the casting is done by Casting Directors, and the quality is maintained by the stage managers, and dance captains. This arrangement is usually adequate for some time after a show has opened. But when you’re talking about a truly long running show, cast members, dance captains, and stage managers often leave to pursue other work. This means that you may eventually have a replacement of a replacement of a replacement dance captain teaching a new cast member their role. And by this point, it’s not the choreographer who comes in every so many months; it’s the original dance captain.
This is exacerbated by the fact that when new cast members come into a show they are typically given at most one week to learn their “track” (their role.) The very advent of the term track to mean the role the performer will play almost encourages the idea of Broadway as a machine. Scenery pieces move on and off stage via a physical track built into the floor. To call a performer’s role a track is to imply that they are just being hooked into the continuous machinery of the show, moving on an off stage as mechanically as the scenery. Whereas original cast members have at bare minimum a month (plus an out of town try out) in which to discover and create their character along with the creative team – who often create staging, lines, and songs around their actor’s strengths, and interpretation of the role, new cast members have a week to learn, basically what notes to sing, and where to stand onstage. While some shows encourage bringing personal interpretation to a part, many fully admit that they want the actor to just copy the original performance, and often times an actor will be cast just because they look like the person who’s “track” they are filling, and will fit into the costume.
Broadway stages are dangerous now as well. Not only do you have the physical tracks in the stage – actual gaps in which feet, shoe heels, and costumes can get caught, you also have moving scenery, elaborate props, and people to contend with. The actress playing Nessarose in Wicked not only has to learn her songs and blocking, but must also learn to operate two separate wheelchairs – each with several on/off switches depending on whether the chair is being controlled by remote control (as it is during some of the magical sequences in the show) or manually. Not only are the chairs heavy, but the stage of Wicked is raked (meaning that it is higher in the back than it is in the front.) Nessarose has double the work to push herself up the stage, and, if she pushes any of the on/off buttons incorrectly, her chair could roll into the Orchestra pit. The actress has at most one “put in” rehearsal – meaning one rehearsal with the cast, on stage, with props and costumes. When the actress playing Nessa has her opening night, she can’t possibly give her best acting performance, she’s just trying not to get killed. The situation is made worse by the fact that of their week of rehearsal, an actor gets at most a couple of hours to work on the stage. The rest of the time is spent in a rehearsal room.
Add to that the fact that the show is now being taught by the fifth dance captain, who themselves learned their track (and everyone else’s) in a week and the new performer is learning a copy of a copy of a copy of their track, only leading to their giving a copy of a copy of a copy of a performance, and the show becoming a copy of a copy of a copy of the original. An actor doesn’t have time to learn why they are supposed to move their arm on a certain lyric; they only have time to learn that they have to move it. The new dance captain might not even know why themselves to tell them. Add to that the fact that they perform the same show eight times a week, often for years – and even if the cast once knew the motivation behind each movement, they may have either forgotten, or are so on autopilot that they don’t think about it. The end result is something important, and valuable being lost from the original production.
Another aspect of the “Broadway machine” is the relatively recent addition of a click track to many productions. A click track is prerecorded music or singing that is usually activated by the Orchestra during a performance. The result is that, surprisingly, much of the singing heard on a Broadway stage is not live, and the performers are actually lip-syncing, for example “You Can’t Stop the Beat” in Hairspray, and Christine’s high notes in The Phantom of the Opera. Click tracking can also help round out an orchestra, and provide sounds not able to be produced by live musicians. But regardless, some of what you’re seeing, or rather hearing in a Broadway show isn’t real. And certainly not live.
And yet, something manages to surpass, or rise above all these mechanical elements to still move people. Is it the inherent story? Possibly. How else do you explain the endurance of certain myths through out time? Is it the technical mastery in the material? Possibly. Are the actors so good that they are able to rise above their limitations and give stunning performances? Sometimes. Perhaps it is a combination of all three, for how else do you explain the prevalence of a show such as The Phantom of the Opera? Its novelty has certainly worn off – it’s no longer the “it” show to see. Thanks to numerous productions around the world, pretty much everyone has already seen it. There’s also been a movie, so any one who has not seen the stage play can watch the film, and, thanks to DVD’s anyone who likes it can watch it as many times as they want. The show is based on a classic novel that has been adapted numerous times, so it’s doubtful if there’s anyone who is unfamiliar with the story. And yet, the show has been running on Broadway for over twenty years. Is it a genius score? Many feel that Andrew Lloyd Webber plagiarized almost all the music from classic operas – so in that sense it is both good, and not. But in any case it is far from debatable that you can hear better Opera at…well…the Opera. Is the spectacle a once in a lifetime experience? Perhaps during the first year Phantom… was on Broadway. Now the special effects are almost laughable. Are the performers geniuses? According to recent reports they are adequate. Many have been in the show for years. Are the design elements, the images created enough? It is possible. Visual elements (as separate from special effects) can be moving, and effective, otherwise why would people go to art museums? Perhaps, if the idea was good enough in the first place, and the elements worked cohesively together, than even the shadow, or echo of the original will still contain a “trace pattern” as it were of what is moving about the show.
But what about stories, images, performances that are only meant to garner a certain response? Watching Mary Poppins fly over your head as an audience member at Disney’s Mary Poppins is a viscerally exciting, magical experience. Was it placed in the show only to cause such a visceral experience? Or is it necessary to the story? If we experience awe and delight at such a spectacle does it mean that we are being manipulated? Or is the point of theater that our emotions will be “manipulated” in that way? Like the word critical, manipulation has taken on a negative connotation in our culture – the idea that one is being influenced unscrupulously, as opposed to being handled skillfully. However, it seems more accurate to use the word in the former sense to describe potential marketing strategies to get audiences into the theater than to describe what occurs onstage. What would be the benefit for the creators in “influencing the audience unscrupulously” once they had already purchased their ticket, and were almost finished watching the show? Furthermore, why is the idea of Mary Poppins flying over the audience manipulative spectacle, but Mary Martin flying over the audience in Peter Pan was not? It seems personal bias affects even the interpretation of the idea of theatrical manipulation. If we remove the idea of deliberate manipulation, can we accept the possibility that any show, even a technically flawed show can create stirring emotions in us? Can move us?
Stephen Schwartz says: “I think people respond to things from a personal basis and bias. So yes, I suppose any show can move someone. After all, if it didn't move the creators in some way, they wouldn't have done it in the first place. Think about, for instance, all the people who went multiple times to see Jekyll And Hyde, to the point where someone coined the name "Jekkies" for them. Critics write from their own biases too, and very often their opinions have little to do with intrinsic quality. Otherwise, shows like Xanadu wouldn't get good reviews, for instance. So I don't think taste or emotional response can ever be empiricized or universalized. The best one can hope for as a creator is a consensus, and that one reaches enough people that one's work succeeds in communicating.” (Stephen Schwartz, personal interview 5/10/08)
All right. Perhaps as rational, intellectual people we can agree that any show has the potential to move people. We may disagree in our responses to it, but hey, as a logical person you’re free to think what you want, just as I am. However, there is another factor that takes this debate out from the realm of intellectual discussion. A factor that blows intellectual reasoning out of the water and forces it’s opinion violently on anyone in hearing distance. It is this factor that is the audience’s worst enemy in the critic/audience debate, and ironically, it comes from audiences themselves.
The Fanatic Factor
One of the reasons that people, especially critics are so loathe to admit that they were moved by a show, or even admit that a show has the potential to change someone’s life is because of fanatics. In contemporary culture, if you’re not a critic (I use the term loosely), you’re a fanatic, and you have to “go to the mattresses” to prove that there may be a category in between. The typical fanatic (at least as it is conjured up in the minds of most theatergoers) is a screaming tween girl who stands by the stage door of her favorite show every night wearing homemade clothing that celebrates the show – such as a t-shirt covered in puff paint writing that says things like “Wicked Witch in Training”, or “I love you Idina.” They act as if they’re at a rock concert, screaming and crying at the drop of a hat, and absolutely worshiping the actors in the show. But of course, a rock concert is designed to create such an emotional high. A show is meant to communicate a story. Generally fanatics have no understanding whatsoever about the technical elements of a show, and most likely have no idea who even wrote it. One of the reasons that fanatics are so mocked is because of this lack of education – the idea being – put anything on a stage, and they’ll treat it as the Holy Grail. It would be one thing if it were only ten through thirteen year olds who behaved this way. After all, such preteen behavior is expected. Look at the response to High School Musical, or Hannah Montana. But occasionally, teens, and adults behave this way as well. Yes, some wear homemade t-shirts. Some even become stalkers.
Fanatics have become such a phenomenon, especially evidenced by the unprecedented reaction to Wicked that Variety published an article on fanaticism in their April 26 – May 2, 2004 issue:
Variety: April 26-May 2, 2004. “Girl gangs invade the Gershwin” – by: Marilyn Stasio.
“The adolescent girls who turned out for Wicked at the Wednesday matinee Easter Week did not outnumber adults in the audience, but it sure felt that way. All those bare knees and backpacks, all that high-pitched giggling and jumping –jack vitality turned the Gershwin Theater into a pep rally and sent waves of energy to the stage. What, exactly is the draw of this show – and how did it bring out all this grrrl power?
The range of answers is truly bewitching: “It’s the singing and dancing”…”don’t be stupid – it’s the incredible clothes, I mean costumes”… “My mom wants me to see the witches”…”My mom made me take my sister”…”I heard she flies.”
…It seems to boil down to this: Parents want to return to the magical kingdom of Oz that enchanted them as children, while their daughters want to watch the most unpopular girl in school turn the tables on her tormenters… girls…really love to talk about clothes. It seemed the young crowd at the Gershwin all wanted to live in Oz so they could go off to school in audacious green costumes. And they had other things to say about the show.
“I never really liked The Wizard of Oz,” said 17-year-old Melissa from Randolph, N.J. “I found that movie disturbing.”
“She never got over it,” her mother confirmed, “but now that she’s seen this show, she really likes the Wizard.”
“Yeah,” Melissa said, “but I’d rather be the wicked witch.”
“Not me,” muttered a cheerleader type.
“Why not?” her mother wanted to know. “You said you loved that she could fly.”
“Yeah, I liked that, but I can’t identify with her,” said the girl.
“Why not?” asked Mom.
“Because she’s not popular.”
Oh, well. Not everyone got the message.”
But many adolescents did. The idea that what makes them different is what makes them powerful, and special (as in Wicked) is a potent message for anyone, let alone a young girl. The Grimmerie the official book on the making of Wicked includes letters from audience members, especially girls, who have been moved, and changed by the show. Their words are powerful and moving in their own right:
“My name is Farrah Abuzahria…(and) I am Palestinian American Muslim, born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. My culture is very important to me. It gives me a sense of purpose and helps define who I am, yet it has also caused me a great deal of pain and hardship. Being Muslim and Arabic, I am faced with many different stereotypes, especially during this critical time in American history. I am labeled as a terrorist, and an immigrant, as well as other ignorant slurs…I was very hesitant and nervous about going to the theater. I did not think I would fit into the theater crowd… (but) for the rest of my life, I will always remember my experience seeing Wicked. I was brought to tears several times during the performance. I identified very strongly with the character of Elphaba. I felt all her emotions, from sadness to loneliness to defiance. I knew the pain she experienced as she was shunned for her green skin by her classmates…I cried with her when she heard the horrible and untrue comments made about her…I never thought that my life could be portrayed up on stage, I never thought that the theater could move me as much as it has.”
“This summer our daughter, Margaret, got the opportunity to visit New York and see Wicked…She is a quiet, loving sensitive 10 (almost 11) year old who shows very little excitement for anything. She’s rather reserved when it comes to most things. One must take her word for it when she says she likes something or is having a good time…Then she came home from New York and spent an entire evening telling her dad and me all about Wicked! Her eyes would light up, and she would laugh about some things, and get excited about others. Two months later, it is still her favorite CD and subject to talk about.” – Katie V.
“Two years ago, when I entered high school, I gave up my dream of becoming a dancer. When I entered high school, I still loved to dance but I became more “realistic” and thought that dance wasn’t something that would be a “sure thing” so I shouldn’t waste my time with it after high school…Then I saw Wicked and everything changed..I realized that I (couldn’t) give up dance altogether. I’ve been dancing in NYC for three years and I can’t give up on my dream to be a dancer. Who knows where this dream will lead me, but I will never know if I don’t at least try. (“Defying Gravity”)… gave me the strength to try again and this time I’m not giving up.” – Alix C.
“…I have been a Broadway fan my whole life. I have over 100 shows on CD. However, I married a man who can’t stand the genre…We reached a compromise that I could only listen to my music when he is not around…We came to New York about a month ago and I dragged him to Wicked. He has seen other plays and can tolerate them and find good things to appreciate, but none of them ever really touched him. Well, during Ms. Menzel’s performance of “Defying Gravity,” I look over and he had tears streaming down his face. I can’t tell you what that meant to me…He insisted we get the soundtrack at the theater, did not want to take a chance that Tower Records would be out of it. He then played it over and over the next several days. Just recently I heard him confess to a good friend of his (another guy no less) that this is one of his favorite albums of all time. He still wells up with each listening… To see (my husband’s eyes open) to this world of musicals, well, it was truly astonishing. He said that this is what a musical should sound like. I agree. – Jennifer H.
The question is, have all of the fanatics truly been changed by the show they love? Or are they just overly exuberant? What if the answer is that they really have been changed? Of course, every person’s experience is different, but what motivation could these fans have to act as they do except that they feel there is no other way to express their overwhelming emotions – legitimate emotions. Critics are not composers. Neither are fanatics intellectuals. Their wealth of feeling is so great that they must share it with others, and this may be the only way they know how. C.S Lewis wrote in Reflections on the Psalms:
“I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise does not merely express, but completes the enjoyment.”
I do not believe that it is the feeling that so many object to, but the action of praising. By praising I mean expressing one’s respect, gratitude, approval, or admiration for something. Most often it is done in response to joy, which Lewis used to connote the highest definition of imagination, that is the sense of awe at the presence of the Objective Realty, the Absolute Truth, which lies outside of ourselves (Lewis also specifically linked this Joy with mythology. As human beings, there are some things that just speak to the human condition – certain things we all understand, feel, and relate to, and these are best expressed in varieties of story telling – like plays, or musicals.)
We, as a species need to praise. We praise God, we praise our lover, we praise the beauty of nature. Ironically, praise is often linked to music – both as the inciting factor, and the expression of praise. It is one thing to disapprove of the method of praise – after all, who wouldn’t find the actions of tween Wicked fans at least mildly obnoxious. But it is the cause of the actions, the deeper action of, and desire to praise that seems to throw all logic out the window both for the practitioner, and the observer, and cause despisement and hatred for those who do it. It is the praise that links the emotion with the action – and somehow the annoyance with the latter has become the dislike of the former. Now anyone who expresses joy in an “unpopular” show – is an obnoxious fanatic. The difficulty is that such unrivaled joy, like other uncomfortable issues in our culture such as religion, when encountered, demands to be dealt with. It encroaches on our personal space and demands either a joining in, or a complete rejection.
It is this encroachment that is perhaps most uncomfortable, for it forces us to deal with why we are not experiencing the same vivid emotions as the fan. Are we missing something? Is it something we want? Is it something we are afraid of? Is it something that angers us? There is no neutrality where a fanatic is concerned, neither is there logical reasoning. If the show itself did not force us to deal with our inner emotional life, than the fanatics do – whether we realize it or not. This reaction is only enflamed by the fact that pretty much all theater artists went into the theater because they had a fanatic-like reaction to a show they saw as a child. As they grew up, and had to deal with the business side of theater, perhaps some of that joy faded. It’s no surprise that many artists become jaded as they get older. A desire to, but feeling that they can’t recapture that childhood joy may create a subconscious anger of those who are still in the throws of experiencing what they feel is forever closed to them. The musical Title of Show expressed a similar sentiment in the song “A Way Back To Then”:
“Dancing in the backyard
Kool-aid moustache and butterfly wings
Hearing Andrea McArdle sing
From the hi-fi in the den
I've been waiting my whole life
To find a way back to then
I aimed for the sky
A nine-year-old can see so far
I'll conquer the world and be a star
I'll do it all by the time I'm ten
I would know that confidence
If I knew a way back to then
So I bailed on my hometown
And became a college theatre dork
I was eastbound and down
Moving to New York
So I crammed my life in a U-Haul
To find my part of it all
But the mundane sets in
We play by the rules
And plough through the days
The years take us miles away
From the time we wondered when
We'd find a way back to then”
Some argue that the Fanatics, while in their mind are experiencing the joy, and need to praise described above, they are, in reality merely trying to fill an emotional hole. Perhaps they had a parent who made them feel badly about themselves. Suddenly they see a girl whose parent also made them feel badly about themselves, but who conquers and overcomes their parent’s disapproval, and becomes a strong, powerful, and good person. Aren’t they just over identifying with this character in order to make them feel better about their situation? In this instance – probably. But isn’t that what theater is supposed to do in the first place? Tell us that we are not alone? True, it is possible to form an unhealthy attachment, or even obsession that causes us to escape from reality, as opposed to learning a lesson that leaves us better equipped to face it. But we cannot assume that every Broadway fanatic has a psychological dysfunction (stalkers excepted.) As G.K. Chesterton wrote “Fairy Tales are more than true, not because they tell us that Dragons exist, but because they tell us that Dragons can be beaten.” It seems the possibly unbalanced fanatics believe that Dragon’s are real, but on the other side, many Critics believe that Dragons do not exist at all, in any form. Perhaps the true (healthy) fanatic is merely reveling in the discovery that her Dragons can be beaten. And when you don’t believe in Dragons at all, this reaction comes up against everything you most value. Who would have thought a puff paint t-shirt could affect people so drastically?
The interpreters – performers, directors etc.
“Then I saw Wicked and everything changed. I guess I should thank Idina Menzel…because she sang “Defying Gravity” so well and when she sang that song, I had tears in my eyes...” – Alix C. The Grimmerie
“It's hard to avoid the impression that whenever Ms. Chenoweth leaves the stage, ''Wicked'' loses its wit...I was so blissed out whenever Glinda was onstage that…I just kept smiling in anticipation of her return when she wasn't around…''Wicked'' does not, alas, speak hopefully for the future of the Broadway musical. Ms. Chenoweth, on the other hand, definitely does.” – Ben Brantley, Wicked New York Times review.
“Wicked’s soaring ticket sales and strong bond with its audience have overshadowed what's actually going on lately inside the Gershwin Theater, which, I can report, is far more ordinary. Those witches…are still defying gravity, but now…they seem to be coasting. Wicked has been playing long enough for its first- (and second-) string stars to have moved on, but not long enough for audiences to have forgotten them. The current cast is a patchwork of wildly uneven talents; Elphaba isn't the only one who looks green… what's missing is the one element that won over even the musical's detractors: personality.” – A Pair of New Witches, Still in Search of the Right Spell, Jason Zinoman, New York Times
“You’re never really sure where one person’s job leaves off, and another one begins.” – Wayne Cilento (Choreographer of Wicked)
A creator’s vision is never “purely” expressed. It is interpreted through the actors, directors, and designers who bring their vision to life. Each person brings their own ideas, and skill sets to their job, making it all but impossible to dole out credit for the success, or failure of the elements that make up a show. Ben Brantley praised Kristen Chenoweth as Glinda in his review of Wicked for the New York Times. Is this because role as written was especially inspiring? Because Kristen Chenoweth had been directed brilliantly by Joe Mantello? Or because Ms. Chenoweth is such a phenomenal performer that her inherent talent rose above sub par material and direction? Perhaps it was a combination of all three. But if so, why have more recent Glinda's been criticized for their lack of personality and inferior interpretation? On the other hand, why do audiences continue to love the character of Glinda, and be moved by her journey four and a half years (and several casts) after Ms. Chenoweth departed the show? This dilemma is not only evident in a musical’s performance, but also in the creative process that brings the show to life. The composer, lyricist, book writer, director, choreographer, and sometimes producers all collectively create a show starting from the first workshop, up until opening night, and sometimes after (Wicked was being tinkered with all the way through it’s London opening.) A director may disagree with the focus of a show, or elements of its structure. A performer may have difficulty connecting with a particular song, and a new one will need to be written (for example John Rubinstein, the original Pippin in Pippin could not connect emotionally to his act two song “Marking Time.” To accommodate him, Stephen Schwartz replaced it with a new song written with Rubinstein in mind; “Extraordinary.”) Likewise a writer may take great issue with how a scene is being directed, or even with what costumes were designed for a particular number. In the end, a show is an amalgamation of compromises. Often no one will even remember who is responsible for what in the final incarnation of a show. Therefore, it is apparent that even critics, proprietors of analysis and reasoning, must rely on the abstract to do their job. Whether they know it or not they are beholden to the same rules of the theater as audience members. Ultimately, a critic’s response comes down to whether or not they were affected by what was presented onstage. It is a gut reaction. They either enjoyed it, or they didn’t. The difference is that a critic is required to dissect why they did or didn’t enjoy something, and ultimately give praise or criticism to the responsible parties. The problem is that when it comes down to it, the critic can’t possibly know for sure who was responsible. Critics have criticized Stephen Schwartz’s scores to such shows as Pippin and Wicked, but have praised the shows themselves. What none have taken into account is that these shows started with Mr. Schwarz. They were his idea, and he was the driving force behind getting them produced, and maintaining the inherent message, themes, and heart of the stories. You cannot find something meaningful in these shows, but dismiss Schwartz’s work on them. Likewise a director can transform adequate, or sub par material into something truly extraordinary. Although the idea did not originate with the director, the idea to use puppets in Avenue Q is a directorial choice, and one which made the show something much better, and more interesting than it would have been without them. In fact, very often you can’t pinpoint what exactly went right or wrong about a show. Some cases may be obvious, but often the elements that make up a show seem to meld into a new entity, taking on a life of it’s own. Many artists refer to theater as their “religion.” While that may be taking it too far, there is an inherent spiritual quality that most people in the theater identify with on some level. Being a part of something that takes on a greater power than any of the individual parts. It is this amalgamation that all shows aim for, and all achieve to a greater or lesser degree, partly because of the nature by which a show is created. Would Kristen Chenoweth’s performance have been as good with a different director? With a different script or score? Whatever the answer, it certainly would have been different. And whether better, or worse, that different performance would not have impacted Ben Brantley in the same way as the one Ms. Chenoweth gave did. So then, in the case of Wicked for example, what is the solution? Should it have had a different composer/lyricist? The show would have never existed without Stephen Schwartz in the first place, so change the composer, and you erase the show. A different director? Well, was Joe Mantello responsible for Kristen Chenoweth’s performance? Or for the sappy Ozian sentiment? What about a different book writer, or different cast members? Answer this, and you will have solved one of the greatest mysteries of the theater.
The Power of “Joy”
How is it possible to be deeply moved by imperfect, even flawed art?
“It is sometimes wiser to follow the dreams of your heart than the logic of your mind.”- Unknown.
“In speaking of this desire…which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you – the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both…The books or music in which we thought (it) was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things…are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself…Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. – C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
All artists, whether writers, directors, or performers are attempting to express something abstract – some idea, or feeling larger than themselves, so deep and complex that it can only be effectively communicated through “parable” – storytelling. This is true of everything from Hamlet, to Mamma Mia! (communicating joy effectively can often be just as difficult as communicating tragedy.) Ultimately, everything is in service to this greater idea. When a show is successful, it is this idea that causes people to rave about it, and the individual elements are only praised in as much as they aided in it’s communication. But sometimes, it is possible for this idea in which the show is in service, to shine though the material, even if the material is flawed. For an audience, it is not merely a question of witnessing technical mastery and craft; beauty as it were, there is a deeper longing to somehow be a part of it. C.S Lewis writes:
“God has given us the Morning Star already: you can go and enjoy the gift on many fine mornings if you get up early enough. What more, you may ask, do we want? Ah, but we want so much more – something the books on aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and the mythologies know all about it. We do not want merely to see beauty…we want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves…to become part of it…That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t. They tell us the “beauty born of murmuring sound” will pass into a human face; but it wont…(but) if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendor of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy.” – C.S Lewis, The Weight of Glory.
Musical theater is the art form that comes as close to doing what Lewis describes as possible. Music, song, is literally an innate part of every character onstage. When, in real life we describe instances where “it was like there was music playing” – cliché’s such as hearing bells during a marriage proposal, a marching band when receiving a promotion, etc. In a musical, such things are made manifest, and echo through our beings on a physical and emotional level. For times in our lives when we feel our emotions overwhelming us, onstage characters in just such a situation are brought to the point of song – art emerges from their joys, and sufferings. Theater is the only art that exists “out of time”- it is inherently an art form of the moment, it will not be the same tomorrow night as it is tonight, yet it was crafted and “frozen” in the past, and all the time, the artists who perform it are aware of where it is headed – the future is just as planned as the present, and just as the show will be different each night, so it will be the same. Even the Christian idea of the Trinity – a triune being is elegantly exemplified, perhaps in the only human terms possible. The character onstage is in reality, three beings in one: the actor, the character physically represented onstage, and the words of the creator. If you add to this the intention of the authors to communicate a mythic theme that speaks to it’s audience, it is possible, perhaps through divine assistance, or innate spirituality (which has always been associated with musical theater, all the way back to the Ancient Greeks) for the heart, the far off shore towards which the artists are aiming, to shine through. After all, there is in reality no such thing as perfect art (even Stephen Sondheim, the guru of musical theater finds fault with work of his that is lauded for its perfection). Therefore artists must rely on something outside of themselves to ultimately communicate their vision.
How is it possible to not be moved by technically “perfect” art?
“But you can not go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ’seeing through’ things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. To ’see through’ all things is the same as not to see.” – C.S Lewis, The Abolition of Man
On the opposite side of the spectrum, technical mastery for it’s own sake does itself a great disservice by cutting off the root of what makes art worthwhile in the first place. Joel D. Chaston described just such an idea in the work of L. Frank Baum:
“(L. Frank Baum) seemed to anticipate a postmodernist aesthetic more sympathetic to his kind of fiction than the earlier formalism. Early in The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913), the would-be magician, Dr. Pipt, brings to life a Patchwork Girl and a Glass Cat. The wild, crazy-quilt Patchwork Girl and the sleek, orderly Glass Cat serve well as metaphors for two kinds of art.
The Patchwork Girl…is a “polyphonic” work of art, one in which there is no attempt to orchestrate or unify the various pieces or patches from which she has been constructed. Her actions, both literally and figuratively, suggest that she is a “carnivalized” creation, a wise fool who brings down the pretentious…The Glass Cat, on the other hand, is a “monologic” creature, whose mechanical brains give her the single-minded purpose of self-aggrandizement. The Glass Cat can be seen as a metaphor for the kind of art that elicits flattery by flattering the viewer. Her purpose is single and thus easy to identify, and she satisfies the formalist’s preoccupation with the inner workings of an artistic creation because the Glass Cat is transparent; anyone can watch her “pink brains roll around” and her “precious red heart beat.” (Patchwork 49)
Baum’s attitude toward the Glass Cat and Patchwork Girl thus suggests his turning his back on art that strives for elitist perfection toward that which is more energetic and democratically accessible, if lacking in polish.”(Baum, Bakhtin, And Broadway: A Centennial Look At The Carnival Of Oz, Joel D. Chaston)
It is no surprise that those artists who are most lauded for their technique are also almost always criticized for a “coldness” in their work. Ironically, most university programs tend to focus on turning out this type of artist. After all, technique is teachable and easy to gauge, being moving is subjective. It is actually surprisingly easy to follow the rules of good composition. Complex, yes, but requiring genius? Hardly. Most people could turn out a decent song if they follow certain prescribed chord progressions, and arrange according to established rules for choral harmonizing. Though a moving work certainly cannot exist without technique (along with singing being the second most commanded practice in the Bible is the stipulation to sing well,) there is something that happens apart from technique that is ultimately what makes a work of art effective or not.
What you put in is what you get out?
“Yes, you can escape from you dreary domestic life into fairyland, Baum’s books say…This subversive message may be one of the reasons that the Oz books took so long to become accepted as classics, in spite of their instant popularity…For years they did not appear on lists of recommended juvenile literature, and in the 1930’s and 1940’s they were actually removed from many schools and libraries…The library justified its censorship at the time by pointing out that the books were not beautifully written and that the characters were two dimensional. This is arguable, but it has not prevented many other less than stylistically perfect children’s books of the period from being admired and recommended. It seems more likely that…critics recognized the subversive power of Baum’s creation. “(Baum, Bakhtin, And Broadway: A Centennial Look At The Carnival Of Oz, Joel D. Chaston)
So, if intention is directly related to a work’s ability to move an audience, why are there instances of well-intentioned shows becoming horrible flops? Perhaps it’s because there was a necessary level of technique missing. Or perhaps it’s because the “intention” was more related to the artist wanting to move people, rather than the show moving people. Maybe the creator put too much of an emphasis on the critics when working on the show. All this is subjective. However, if there is a level of intention necessary for creators, is that intention equally true of audience members? There is an old theater adage “fake it till you make it”. Our folklore is riddled with stories of someone seeing someone or something not as they are, but as what they could be (such as Beauty and the Beast) and low and behold, by the end of the story, the person is transformed. The Beast becomes the Prince. Perhaps that is too far of the mark. It is naïve to think that just by going to see a show with hope, optimism, and the best of intentions, you can magically will that show into becoming a transformative experience. However, it is not an unreasonable idea when put in a milder form. Even books such as the recent bestseller The Secret advocate picturing, and expecting the things you want, thereby drawing them to you. There is much power in the human mind.
Broadway, indeed the entire theatrical community has become cynical in recent decades. As we have seen, the potential jadedness of critics is not limited to those in the critical profession. Performers, creators, everyone has reason to feel likewise. Schwartz is somewhat unique in that, despite emotional professional setbacks, he continues to produce work focusing on themes that resonate with the general population. His shows are neither naïve fluff, nor dark cynicism. And perhaps, it is that middle ground that should be the aim of all those in the theatrical community, always with the understanding that it is something apart from ourselves (neither audience, nor artist, nor critic can claim to have a finger on it) that creates magic onstage.
“It is the actor’s job to show you what it would be like to be a princess, a fairy, a God, to indulge all your deepest desires, and impulses, to fly. In reality, the actor does not feel like a princess, like a God, or like they are flying – they are tired, drained, and trying to remember all the technical considerations at play. Inside they are the furthest thing from a princess. But sometimes, maybe only once or twice in a lifetime, an actor feels like a princess when they are playing at being a princess. By “dressing” up as something they for a moment become them. They do, for a moment, really fly. And for that one moment we dedicate a lifetime to the theater. A lifetime in which we will primarily feel tired and drained, and exhausted. But once, just once we may be able to say, “I flew”. And because we once flew, everything is possible.” –A.G