If you’re a theater nerd like me, you likely spend opening nights parsing through reviews to find out how the latest Broadway show fared with the critics. Amidst the cacophony of voices, you have learned there are a few critics with whom you share similar tastes, and some that make you shout at the computer screen in disagreement. But many of us may never stop to think just who are these men and women. At times they appear to rule Broadway, stamping shows with approval or scorn. But what are they like as people, and how do they view their responsibilities and place in the industry?
Gold Derby expert Matt Windman (amNewYork) has taken on this daunting task and the result is his compelling new book “The Critics Say…” in which he interviews 57 theater critics. He talks to everyone from Ben Brantley of the New York Times to Michael Riedel of the New York Post and PBS show “Theater Talk.” Instead of presenting the responses as separate interviews, they are divided by topic. It is a smart move that makes for an easily digestible read, and one that encourages the reader to jump around to points of interest.
It’s clear Windman has fun organizing the wide variety of strong opinions. When asked “why do we have theater critics in the first place?” Peter Filichia concludes: “I say we’re here to let people know what they’d enjoy…I am there to determine who would like the show.” You can almost see John Simon roll his eyes in response, firing back with “Being a consumer guide is the most pathetic and inadequate way of looking at drama criticism.” This structure provides the book with a banter-like quality, often resulting in humorous moments when opinions lie in stark contrast to one another. It feels like a huge group interview even though they all answered questions separately.
Of particular interest to us at Gold Derby is the reaction of these journalists to awards season. In 2009, the Tony Awards dropped around 100 theater critics as voters. The stated goal was to create a body of voters consisting solely of industry professionals, no press. After a backlash, members of the New York Drama Critic’s Circle (roughly two dozen scribes) were reinstated as Tony voters a few months later. Roma Torre calls the ousting of journalists “the most ridiculous decision in years” and Michael Dale backs her up arguing, “Who would be better qualified to vote for theater awards than someone who has seen everything and has nothing to gain from the results.”
While awards season provides a boost in the number of eyes on their writing, the most illuminating aspect of the book is their sense of dread about the future of theatre criticism. As news outlets scale back theater coverage, jobs are often eliminated or handed to freelancers. Windman cycles through many topics (the critics get a whole chapter to savage “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” one last time), but a feeling of heartbreak creeps into every subject. Their livelihood is dying, and they know it. These critics give themselves to the art form just as actors and directors do, and are increasingly being paid just as little as industry workers. This insight into the people behind the pans and raves makes “The Critics Say…” essential reading for Broadway lovers everywhere.
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