Theatre yesterday and today



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In 1943, Agatha Christie, then at the height of her fame as a murder mystery novelist, had one of her most popular stories turned into a play for London's West End. The show's title (same as the book) was the offensive Ten Little Ni**ers. Raising no protest back then, the show was a hit, though when producers took it to New York a year later, a name change to the still derogatory Ten Little Indians was deemed more permissible. As both versions had successful runs, Hollywood came calling and bought the property for an all-star cast film version. So it became 1945's And Then There Were None (although in England, its title reverted back to Ten Little Ni**ers). Not nice.

What's also not nice, and why I bring up And Then There Were None, is because the phrase has been playing over and over in my head for a week after the double-whammy of the announcement that two New York theatre critics had been sacked. Though these firings came independently of one another, the timing was not accidental. It was done in the light of the two weeks post-Tony Awards when a producer's bottom line dictates whether or not a show can make it through summer with no award-wins to show off in their ads. This particular June was epic in being more painful than usual: even cutthroat, when examined closely. But that's for another time. Back to the critics.

Jeremy Gerard had been reporting on the Broadway scene off and on for forty years, the last two as a theatre critic and columnist for one of the most highly regarded entertainment news websites in the industry, Deadline Hollywood. With a long list of journalistic credits, to which he brought wit, passion and genuine knowledge, he was summarily dismissed after the site decided there wasn't enough interest in the theatre for a readership (they felt) more devoted to film and television. This is a tremendous loss. As a devoted reader of Gerard's writings, Deadline has a total misunderstanding of the sparked interest in theatre this season, what with it being the year of Hamilton, one of the most exciting juggernauts in my fifty-year history of theatregoing.

In addition to Gerard's dismissal, Elizabeth Vincentelli, the first-string theatre critic for the New York Post, was let go after a respectable seven-year-run at that paper. Not only were these two veterans fired, but no replacements have been named; which leaves those concerned over a situation long brewing, that we are looking at the once bedrock institution of theatre criticism being systematically obliterated. This is a slap in the face—a total disrespect of what once was a thriving and necessary function of the theatre: a dinosaur lost in the face of an inevitable extinction. And like the creatures that roamed the earth who either froze to death, or were destroyed by a meteor—the metaphoric meteor that struck the theatre world last week signals the destruction of something that will change Broadway and Off-Broadway forever.

This means that future audiences will only have advertising (highly subjective) to inform their choices, which may have the effect of a boon to those platforms for news (both in print and on line) that pay to keep their franchises going. But this will also eliminate the opportunity for their readerships to have a neutral and informed writer advise, nurture and do their level best to take the merits of a play or musical onto a higher level of discourse. That may sound a bit too virtuous, but what's wrong with virtuousness? Isn't that something we need a lot now more than ever? What passes for journalism these days becomes weaker and weaker with each passing day, if not each passing minute.

After all, the New York Times, once the bastion of whether a Broadway play or musical lived or died on its say-so, has become completely irrelevant within that context. Dismissive notices in the Times for Wicked and Mamma Mia did nothing to hurt their long runs. And on the flip side, Ben Brantley's rave review for the 1998 musical Side Show did nothing to turn it into a box office success, nor did Brantley's colleague Charles Isherwood's subsequent rave for the 2014 revival. Neither review did anything to allow Side Show to survive beyond a few weeks on Broadway.

Is it possible one day that the New York Times will be the sole daily review published the night a Broadway show opens? Or the only one read by those who still care the next morning over their coffee or tea? Or will the Times eventually dismantle the beloved Sunday Arts & Leisure section in order to save on paper and space. Maybe theatre criticism will live or die on the word of Roma Torre at NY1. It's totally possible... and why And Then There Were None sticks in my brain.

If you would like to comment on any of these posts, please do so below. I look forward to hearing from you.