“No legs, no jokes, no chance!”
Producer Mike Todd didn’t have time to stay for the second act of Away We Go!, but he managed to convey that two-big-thumbs-down to Walter Winchell, who quoted it anonymously among the reactions of the catty New York theater crowd who’d made their way to New Haven for the opening night of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first musical. By the time the show arrived in New York three weeks later, any problems plaguing it had been jettisoned with its name. Oklahoma! opened at the St. James Theatre on March 31, 1943, and, notwithstanding Mike Todd’s pronouncement, ran more than five years, making musical-theater history in the bargain.
Had Away We Go! been suffering through tryout angst today, the future Mr. Liz Taylor would almost certainly have headed not for the telephone or Western Union to pronounce judgment but to his laptop. So would a great many of his fellow theatergoers – all of them skipping the middleman and hitting a wider audience. For in the Internet age, the phrase Everybody’s a critic has become a literal fact. In the fractious, high-stakes world of Broadway producing, where mounting a turkey is every bit as daunting as mounting a hit (and always more expensive), a dispatch from the front by “Mackie_Maniac” or “bruceb” can carry as much weight as Mike Todd’s.
This torrent of gossip, news, amusing tidbits, and reviews – most of them unfiltered, unverifiable, and true – in chat rooms and on bulletin boards at sites such as playbill.com, broadway.com, and talkinbroadway.com, is throwing producers and the reporters covering them for a loop. Why? For the same reason the Web has turned every other industry inside out: It’s democratized something that used to be the exclusive purview of an entrenched elite, and the entrenched elite ain’t happy.
Consider the case of Seussical the Musical, one of several big shows staking a claim on your wallet this fall. It is the work of musical-theater veterans, and it has built-in family appeal and a name brand – all precious commodities in a time when shows command $90 a ticket and still need to run for years to make back the cost of producing them. But even before the first preview of its tryout at Boston’s Colonial Theatre, news of trouble in Whoville began circulating on the Web, and by the time the show opened there on September 6, every seam in Seussical stood revealed. The second act was in trouble. The costumes were all wrong. The casting was weird. There were too many plotlines and they weren’t coming together. Scores if not hundreds of people – including some obviously connected to the show – were publicly charting the Cat in the Hat’s arduous progress online.
“A theater insider informed me last night that Rob Marshall was doing more than ‘adding an extra pair of eyes’ to Seussical,” bruceb wrote on Talkin’ Broadway when word of the popular director’s presence on the set got out. News of the inevitable Broadway postponements, first of the previews and then of the November 9 opening, spread quickly through the Web samizdat. Reports of Seussical’s woes also appeared in, among other papers, the New York Times and the Post (whose cheerfully fang-in-cheek Broadway columnist, Michael Riedel, is the most aggressive reporter of the lot). Their competition was as much with the Websites as with one another, and the Websites often came out ahead.
The entertainment media have a bottomless maw to fill, which is why information that used to be the province of trade papers – TV ratings, book sales, Broadway box-office grosses – now runs in family newspapers.
“It’s got to make it really hard for the columnists,” says Adrian Bryan-Brown, one of Broadway’s most influential press agents and a devout Web surfer, “because nothing holds.”
Who but the most Variety-grosses-obsessed Broadway nerd cares about this stuff?
For most of the past century, “the road” – Boston, New Haven, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., among other cities – was where plays and musicals tried out before opening on Broadway. The road offered producers a useful conspiracy of time, artists, audiences, and critics to get a show right, mostly beyond the scrutiny of the New York press. Ticket buyers knew they were seeing a work in progress, and well-regarded critics like Elliot Norton at the Boston Herald American and Richard Coe at the Washington Post brought an insider-outsider’s eye to pointing out a show’s strengths and weaknesses. For the most part, showbiz types back in New York followed a show’s progress through the grapevine and in the trades. In general, a producer could count on opening in New York before a fresh audience, one that hadn’t been inundated with backstage chatter and the partisan musings of a thousand armchair critics.
Well, those days are as dead as Rodgers and Hammerstein. The entertainment media have a bottomless maw to fill, which is why information that used to be the province of trade papers – from TV ratings to book sales to Broadway box-office receipts – now runs in family newspapers right along with progress reports on shows gestating, often painfully, before opening. The Web has pushed that change to the next level, bypassing the papers altogether.
In 1980, Cliff Jahr, reporting a story about the creation of the musical 42nd Street for the Times, bought a ticket for the first preview at the Winter Garden Theatre. When the producer, David Merrick, found out, he abruptly canceled the performance, later saying he’d sent everyone home because “a snake was loose in the audience.”
These days, there’s a good chance most of the house is filled with snakes, and the Internet is their rattle. Or, to put it another way, the Web is the Fisher-Price baby monitor of Broadway, broadcasting each night’s mewling to an audience of voyeurs before the cherished child is ready to seek its fortune in the world.
Then again, maybe you, Mr. and Mrs. Producer, will luck out and have “jdm” in your preview audience, as he was recently at The Full Monty. “One of the biggest crowd pleasers I have ever seen!” jdm posted, in a perfect imitation of a critic’s rave. “And this is from over 30 years of theatergoing.” Call the Post!