How did Broadway theatre critics become so important?

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Answered by: Tom, An Expert in the Broadway Category
For much of the 20th century, for the purposes of the commercial theatre, the Broadway theatre had the right critics at the right time and in the right place. And as long as theatre was a profitable venture, Broadway critics and producers co-existed, however uneasily. Through much of the first half of the 20th century there were more than a dozen newspapers serving New Yorkers and there were usually more than 100 openings in a season. (On the night of 26 December 1927 alone, there were eleven openings.

During the entire 1926-1927 season there were 269 openings. By 1950 a busy season would have less than fifty openings.) This made for much competition. Theatre advertising contributed substantially to newspaper profits and attracted many other advertisers—not only those for productions. As noted, the "powerful" position that critics assumed through these decades had been consolidated during the war years (1914-18) and was able to sustain a level of seriousness through the late 1940s.

In 1950 Walter Kerr began his career writing for the Catholic monthly Commonweal. A year later he joined The New York Herald Tribune was he remained until the moderate Republican newspaper’s demise in 1966. Transferring to the Times’ troubled drama desk (he was their third critic in a year), he became best known for his weekly essays thereafter. Kerr remained with the Times for seventeen years. Widely-read and even revered until his death in 1996--Kerr had a theater named for him in 1990. However, it is well to recall that he despised the Theatre of the Absurd and castigated Chekhov for being having a disastrous influence on American playwriting.

Howard Taubman took over from Atkinson in 1960 and immediately came under fire from producer David Merrick, who also feuded with Kerr. Perhaps the last time the old-time Broadway critical grit was tested was Merrick’s war on the critics; he even attempted to bar them from his shows. He infamously hoodwinked the public to promote his slipping musical Subways are for Sleeping in 1961. Merrick placed a full-page advertisement in the Herald-Tribune quoting rave reviews from “Howard Taubman,” “Walter Kerr” and four other major critics. It was bunk: Merrick had found New Yorkers with the same names as the critics and suborned them.

The ad’ only ran in one late edition, but was subsequently reprinted in newspapers all over the world. Taubman and his colleagues were outraged, but the stunt paid off at the box office. Taubman only lasted six seasons, his replacement Stanley Kauffman barely one. The newspapers strikes of the 1960s killed off six of nine dailies. Radio and television began broadcasting news as never before--including on-air reviews. But these capsule critiques could never be what the daily and weekly columns had been.

American drama criticism has been in a steady decline through the second half of the 20th century, owing to the relentless down turning of the newspaper business and the virtual collapse of the theater business as a viable enterprise. The disappearance of newspapers has been dramatic. There is only one daily broadsheet in New York today, the Times. Its companions are two tabloids, the New York Post and the Daily News. (One could argue that another daily, Newsday lies somewhere between the tabloids and the Times.) In the face of all of this, it is odd that the New York Times has the same standard of theatre coverage as it did in 1917. For the New York Times theatre remains primarily a news event and the average upper-middle-class reader needs only to have criticism that appeals to his or her average sensibilities. Thus though the times have changed, The Times has not. This situation is reflected by the nation as a whole.

As for The Great White Way’s ink slingers today, “Mr. First Nighter” seems to have gone the way of niteries like the Stork Club and neckties at “21.” Frank Rich, the New York Times’ so-called butcher of Broadway, fled reviewing for the op-ed pages in 1994, and John Simon probably the most hated critic of all time, was axed by New York magazine without warning in 2005. In spite of relentless attempts by the theatre community to blame critics for their insidious influence, today critics function in suspension from the hurly-burly of theatrical production. The closest most critics get to the production process nowadays is a pre-opening interview.

Sadly, most of these are little more than puff pieces inflated by "human interest." True critics have no business writing feature stories, but editors think otherwise. And it is curious that no conflict of interest is perceived in these printed tête-à-têtes between critic and performer, director or playwright. Recently though, the New Yorker drama critic John Lahr has been the subject of controversy due to his technique of mixing interview, feature article and criticism. Lahr’s attempts at defending his technique on the basis that he is involving himself in the theatrical process may not be satisfactory since he never seems to have anything negative to say about the performers, directors or playwrights whom he interviews.

Thus the only function left for turn-of-the-millennium Broadway critics would seem to be as a consumer guide for the vanishing commercial theatre. It is most ironic that performers who chastise critics for ruining the theatre with destructive criticism are lock-stepped with the money-changers in Thespis’ temple. Both groups would just as soon slice critics into little more than upright thumbs as allow them to speak freely.

There are obvious reasons for this. Outside of New York City, where producers attempt to attract busloads of tourists to fill the theaters in which mega-musicals play year after year, theatre is but a coterie art. It is strange that theatre people so eagerly feign to reject the attention of the only group consistently willing to pay them any heed: the critics. Yet equally strange is the perception critics have that they can maintain their integrity only if they function as though it would not matter if every box office in the country closed. The day-to-day critical situation is aesthetically grim. Most newspapers do not even have a regular critic; they have some sort of arts reporter who is expected to write about all of the arts, and do interviews. Criticism has become an adjunct of feature writing.

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