Enter the Female Drama Critic

I’m going to start this off with an anecdote.

When I was in eighth grade, my family didn’t have that much money. So, for Christmas, my dad went out and purchased a copy of the New York Times and gave it to me as a present. After that, I started buying a copy of the Times or, when I was too poor to go and get a copy, I would read the theater reviews in my junior high library when a class I was in would be there. I got in trouble a few times for doing this and they eventually blocked the website.

That same year, my guidance councilor asked me what I wanted to do as a career. “I want to be either a theatre critic or an epidemiologist,” I replied. “Why an epidemiologist?” she asked. “I think diseases are really interesting,” I answered.

She looked at me and said, “Stick with the epidemiologist idea.” So I tucked my desire to critique theater as a career in the back of my head until my senior year, when I said I wanted to be a playwright and a drama critic. My high school guidance councilor told me to get a degree in “something useful, just in case.”
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I was watching an episode of Theater Talk yesterday and one of the critics they talked to, Barbara Hoffman of the New York Post, who I didn’t know wrote reviews (my fault), commented that most of the critics didn’t like “9 to 5” because most of the New York critics are men (true) and couldn’t relate to the female bonding story. She also compared it to “Wicked” in the female-bonding-men-can’t-relate-to manner.

Four things popped into my mind. The first was, “Wait, John Simon enjoyed ‘9 to 5’.” The second one was, “Why didn’t I like ‘Wicked’? Because I’m female and I don’t like it.” The third one was, “Why are they not mentioning Elysa Gardner?” (Her review of “9 to 5” was a bit of a meh) And the final thought was a reminder of a comment someone left on The Theater Loop in reference to John Beer being named the new theater critic for Time Out Chicago. That comment was, “Oh good. Heaven knows we need more middle-aged white male critics in Chicago.”

While that comment is directly in reference to the critics in Chicago, most people could apply that to critics anywhere. Four of the major New York critics are female. (I’m counting the woman at Entertainment Weekly.) Two of the critics for print publications in Eastern Iowa are female. The critic at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is female. Those are the ones immediately coming to my mind.

The fact that there aren’t as many women that are drama critics is not something I lose sleep over.

How many girls, or boys, wake up one morning and come bouncing to the breakfast table going, “Mommy, mommy, mommy, I want to be a theater critic when I grow up”? I’m going to guess very few. That’s not a career people are probably going to steer children or teenagers towards. Especially with the fate of print journalism. From my own casual observation, more young girls would much rather be actresses than critics. Or directors, stage managers, or stage hands.

And I don’t think that if we have more female theater critics we’re going to suddenly have a better understanding of female problems and struggles and friendship on the stage. I don’t like “Steel Magnolias” nor do I like “Wicked.” Although, I don’t like “Wicked” as an objective analysis of the show. I know a lot of guys who like more chick-flick type shows.

Does anyone disagree with me? Agree? Do we need more female drama critics?

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David Cote vs. Terry Teachout vs. the Obama’s Seeing “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”

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Left, Terry Teachout; right, David Cote

For those of you unaware of the event, on Saturday night, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attended the revival of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” at the Belasco Theater.

Since then, ticket sales have gone up considerably. Which makes me happy because this means that people are going to see a show that should be very good. More importantly, people will be going to see August Wilson. And since it seems as though a certain theater critic is not going to stand in Times Square wearing a sandwich board, this is pretty good.

The issue has been brought up that the trip will cost taxpayers about $24,000. I mulled this number over in my head and thought about how much of that is for the Secret Service, the motorcade, the police officers being brought in? Granted, the use of Marine One probably factors in heavily, but I would have to imagine that security factors a great deal into that figure.

Monday, Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal, who is a critic that I greatly respect and I enjoy reading, discussed the Obama’s attending the show. While he was thrilled that they attended a show he raved about, he wished that they had seen a show in Washington D.C.

However, First Lady Obama had apparently made President Obama promise her to take her to a Broadway show once the campaign was over. Or so I’ve read. If he had taken her to a show in D.C., it wouldn’t have been a Broadway show. But more importantly, it was a date night.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge supporter of regional theater. Remember, I’m the one that tells people to at least see a show at the Steppenwolf instead of seeing a big glittery Broadway in Chicago show. I have to rally around the mostly community theaters here.

Quite frankly, this is a two sided issue. Yes, it would have been nice if they had seen a play in Washington D.C., but it’s nice that they saw a play that has quite a bit of artistic merit. And while Teachout brings in to the discussion the issue of cost, I personally don’t know how much of it would have been discounted by seeing a play in D.C..

Tuesday, Teachout posted a rebuttal to an anonymous drama critic who sent him a rather scathing email. Teachout does make some good points and while to the best of my knowledge, former President Bush never attended any Broadway plays or any shows in D.C., he did do somethings to support the arts. (On a side note, it is my belief as a journalist that the media is a bit focused on Obama, on both sides of the spectrum. I have yet to turn on my TV and hear about the fact that today is the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which I read about in this morning’s New York Times.)

Yesterday, David Cote, the theater editor for Time Out New York, came out as the critic who emailed Teachout. On TONY‘s theater blog “Upstaged”, he staged a smackdown of the Journal critic.

I respect both gentlemen as critics and I read both of their reviews. However, Cote has presented an argument that hinges on a hypothesis that Teachout’s reviews are biased due to political feelings of conservatism. (Cote uses “Republican” to label Teachout, but I know some liberal Republicans, such as my own mother, and I think the term he’s looking for is conservative.)

In the Wikipedia article on Teachout, it says that he is “a political conservative with wide-ranging cultural interests and sympathies.” And I remember hearing an interview with him on the American Theatre Wing’s program “Downstage Center” where he apparently told the two hosts to read his Wikipedia article before the interview. I think it’s safe to say that Teachout has a good idea of what is on this article.

But Cote suggests that Teachout uses his political ideologies to bias his reviews. He panned “Billy Elliot“, “Black Watch”, and “Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them.” But he also panned all of the other musicals that opened on Broadway this season. As a commenter on Cote’s post points out, he raved about “Avenue Q”, which has the line of “George Bush is only for now.”

You could suggest that Teachout pans shows based on political ideologies. But you could also suggest that John Simon is the lone voice when panning shows because he’s a cranky old man. You could suggest that Charles Isherwood might be the lone voice panning a show because he’s a snob. You could suggest that Chris Jones goes gaga for only big, expensive shows. The last one is a bit of a hyperbole, but I don’t think that Teachout does review shows using his political views as a blinder. If so, I don’t think he would have raved about a production of “Old Times” by Harold Pinter, who bashed Bush in his Nobel Prize in Literature speech.

And from reading his review of “Billy Elliot”, it seemed to be based on problems with the book and music. And the fact that it does spend some time bashing Margaret Thatcher. I listen to the music and I think “Thank you, I understand that a lot of people didn’t like Margaret Thatcher. May we please move on?” Sure, that’s a part of England at that time, but could we please move on?

In short, while it might seem as though Teachout pans shows based his political views, it’s just an assumption, a hypothesis. I believe that Noel Coward once said something about if you write a political piece, it can’t seem as though you’re forcing the views on the audience.

And for what it’s worth, I, an independent with some rather liberal views, read the Wall Street Journal, along with the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Cedar Rapids Gazette. My rather conservative grandfather who reads the Journal on a daily basis was unaware of the existence of Teachout until I told him about it.

(It also seems as though someone is posing as me in the comments section of “Upstaged”)

Outrage!

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Today, Michael Riedel reports in his column that CBS has made the decision to ax out of it’s telecast the awards for Best Costume Design, Best Set Design, Best Lighting Design, it’s not mentioned, but I’m assuming Best Sound Design; Best Choreography, Best Book of a Musical (poor Hunter Bell), and Best Revival of a Play.

Let me say that again to make it sink into your minds: The award for Best Revival of a Play will be cut from the Tony Award telecast.

Now, why would they decide to do that? Well, it’s to accommodate for performances from touring shows such as “Jersey Boys,” “Mamma Mia!,” and “Legally Blond.” There’s also supposed to be more performances from things that aren’t nominated for the award for Best Musical and Best Revival of a Musical, but none of it is actually confirmed.

Here’s something for you to chew on: according to the Broadway League, of the 43 shows that opened on Broadway in the 2008-2009 season, a majority of them were revivals of plays.

And here’s something else. “Equus,” which received attention due to its star, was a revival. “All My Sons” and “Speed-the-Plow,” which also received attention due to celebrities in the shows, were also revivals. The praised production of “The Seagull” was a revival. The play that the Obamas saw Saturday night is a revival.

The decision by Leslie Moonves to not air the giving out of the award for Best Revival of a Play is a decision to not recognize a major part of the past Broadway season.

And what for? To maybe get higher ratings for the telecast? Does anyone think that teenage girls who just saw “Legally Blond” at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts are going to go “Ooh, ‘Legally Blond’ is performing on the Tony Awards. I should watch that.”? I don’t think that’s going to happen.

Granted the decision to do things to possibly draw a larger audience than just the theater savvy is not new. Last year I remember seeing ads for the Tony Awards while watching coverage of the Iowa floods on my local CBS affiliate, KGAN. The ads emphasized a performance from “The Lion King”, “Rent” and the host, Whoopi Goldberg.

Thankfully, due to the flood coverage, KGAN cut in during the segment on the musicals not nominated. Which was good, because I really didn’t want to hear a number from “Young Frankenstein”.

I also remember reading a week later a piece by Charles Isherwood addressing various elements of the Tony Award broadcast last year that seem to be occurring this year.

Among the various interesting points made in that piece, such as the fact that the twelve awards not handed out during the telecast was the most number not handed out, is a discussion of the appearance of Julie Chen as a presenter. (I recommend you read the entire thing.)

He writes:

I also learned that she happens to be married to Leslie Moonves, president and chief executive of CBS. It is hard to avoid concluding that Ms. Chen’s presence was primarily a way of currying favor with the man who can snap his fingers and exile the Tony Awards to the Siberian wasteland of PBS. But, really, would that be such a bad thing? The pleasure of the Tony Awards, for me and probably for most theater lovers (and, seriously, who else watches?) is a chance to see artists we admire rewarded for their work, to see them acting joyous, excited, flustered, grateful, maybe a little foolish — in short, human, divorced from the stage personality, without the mask of character to obscure them. The glow of that kind of happiness is always touching.[…] Stage actors, directors and designers — heck, even producers — earn a fraction of what their counterparts do in film and television (or what they themselves earn when working in those mediums), so it is rather cruel to deny them their moment of public acclaim in the fruitless hope that a more entertainment-oriented telecast will up the ratings.

There are two interesting things about that quote. One, it is very clear that Isherwood wields no power over the Tony telecast. Two, he makes the excellent point of whether or not more people are going to watch the Tony Awards if more stunts are pulled.

The answer to that seems to be no. The only people interested in the Tony Awards are those who love theater and those involved in theater in one way or another. I have several friends in theater who hold parties to watch the Tony Awards the night of the broadcast. I’m never invited, but that’s probably because I almost shot tea out of my nose when Raul Esparza didn’t win in 2007. I also mainly care about the plays.

But the Tony Awards aren’t going to draw new viewers by having musical numbers from musicals people are familiar with. If anything a decision such as the one in question may only alienate those that normally watch the Tony Awards.

For example, I’m rather repulsed by this decision because, as Riedel puts it, “Why call attention to the work of minor writers such as August Wilson (‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’), Alan Ayckbourn (‘The Norman Conquests’), Lee Hall (‘Billy Elliot’) and Samuel Beckett (‘Waiting for Godot’)?”

For those of you unfamiliar with sarcasm or who Wilson, Ayckbourn and Beckett are, they’re very major playwrights. “The Norman Conquests” is a trilogy of plays and the actors perform marathons of the three plays on certain days. That sounds like a walk in a park.

And thus the question comes, what has to be done to get the Tony Awards to be sent off to PBS, where we might finally get to see the entire thing? While the decision seems inevitable, I think that those who aren’t pleased with the decision should simply not watch the broadcast of the ceremony.

After all, you can find out the winners on the Tony Awards’ website, and isn’t the internet killing television as it is?

TONY SQUEEZES OUT DRAMA [New York Post]

Broadway’s Not Stale, So Why Are the Tonys?” [New York Times]

The Inner Circle?

On Time Out New York‘s theater blog “Upstaged,” Adam Feldman has been posting videos of this year’s New York Drama Critics Circle Awards. Feldman also happens to be the president of the New York Drama Critics Circle and this is to try to give the group a bit of a transparency.

Anyway, the category is labeled as “The Inner Circle.” For those of you not familiar with the New York Drama Critics Circle, Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood are not part of the inner circle.

Why are the two critics that are viewed as wielding the most power over New York theater not in this group? Well, there is a reason why.

According to the Circle’s website, in the 1988-1989 theater season, the Times ordered that none of their critics could participate in any awards. In the 1996-1997 season, this decision was reversed. And then in the 2002-2003 season, it was reversed again.

So, in short, the New York Times says that none of their critics can vote on awards. Not a single one. The theater critics can’t vote for theater awards, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis can’t vote on the New York Film Critics Circle, and Alessandra Stanley can’t vote on…well, whatever that would be.

But I’m just saying that I think it’s amusing that the critics perceived as having quite a bit of power aren’t in “the inner circle.”

On a side note, does anyone other than Isaac, Rob, and Linda at Critic-O-Meter and theater producers read the theater reviews in Entertainment Weekly? My sister reads Entertainment Weekly and she didn’t know there were theater reviews.

Why I Really Don’t Care About the Tonys This Year

Or, Ben Brantley Explains It All.

“‘The Seagull,’ directed by Ian Rickson, was infused with a delicate emotional complexity, poised on the brink that separates comedy from tragedy, as it elicited the full weight of Chekhov’s vision of human solitude. (The show, which closed in December, remains for me the season’s high point, with Kristin Scott Thomas giving the best performance by an actress this year. Its exclusion from the Tony nominations shows how meaningless the awards generally are as measures of artistic merit.)”

That’s from Brantley’s piece in today’s Times, reviewing the year on Broadway.

The emphasis is mine, not his, but that’s why I really don’t care about the Tonys. I do plan on liveblogging them, though.

Ben Brantley and Celebrity Stunt Casting

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Ben, may we please talk?

I’ve really noticed this season, due to the celebrity studded Broadway season, how celebrity crazed you can be. It’s breaking my heart because you’re the chief theater critic for the New York Times. You normally would seen as a force to be dealt with that makes producers tremble.

Granted, your star obsession has been known for a while. There was the infamous review of the revival of Three Days of Rain that was not only entitled “Enough Said About ‘Three Days of Rain.’ Let’s Talk Julia Roberts!”, but you confessed that you are (or were) a “Juliaholic.” You then proceeded to go on about how nervous it was to be in the same theater as Julia Roberts.

Which, if you were trying to convey a point, I understand. But at that time I banged my head into my desk. In fact, when I read those words today, I have to refrain from banging my head into my desk.

This was seen again in your review of “33 Variations,” which seemed as though you spent far too much time going “OMG JANE FONDA” and discussing the errors of the play than talking about the performances of the other actors which you seemed a bit dismissive of.

“In ’33 Variations,’ Katherine is being ruthlessly denuded of her defenses, and for those who grew up enthralled with Ms. Fonda’s screen image, it’s hard not to respond to her performance here, on some level, as a personal memento mori,” you wrote in your review.

“Those who grew up enthralled with Ms. Fonda’s screen image”? Were you referring to yourself? Your colleague at Time Out New York, David Cote, pointed this out on “Upstaged” and I couldn’t agree more with him.

Your approach to Fonda’s performance is more drooling than anything. In fact, your near-drooling is really sad after your colleague at the Times, Charles Isherwood, wrote in his article “Celebroadway!” this:

It gives Ms. Fonda so little to play that the production marks the saddest waste of an actor in at least a season or two, given that it has been more than four decades since she has appeared on a New York stage. As a chilly music scholar trying to unearth the secret history of Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations, Ms. Fonda is largely required only to lecture us about her research, act standoffish toward her needy daughter (Ms. Mathis) and then slowly succumb to disease.

She does it all with unexceptionable integrity, but you are left wanting a lot more. Ms. Fonda is as serious a person as you could hope to meet, but let’s hope that next time she braves Broadway — and I sincerely hope she does again, soon — she consents to make a spectacle of herself, or at least a spectacle of her formidable talent.

While you sounded breathless and over-the-top, Isherwood–who not only is another critic, but writes for the same publication–was refined and said that he hopes that she appears in something that isn’t a waste. You just pointed out the flaws in the play and talked about Fonda like you’re a host on E! News.

It makes me so sad since I’ve been reading and digesting your reviews since I was twelve. There are some weeks where I just don’t read your reviews because I know what the reviews will sound like. They will sound like shrill praise from a celebrity obsessed critic.

My heart leapt a bit when I read your review of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone because I thought that maybe you had gone back to being serious. But perhaps I shouldn’t think too much of it. There are still several plays awaiting to open.

Yours Truly,

Monica

Shut Up, People Who Have a Beef With My Articles

I’m resorting to this because I’m less than thrilled with major editing error that an editor made on an article that I wrote that’s being run today in the publication I write for. I’m thinking of writing for another one.

The title is also a reference to the fact that I wrote an article on the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling and several people are upset because “I’m giving the gays too much power.” How? I’m reporting on a major, historic event. How does that give them power?

Strangely enough, I had an opinion piece published in November saying that Proposition 8 denied equality to Californians. That was my opinion and no one got upset.

Anyway, some news tidbits that are interesting, or cheered me up, happened after I found out about this, so my mood wasn’t too sour.

-The state of Vermont has become the fourth state to legalize gay marriage. Governor Jim Douglas had vetoed the bill and the House of Representatives got the 2/3 vote required to override the veto. Marriages can begin to occur in September.

This makes me very happy, especially since it seems as though suddenly all of these states are legalizing same-sex marriages. Connecticut in November, Iowa on Friday, and now Vermont. [New York Times]

-The Washington D.C. City Council has voted to recognize same-sex marriages from other states. This still has to go before the U.S. Congress, who oversees laws for the city under “House Rule.” For more info on that, please see your Constitution. [Washington Post]

-The marriages in Iowa have had the starting date moved to April 27. And Governor Chet Culver has announced that he is reluctant to support a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages. You can read the statement on the Des Moines Register’s website.

-Charles Isherwood gives “Rock of Ages” a fairly positive review. I’m surprised. [New York Times]

-And Out Magazine has released their list of the 50 most powerful Gays and Lesbians in America. The New York Times Gay Mafia (which isn’t turning me gay) fell by one spot to 13. I’ll have more thoughts on that later.