Reviews, who are they good for? (Including Review: A Chorus Line)
On Friday December 31st, A Chorus Line had its first preview at the Adelaide Festival Centre. Before the curtain even fell, Adelaide Now (the online branch of The Advertiser) had published an article about the first performance entitled A Chorus Line Dazzles At Premiere. It’s your typical arts fluff-piece – “stars were made”, producer tells you you should go, Adelaide’s the place to be, etc. Critics weren’t invited until the official opening night of Jan 3, yet journalist Emily Watkins – the Sunday Mail’s Crime and Justice Reporter – still tells us the production “dazzled the opening night crowd.” Can’t you just see that on the posters?
On Jan 1st, the Adelaide Festival Centre’s twitter asked tweeters what they thought of “opening night”:
before getting well and truly in the act, tweeting Watkins article as their “first review”, to which I replied:
To which I got no response.
So not only do we have the local newspaper conflating a first performance with an opening night, we have the Adelaide Festival Centre also ignoring this distinction, and then calling an article a review.
I mainly thought no more of it, until down to the Festival Theatre I went on January 3rd to pick up my tickets and watch the show to write my review. And it wasn’t until I sat down in my seat that I fully comprehended that critics had been invited to see and respond to a production which is a replica of a production which first played Broadway in 1975, where it continued for fifteen years. Which first played the West End in 1976; Sydney in 1977. Which won nine Tony Awards, the Pulitzer Prize, became the longest running show on Broadway, and played to 6.5 million people on that stage alone. These are all facts which could leave someone in awe, but I was left with just one thought:
What am I doing here? What are any of us critics doing here?
What will any of us have to say about a production which has been kicking around the globe for 37 years? What is that going to offer to theatrical discussion?
And when I came out of the performance, all I wanted to say about the show was “A Chorus Line is A Chorus Line”. Because that’s it: that’s your review. If you know the show, you’re going to get what you expect. If you don’t, Wikipedia is going to tell you more than me. Better yet, read Clive Barnes’ review of the original Public Theatre production in 1975’s New York Times – that will do more for your understanding of the production than any of us in Adelaide are going to be able to do.
Sure, there is a certain cultural barometer writers from Adelaide can apply – does it work here, does it work now? And yes, there are comments to be made on the execution of the replication. But then again, is anyone going to listen? This is A Chorus Line, we’re talking about. Hardly an unknown entity.
The more I wrote my review, the more uncomfortable I became. Never before have I felt so much like an extension of a publicity department: given tickets to put bums on seats. “Dazzled the opening night crowd!”
So then, what’s in a review? I think a review can be many things, but I’m interested in it as a craft when it lends itself to a discussion of art in reference to a time and place; I’m intrigued by the singular powers it has as a recorded chronicle of a transient art form, capturing context and relevant history in a way recordings, publicity, and other arts journalism will never be able to match; I love what it does in Australia with our small population and tiny theatrical community in a country that is large and often untraversable by shortening the distance between cities through sharing stories of stories.
And yes, there is always that self-centred, self-important part of you that feels your words can make a difference: showing the creative where their work didn’t quite translate to the audience; showing the audience a piece of the puzzle they missed. On the flip side of that, there is the fear and the heartache of whom you could hurt when you write a negative review; or who of these people will come back to hurt you.
But what I don’t want to be as a critic is a ticket-seller. I’m not your publicist. I’m not your marketing department. Being quoted from or linked to by a company is a perk, but I don’t write reviews for pull-quotes to be found. If I can influence people to buy a ticket to your show with my words, that is wonderful, that’s an even bigger perk. But my task is always to first find the words; I’m not in control of their flow on effect.
Writing about A Chorus Line, it felt like the only thing I had been asked to do was to sell tickets. “Here, respond to this work which has been playing as is for fourteen more years than you’ve been alive. Let a few more people recognise the name in a headline; the name is what will sell us tickets.” There was nothing new to talk about, it’s all been said before. There was no connection to be made between a creative team and 2012 and Adelaide, not least of all because half of the creative team has passed away in the intervening 37 years since they created the work half-a-world-away.
Especially when you consider some companies based here only quote interstate and international reviews on their website – regardless of if they were for a completely different production – what is the place of the Adelaide-based critic today? Do we receive tickets only in the everlasting hope of a good review, of an excited reader who might stumble across it of their own accord or through a quickly lost link on social media, of a few more tickets sold? Are we part of the marketing strategy? Are we to blame, then, when it all goes wrong?
Because I want to be more that that. I want to be part of the conversation: I don’t want to be on the sidelines of it, I don’t want to be the end of it. I want to let people in Sydney and Melbourne and Lisbon and Boston know what we are creating in Adelaide; I want to tell Adelaide about work which this city hasn’t seen before. I want you to be able to go back through my work in one year or five years or twenty years and get a view of our city and our artists, and I want there to be other critics here with whom you can do the same.
But if all I am is another publicist, I’m not sure that I want to do this at all.
This review originally appeared on www.australianstage.com.au
A Chorus Line is a Broadway classic. With the original production opening in 1975 and running until 1990, at its closing A Chorus Line was the longest running production on Broadway. Winning nine Tony Awards, it was only the fifth musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Thirty-seven years after the original production, little has changed, with the new Australian tour a reproduction of the work of original director/choreographer Michael Bennett by original cast member Baayork Lee. Here, we are given an assertive and confident production of a piece which fills an essential place in the musical theatre canon. A Chorus Line is the production you would expect to see.
On a bare stage we watch as hopefuls audition for a place in the chorus line of a Broadway musical. In addition to knowing his cast can dance and sing, director Zach (Joshua Horner) also wants to know a little bit about the people behind the performers. We meet seventeen performers, and from them four boys and four girls will be selected for Broadway.
For his portrayal of director Zach, constantly telling those auditioning to stop performing, Horner never does. While he isn’t helped by the construct that sees his voice literally booming over the theatre, on stage and off Horner’s Zach is mannered, affected, and theatrical, with Horner never settling down into his part.
The auditioning company subsequently fare better. A Chorus Line ultimately has a bittersweet ending: the individuals who are selected have reached their goal, however their goal is to form a part of a homogenous line. ‘One Singular Sensation’: not a note, kick, head or hair out of place.
With a few notable exceptions, however it is unfortunate the cast of this production largely reaches its greatest heights as an ensemble. As individuals the players have their strengths but also their weaknesses; when they work as a group the power of the shared music and choreography elevates the performers and the production.
The night, however, is stolen by Euan Doidge as Paul, in a monologue on his acceptance of himself, and his parents’ acceptance of the man he would choose to be. In a subtle performance, Doidge nonetheless managed to hold the house in silence, his years of hidden ache spilling out into the theatre.
The text of the show (book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante) was built on conversations with actors working in New York City, and many of the actors who shared their stories went on to perform in the original 1975 production. Unusually for a musical, is in these book scenes where there is the greatest opportunity to connect to the characters, as you feel these are the closest to the true stories.
Time has dated the music very little. Marvin Hamlisch’s brassy composition flies well under Musical Director Paul White and the Adelaide Art Orchestra, and Edward Kleban’s lyrics are carried well by the cast, although some have stronger voices than others. Bennett’s recreated choreography is one of the best keys we have to the company as individuals, as he uses both their individual movement, grasp and interpretation within the 1930s-styled “traditional” movement, and the “modern” choreographed solos and group numbers to give us a foundation to the characters and the plot.
On opening night, the production’s biggest downfall was in the execution of the sound design (Simon Gregory). Individual microphones were not always turned on at the correct moment, and in large ensemble book scenes volumes were often pitched at different levels, an element which distracted from the text. During One, microphones were constantly knocked by the performers hats, the repeated scratching over the speaker system overriding music and voices.
In a production of this scale, amplification should preferably be unnoticeable and naturalistic (which this production is a long way off achieving), and at the very least it certainly shouldn’t detract from the play. Work is needed to ensure that when characters are speaking or singing they are always heard, that audiences are allowed to read the nuance in conversations through consistency in levels, and if the cast are to wear head mounted microphones their hats do not touch their heads.
Thirty-seven years on from its original production, A Chorus Line faithfully remains an eye into the Broadway ‘gypsies’ of the 1970s, people looking for another production to get them through. While it occasionally has moments of great heart, this production is largely a fun, light-hearted, and traditional night of musical theatre.
Adelaide Festival Centre in Association with Tim Lawson presents A Chorus Line. At the Festival Theatre until January 28, then Her Majesty’s Theatre Melbourne from February 4. More information and tickets.
Great commentary of your thoughts. I enjoyed reading it very much.
Before I comment I’ll quickly mention that the show was nominated for 12 Tony awards but only actually won 9. I was recently (castrated) notified, by comments on my review, that I incorrectly credited original choreography to Bob Avian, instead of Michael Bennett, ho-hum.
I think you make a very good point about the validity of a revival and the point of reviewing it. To be completely honest, I had no idea I was going to see a re-staging until I arrived at the theatre and I reviewed the show accordingly.
Despite your thoughts on the validity of critics attending a show (such as A Chorus Line) which is a re-staging, there is still something to be said for providing feedback to the local production team, the local artists (obviously the performers weren’t from the original production) and to the venue and show management teams. I also believe that the critics evaluation of a production can, in part, contribute to the future programming choices of major companies like the Adelaide Festival Centre – and so I believe there is some validity in a reviewers attendance.
There is absolutely no doubt that a critics role is to sell tickets for the production company. If you were ever under any illusion whatsoever that a company was giving you freebies because they were truly interested in your feedback – then I think you may be misguided. This is only ever true in part. Companies use reviews as a vehicle to drive their ticket sales and increase audiences. No company ever believes they have made a bad piece of work, otherwise they either wouldn’t open, or they wouldn’t offer comps to critics – I think its that simple.
I believe the point of this reviewing game, as you have already quite correctly pointed out, is to be a “recorded chronicle of a transient art form, capturing context and relevant history” and to generate discussion; there are a lot of people who don’t agree with me that A Chorus Line is outdated – they love the show, and have voiced their opinions accordingly to me (not nearly as eloquently as my review but nonetheless “voiced” them) – even my own fiance enjoyed the show far more than I did. But an opinion is an opinion all the same.
At the end of the day, we record history – from our OWN point of view, and hope that in the process we encourage conversation, thought, attendance and love for art.
If that means you need to review more big budget musicals, I still think its worth it.
Thanks for the correction, Paul. Will edit.
A few things: I doubt the AFC marks its programming on critical opinion – they run one step shy off a commercial venture, it’s all about the numbers.
It’s not that I don’t think critics can sell tickets, or that companies expect that they will, but I am becoming increasingly concerned that this is the primary relationship. I don’t think this is true for all organisations: in particular, Brink Productions publish links to both negative and positive reviews on their website, and they’ve also tweeted my negative reviews with something along the lines of “Jane didn’t like it, what did you think?” which is all about fostering conversation.
In her book NOT WRONG – JUST DIFFERENT (which is essential reading for anyone in the Australian theatre community, I think), Katharine Brisbane writes “I returned [to the Australian] for a short period in the late 1970s to write Sydney reviews but the conditions were disappointing. By now the arts editor and the publicist were entrenched, reviews were assembled onto an arts page and the reviewer no longer had the mandate to report news, range over subject matter or, indeed, influence newspaper coverage in any way. The task no longer held any joy.”
I’m aware I’m now looking back on a golden age long gone, but I think the internet has the power to change this. If it means I’m going to be out of pocket by spending money to feel like I’m not a part of the publicity machine, so be it.
I’m putting it out here now: if any company reading this isn’t “truly interested in my feedback”, then please decline to give me tickets and tell me why you’re not interested, so I can improve for both of us. Perhaps the state of criticism in SA would be better if companies did look at who they were interested in feedback from, not who they felt got enough hits on their website to make it worth their time, and had open conversations about what they think reviewing and criticism could be.
I very strongly doubt I will accept tickets to review a re-staging of an old musical again.
Paul, I think the issue is a change in the attitude of the reviewer. Yes the PR machine has always hoped for a good review to throw in the program, but that was never guaranteed. It seems now that many sure-fire quotables are invited along with the usual cohort of actual critics, cheapening the art of well produced and well reasoned responses to work.
In this way I understand Jane’s frustration at being classified with outlets that are essentially media release aggregates whose reviewers have blatantly bragged about getting free tickets and how it gets them out of the house.
These people are generally insufferable as they have no credentials to speak of, but it must be infuriating to think they are even on the same wavelength or prioritised due to bankability over someone like Jane who has consistently produced fantastic, heartfelt and informed responses to performances. If a critic ever feels they owe something to the production merely for having received comps, then the dynamic is screwed from square one.
In short, I don’t believe that an opinion is an opinion, but that there is a clear distinction between brave and impartial critics like Jane and guns for hire.
I absolutely believe that conversation should be the end goal. Theatre-makers can learn from well written reviews. Critics can learn, if the lines of communication are clear.
But I certainly think one of the first things a theatre-maker or a producer is thinking about when they invite critics is the publicity. They want the name of their show to pop up where it might not pop up otherwise. Or they want to find pull-quotes for their posters. Or they just want to get the conversation started.
I don’t think it’s necessarily a mercenary thing, though I’m also not making multi-million dollar recreations of 37-year-old productions. A review of A Chorus Line certainly serves a different purpose than does a review of a piece of independent theatre, which can’t rely on Adelaide Now (or equivalent) to post an article AT ALL, let alone one that the theatre will call a review just to get eyes on it. Certainly there’s a mutually beneficial relationship there – between the theatre, the production, the press; a multi-million dollar show needs publicity more than it needs actual reviews. It’s selling A Chorus Line with brand-name recognition.
This is not to say there is no point reviewing A Chorus Line; pointing out sound problems is a big deal and mentioning current actors in the cast is important, too. (The cast will use ACL reviews like an indepedent theatre company would, for pull-quotes and to build their reputations.) But you’re just a different part of the conversation with a show like this; you’re speaking to people who will see this cast on that stage – and probably not to any future readers with interests in ACL.
Putting aside multi-million dollar recreations of classic musicals (which you totally should take comps for – those shows are expensive!), everything from mainstage state theatre company shows to the smallest independent wants reviews. For the publicity. For the conversation.
And we invite critics to our shows for that reason, with the biggest risk – we’ll get a bad review. We give you free tickets to entice you to see the show at all; taking Melbourne as the only example I know – there is so much theatre going on here, free tickets is one way we can entice reviewers to actually see our shows. We give you free tickets so there’s no judgement on what it cost you to see the show. (For independent theatre-makers, the free ticket is basically all we can offer. For mainstage state theatre companies, they need to give tickets to reviewers to keep them on side – while still not guaranteeing a positive review!)
All those ongoing benefits – conversation, a chronicle of a transient art form – become important later. The conversation might happen during a season. The chronicle is important once the season is over. But first and foremost, shows want critics to get the word out. We can sell our shows in other ways, too. But inviting critics is inviting (hopefully) unbiased people to asses our shows for the wider community. And that’s important from minute one.
Keith: I think the relationship is different with independent artists though. Maybe part of the issue I had with A Chorus Line is seeing the tens-of-thousands of dollars they are putting behind what is essentially a brand name. What it comes back to is: what was the point of Adelaide’s writers writing about this? Where I think there is a very important point to, yes okay, the publicity which can be associated with a review of a small production. And yes, their is that bit of self-satisfaction I get when I know I’ve helped to get the word out about a little show. But I also think these artists are frequently more interested in partaking in the conversation which comes out of whatever I (or anyone) writes. And now I’m all confused again, which I think is a good thing.
(On the sound issues: I don’t believe that is something that should be in the reviews of A Chorus Line at all because there is no excuse for the show being so chronically under-teched and/or under-rehearsed on Opening Night. No one should need critics to be pointing that out, that should have been identified by the team on the first day in the theatre, and work should not have proceeded until it was fixed.)
W identified something else that I have been thinking about, but didn’t actually make the connection here myself: there are some critics in Adelaide who practically guarantee a pull quote but (from my perspective) offer very little else – unless you want a plot summary more detailed than Wikipedia. These are people on my end of the equation who are putting themselves – and the profession – out there as publicist. What is the point of that? How does it impact the rest of us?
Well, of course they should have fixed the sound problems before opening night but they clearly didn’t. And it’s important that you mentioned it, because people are paying a lot of money to see this show – and they should be getting a perfect show. If you need to embarrass the production into getting that sort of thing right, then so be it.
I’m sure some higher profile critics are in it for the pull-quotes and are happy to be part of a high-profile show’s publicity team, which is why I love this blog post – you’re making sure you’re not compromised by this trade-off.
I can see why you’d be disappointed in being part of the publicity machine, but you’re definitely right that a show like ACL makes this almost a necessity. No one in the show really needs the “conversation” which your reviewing aspires to. And I think your review and this post makes it very clear where you stand on the issue – which should be applauded.
I feel somewhat similar, Jane; it was much the same when I reviewed the professional production of Cats a couple of years ago.
Yeah, Jamie, but at least Jane got to see A Chorus Line. You had to sit through Cats! 😉
Totally agree, though; I was not particularly impressed, particularly by the fact most of the music was pre-recorded (only bass and drums were live), which I found very disappointing.
But I also saw ACL, the same night as Jane; I should have worded my previous comment better.
I agree with so much of what is being said here. I am loving THIS conversation. Cudos to you Jane for inspiring it through your thoughts.
There are a few things I want to clarify and to catch up on.
I think the AFC is interested in the state of arts in SA – and despite being a “business” still manages to bring some ‘art for arts sake’ to the stage through in-space programs, and some of the smaller AFC collaborated festivals like Oz Asia, Cabaret and Guitar Fest. Sure – they need to appeal to the wider audience with shows like CATS, Wicked, and ACL – but I disagree that they take no notice of what the critics and the public have to say in their programming meetings each year – besides all of this, these shows only come because the theatre is in darkness every year at this time and they want to fill it with something…
“hits for comps” sounds like a website inpired catchphrase – but i think its redundant. If we are inspiring the kind of conversation from our reviews that we want, we will be getting the hits anyway. A popular blog is going to be popular with both the public and the publicisers, so the hits are purely academic.
I dont think its fair to assume a ‘change in the attitude of the reviewer’ – unless you are only referring to those who are on the publicity wagon. I still think most reviewers want to give their most honest feedback, either positive or negative, for each show they see.
I completly agree about the ticket braggers who work for media outlets are arent even arts journalists. lol. Worse still are the reviewers who complain about their seating and not being invited to the opening night after party, they give the rest of us a bad name!
I still think an opinion is an opinion however – what else could it be. The gun for hire still decides if they write ‘amazing’ or just ‘good’ even if they know they cant say it was crap! For the most part I still believe reviewers are at least trying to remain impartial to the work and the effect their review will have on it. I know I am, my review for ACL was one of the only ones that said the show is out of date – cause thats what I thought. Ive had a lot of confirmatory feed back too. I know a pulicist who fell asleep cause it wasnt their thing, a professional artist who agrees that remounting this production was a mistake, and a ‘once-a-year’ theatre goer, who dances a bit, that just thought it was plain crap. It only shows that everyone wont like everything, and that a reviewer needs to be true to their feelings about a show. I wont apologise for not enjoying it that much.
I also want to say that I agree almost entirely with Keith’s points. They are well expressed and congruent with my feelings.
..and Jaime, I saw Cats too… love that show. hated that production. ‘Such is life’.
Firstly: my recent thoughts on inSPACE are here where I explain how it basically no longer exists and it doesn’t support local artists in production. The program coordinator left the AFC a few months ago, and I have neither seen it advertised nor heard of a replacement; I have no reason to believe they will be reinstating inSPACE (as distinct from inSPACE:development). I very much hope I am wrong.
Secondly: the Cabaret Festival is one of the biggest commercial ventures the AFC does! Not that there is anything inherently wrong with that, but FFS, last year their head-line act was Olivia Newton John, and tickets for her show started at $100 – not exactly cabaret. Yes, I’ll take your OzAsia and Guitar Festival (which I think is still struggling to form its own identity), but the Cab Fest made up 11% of the AFC’s total attendances last finical year – hardly small.
I think the raw number of hits a review gets should be redundant, but you can be sure it’s not redundant to companies and artists. I’m open with my stats (bottom of the page) because I know this interest exists.
The trouble with the internet, which I so dearly love and am proudly a part of, is yes, for every piece of informed writing there are forty-nine that aren’t. What side of the line you put me is your prerogative.
I think an opinion is an opinion – everyone has one, everyone should be able to express one. I think if you wish to count yourself within an arts writing profession, however, you need to be held to standards. I think these standards should include, but are not limited to, being a well-polished writer, open discussion of your work and the work you see, and constant study of both the reviewing profession and the wider theatrical landscape.
I don’t believe all reviewers are honest all the time – I’ve heard reports of critics emailing producers saying “This is the review I wanted to publish, but I didn’t want to hurt your ticket sales because I know you’re a small company”, when they would have preferred the harsh writing published over something middling. I’ve even gone back through my own work and cringed at my temperance.
When you see “guns for hire” who replace the word ‘amazing’ with the word ‘good’ and these are the reviews which are published then I really don’t know how much hope there is for this industry at all.
Jane on all of these points you are right..
I guess I am trying to encourage you not to be disuaded and to continue with your commentary. I think when you say that you should have “constant study of both the reviewing profession and the wider theatrical landscape.” you are spot on – and I also believe this means you need to get to the big budget remakes of old musicals. Because you cant possibly have a well rounded opinion on the state of the industry if you only see the small contemporary works 🙂
I say – just keep on doing what you are doing 🙂 we need thinkers in the arts writing profession. Far too many of the old school thinkers dont want to get involved in the politics any more and stay completely out of issues like the ones raised here.
[…] My piece on A Chorus Line and the thoughts I had surrounding reviewing such an existing entity had spawned a very interesting discussion on the role of the review and the reviewer. […]
Never ask an ‘ex performer’ what they thought of a show…the answer will 9/10 be mostly negative. ACL is what it is… applaud the new generation of kids who are performing it for the FIRST time and be happy that theatre is coming to Adelaide. Keep this up and we may get nothing come our way. A musial with heart over a big budget razzle dazzle where I can’t tell who is who and the cast become nothing more than moving scenery means nothing to me. Go watch the fireworks instead. I loved it.
Hi Gerry – thanks for the comment, and I’m glad you loved the show.
Not sure if you’re referring to me as an ‘ex performer’ because I have certainly never been a performer – dance school concerts and student theatre only. I’m guessing we don’t move in the same circles, either, because most ex-performers I’ve spoken to (typically dancers) they have a great love for work they see.
As to “keep this up and we may get nothing come our way” – A Chorus Line had made 80% of its Box Office target by opening night, and was expected to make a $600,000 surplus. [Source] Which I suppose was my entire point. I am happy this work is coming to Adelaide – I just question the place of a critic in that equation.