Every now and then, the New York Times evidently has a crisis of conscience and publishes an article about the power of reviews on the arts, specifically on the New York theater. What I don’t see mentioned in the article and blog (though I admit I only skimmed the four pages of reply posts) is that the New York Times is pretty much the only game in town, and has been for quite some time. Sure, there are other papers and a handful of magazines but if you’re on Broadway and Ben Brantley (or Frank Rich before him) hates you, you’re pretty much toast. You can get by if you’re off Broadway and, of course, if you’re Disney you’re Disney and that’s a whole other story. But the Times is the paper of record and that’s that.
The internet isn’t really changing things as much as you’d think. It seems to have more power to hurt than to help theater sales. That’s partially because Broadway is heavily dependent on group sales and the people who book groups go to the Times first and foremost. It’s also because the internet can be pretty snarky (although I am grateful that there has been a notable lack of snark from the people who have written to me and posted on this site).
All artists suffer bad reviews. Some artists are more sensitive than others, some spring back from their reviews, others don’t.
I often wonder whether Howard would have gone back to the theater after the Smile reviews. His work with Disney took precedence in the final three years of his life but he did talk about getting the rights back from Disney to the songs he and Alan wrote for Aladdin, along with his original story outline, and doing something along the lines of Shelley Duvall’s brilliant Faerie Tale Theater with it. He didn’t know, of course, that Disney would eventually decide to make the movie (with only some of the songs and a different story)
I like to think that Howard would have made his way back to theater. As it was, he never moved to LA, only going there when necessary. His heart was always here, on the east coast. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Howard doing something fabulous in children’s theater. Maybe even something fabulous off-Broadway.
Maybe, had Howard lived to read Frank Rich’s 1991 theater wrap up quote, “The best Broadway musical score of 1991 was that written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman for the Disney animated movie "Beauty and the Beast," he would have gone back to theater. Maybe Howard and Alan would have written a new musical for Broadway together. Maybe Howard would have decided that Frank Rich didn’t hate him after all (which he firmly believed).
As for the power of the Times, I have to admit, that when I read their reviews, the ones I chose to read out loud to my husband (to his eternal early-morning irritation) are the nasty ones. They’re funnier, they get my attention, they wake me up. And then I have to remind myself that these are artists being critiqued and it kind of takes the wind out of me.
And here’s the truth – we all laughed about Carrie (if you’re young, it was a notoriously problematic musical based on the Stephen King movie). There’s even a great book about flops called, Not Since Carrie. But the truth is that Howard laughed, too. He called me with a lengthy and biting description and a “you’ve got to see it before it closes,” command. I didn’t get there in time. But, because in theater miracles happen, Carrie is being revived. I wish all involved in it well. I wish all involved in it great reviews. I hope to get there this time.