End of The Season: Critics Feel The Crunch

News   End of The Season: Critics Feel The Crunch
It's sometimes hard to remember that Broadway theatre critics are human, too. The last few days, they've been feeling it.

It's sometimes hard to remember that Broadway theatre critics are human, too. The last few days, they've been feeling it.

Fewer than 40 shows opened on Broadway this season, but more than one third of them opened since mid-March, with eight shows (The Life, Titanic, Steel Pier, London Assurance, The Little Foxes, Jekyll & Hyde, The Gin Game and Candide) opening in the last 11 days before the April 30 deadline for the Tony Awards.

It's been a terribly exciting time for New York critics, but also an exhausting one, since most of them are not only involved in awards organizations but often have day jobs and other responsibilities. Bleary-eyed, punchy, but passionate about their choices, critics greet each other outside marquees or during intermissions, grousing over their grueling schedules but not upset that the season has offered so many worthy productions.

No one's been busier at this time of year than David Sheward, managing editor of Back Stage and President of the Drama Desk, which announced its award nominees at a Friars Club press conference April 28. Sheward told Playbill On-Line that, for him, the hardest part of the past few weeks had been narrowing down certain categories on the Drama Desk slate. "Best Actress in a play was very difficult; we had 14 names that we eventually got down to six. It's also hard to see all these shows over a two-week period and stay accurate, fair and objective."

Asked what his favorite productions of the season have been, Sheward said, "For play, The Skriker, that was the most haunting. Musical...When Pigs Fly, it's a perfect little gem." Sheward's responsibilities as a critic have also interfered with his duties as an author: he had to delay turning in the manuscript for his next book, "The Big Book Of Show Business Awards," to Watson, Gupthill and Billboard Publications.

What happens when all the hoopla's over? "I'm going to spend a weekend at home and rest," Sheward said.

Scott Siegel, New York critic for the L.A. publication Dramalogue, said his schedule was crazy because he and his wife, Barbara, cover movies and cabaret, as well as theatre. How do they do it? "Caffeine," said Siegel. "Barbara's on the Outer Critics Circle Awards nominating committee, so we had to see a bunch of shows a week earlier."

His favorites for the season were David Rabe's A Question Of Mercy, and for musical, Playwrights Horizon's Violet, which received several Drama Desk nominations. "The [New York] Times killed that show," said Siegel. "There were nine producers vying for Violet; they really wanted a commercial run. But the Times review came out, and the show ran its limited run and ended."

Howard Kissel, chief critic of the New York Daily News, took a bemused and philosophical approach. "Yes, it's grueling. But this is, after all, what we do. Is it as terrible as being an accountant in the weeks before April 15? They work around the clock. In theatre, one must concentrate, but does it require as much concentration or stamina as being an accountant before tax time?"

Asked whether the pile-up of plays might affect his judgment of a particular work, Kissel answered, "Well, I think that's something we have to worry about all the time. Last week and this week I'm going to matinees and evening performances, and yes, there are many new shows, and they're so long. But I'm usually doing this night after night. I used to do movies, two or three screenings a day -- that was much harder."

Favorite picks for the season are the Chicago revival, the Off Broadway musical Violet, and the Off-Broadway drama This Is Our Youth.

Kissel says he'll mellow out after the season crunch in the most obvious way: "What could be more relaxing than not going to as much theatre?"

Not only local critics are caught up in the whirlwind of awards time. Reviewers from around the country fly in to catch a host of openings and report on their chances for touring potential. Michael Grossberg, of the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, came into town for both the theatre and May 2 4's American Theatre Critics Association annual mini-meeting. "It's overwhelming but exciting," Grossberg told Playbill On-Line. "The best part is there are so many new shows, new musicals and plays. It's also frustrating because I'm in for only a week and there's too much amazing stuff! I'm seeing When Pigs Fly but otherwise I don't even have time for Off-Broadway.

Although he hasn't been reviewing full-time for Newsday since the New York City edition of the Long Island newspaper folded, Jan Stuart said he's "certainly working the same treadmill as my colleagues. And I've been defeated healthwise. I came down with this awful cold in the middle of The Little Foxes. That's what happens when you have eight shows in five days; it takes its toll, especially since I'm a commuter."

Asked how the cold affected his schedule, Stuart said, "The greatest harm was canceling out of the final Drama Desk meeting before the nominations. I'm on the nominating committee, and I was very forlorn about missing the meeting, since you really can't have another person defend what you feel passionately about. I think there were oversights but at least being on the committee allows you to acknowledge things that won't necessary win awards but deserve recognition."

Stuart had trouble coming up with a "best of" for the season. "I've been thinking about that over the past day or two. I don't feel passionately about any one play this year, which is unusual. I guess the most satisfying evening may have been Dealer's Choice, a well-made play that accomplished what it set out to do. I much admired Gross Indecency and How I Learned To Drive. The best piece of music-theatre was Hot Mouth's You Say What I Mean But You Mean Is Not What I Said, which had a very strong score."

Asked how he would relax once the season's swirl winds down, Stuart replied, "In an odd sort of way, it never is completely over. There's a superficial sense of busy-ness these two weeks because of the glut of Broadway openings. But there are always shows to see and stuff to go to. So rather than eight shows a week, one sees four, which is what it should be. I wrote a column about this last year for Newsday, on what all this does to the critics. . .it's like trying to see a painting at the Hermitage -- you walk into a room and it's wall-to-wall paintings. You begin to lose perspective. [Press agent] David Rothenberg wrote to Variety complaining that I was just whining that critics were overworked, and we should put up or shut up. He missed my point. I think part of our job is viewing plays in a responsible manner, pacing ourselves in a way to have breathing space and take the work in and give it its due, instead of just comparing one show to another." "Look what happened to Ben Brantley's review of The Life," continued Stuart. "He says it has a certain energy and aliveness -- `given the field.' That's a grudging admiration of a show that under other circumstances he might have tossed off. It happens to me, too. In my upcoming Sunday piece (on political incorrectness in theatre) I put The Life & Young Man From Atlanta in the same column, even though they have nothing really in common."

Time Out theatre editor and critic Sydney Weinberg echoed Stuart's frustration with the schedule but had a more stoic angle. "I think we're all completely giddy and a little bit wiped out. But I think it's just biting the bullet. You brace yourself psychologically. As far as the scheduling, I think it's up to the League to change it. They're the ones who set the opening dates." Weinberg also acknowledged that the deadline for Tony consideration was also a factor. "They bunch shows up so they're fresh in people's minds. People have trouble rememberin eI>Skylight opened in September, for example."

Once the crunch is over, Weinberg looks forward to throwing the spotlight to Off-Broadway. "It gets the shaft a little bit when all this stuff is happening on Broadway. But we can pay more attention when things calm down to normal again."

Don Collester, critic for NJ's Journal America newspaper and This Month ON STAGE theatre magazine, said the end-of-season onslaught forces him to come to New York City four or five day a week, putting New Jersey moderately on the back burner. "The toughest part is the stamina of getting it all done, especially since I do a radio show, too. I manage. I make the time as best I can, though Off-Broadway can fall by the wayside. I'm fortunate to be one of those people who don't need a great of sleep."

Asked to name his choices for the year's best, Collester said, Chicago, with Titanic as the best of the new musicals. A Doll's House was a wonderful revival, and How I Learned To Drive was really fine. I also liked Dealer's Choice a great deal."

Collester, who serves as a trial judge during daylight hours, says that when the season's madness ends, he'll "take a couple of nights off and veg out. I have Jersey stuff to do, so I'll catch up on that. Still, I love doing this."

--By David Lefkowitz

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