It's a question worth contemplating. For the past couple centuries or so, theatre producers haven't had to give much thought to critics, outside of hitting the roof when reading an unexpectedly bad notice. It was just assumed they would always be there, like weeds. Even during the '80s and '90s, when media coverage of the theatre steadily shrank, no one ever contemplated that their wouldn't always be a few dozen scribblers in the aisle seats during previews.
Well, things have changed. Following the path of film critics — whose ranks have been decimated over the past year as publishers lay them off or buy them out, while not hiring anyone to replace them — theatre critics are falling like flies.
When the New York Sun folded on Sept. 30, their promising critic, Eric Grode, lost his job and the critic corps lost a voice. Former Sun critic, Jeremy McCarter, meanwhile, left his theatre critic post at New York magazine to take a job at Newsweek, apparently following a speeded-up version of Frank Rich's theatre-writer-to-cultural-pundit career trajectory. Clive Barnes, 30 years at the New York Post, died Nov. 19, pen still in hand.
McCarter and Barnes will probably be replaced with new critics at New York and the Post. That will not be the case with Michael Sommers at the New Jersey Star-Ledger, and Jacques le Sourd at Gannett Newspapers. Sommers took an offered buyout last month, while le Sourd was laid off this week. The Star Ledger plans to use wire services to cover New York theatre from now on; Gannett will probably do the same, though no announcement has been made. (Does this mean that longtime AP critic Michael Kuchwara in on his way to becoming the most powerful critic in town? Behind the New York Times, of course. Always behind the Times.) As Variety pointed out this week, the New York Drama Critics Circle membership has shrunk from 22 to 18 in just three months time. It's all a sad end for what was once one of the most glamorous positions in journalism. No doubt the three major dailies will continue in their dramatic coverage; New York papers have always considered the theatre their special territory. But in an economic climate like this, anything is possible. As the old maxim goes, when money gets tight, it's the arts that go first. And that goes for critics of the arts, as well.
*** During the lifetime of Gerald Schoenfeld, the question of who would succeed him as Chairman of the mighty Shubert Organization was always a subject of rampant speculation.
Sensing that a clean transition of power was in Broadway's best interest, the Shubert Organization's board of directors convened Dec. 2 — one week after Schoenfeld's death at 84 — to select its new leaders. Philip J. Smith, the President of The Shubert Organization, and Robert E. Wankel, the company's Executive Vice President, were named Co-Chief Executive Officers of the theatrical company that oversees 17 Broadway theatres.
Smith was also named Chairman of the Board of The Shubert Foundation and The Shubert Organization. Wankel was elected a member of the Board of Directors of The Shubert Foundation and The Shubert Organization and was named President of The Shubert Organization.
The choices were not great surprises. Smith, a former box office treasurer, had long been considered the man most likely to rise to the top. And Wankel has been with the Shuberts for over three decades.
The play that many consider the late playwright August Wilson's greatest, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, is returning to Broadway, where it had a short run in 1988. Lincoln Center Theater, which is presenting it, chose its in-house director Bartlett Sher to pilot it. Commentary began almost immediately as to whether Wilson would have approved of Sher, who is white. During his lifetime, Wilson leaned toward African-American directors such as Lloyd Richards, Marion McClinton and Kenny Leon. The choice, however, was approved by Wilson's widow. No doubt the debate will continue until previews begin, at a theatre to be announced, on March 19, 2009, with an official opening scheduled for April 16.
The Wilson play, according to press notes, is set in 1911 and "tells the story of Herald Loomis who, after serving seven years hard labor, has journeyed North with his young daughter and arrives at a Pittsburgh boarding house filled with memorable characters who aid Herald Loomis in his search for his inner freedom."
Liza Minnelli, an entertainer whose career could be called a long string of loosely connected comebacks, made her latest on Dec. 3, when she opened in Liza's at the Palace . . .! (is she ever anywhere else?).
The concert was deemed an overall success by critics, who found Liza her usual firecracker, emoting, belting self. Minnelli inspires such sympathy that she's one of the few performers out there for whom critics often bend over backwards to make excuses for. Take this line from a long-standing reviewer: "This entertaining show displays the second-generation star in fine (if not always perfect) voice and shape. You can see she's had some hard knocks but, damn it, she's still here — and she's got what it takes." Criticism as rationalization. But all agreed she was in good health.
It's hard enough for a show to close just one week after opening on Broadway. But for the Tonys to then declare that you didn't exist at all — Well!
That's the sad scenario for the recently expired revival of David Mamet's American Buffalo. This week, the Tony Awards Administration Committee declared that the revival, owing to its short run, will not be eligible for nomination in any category. Not even Miss Congeniality.