The role of the critic in the modern theatre is one of heartache and the temptation of hatred. Only in the theatre can a single review kill a show.
The rumor/legend on the street for a generation is that when Frank Rich became the theatre critic for the New York Times in 1980, he wanted to test the power of his poison pen, and so he decided to see if he could “kill” the latest “Frankenstein” production on Broadway with his review. The show closed after one performance. Frank has always publicly denied the power of The New York Times to close a show — but he has yet to address the power of Frank to close a show.
When Gerry Schoenfeld of the Shubert Organization was alive, he told us — Columbia University graduate students in theatre — during class in his office above the Shubert Theatre that he was not fond of Frank Rich and that he often called the publisher of the New York Times to complain about Frank’s reviews being bad for business. For the record, we also had class with Bernie Jacobs when he was alive, and he never really mentioned Frank Rich — except once when he marveled aloud at how much love Frank had for Richard Greenberg.
Later that year, Gerry Schoenfeld and I were walking together down Shubert Alley discussing a meeting I had with Cameron Mackintosh and Frank Rich passed by us. Gerry was kind enough to stop and introduce me to Frank. It was cold that day, but I was warmed by Gerry’s fine gesture to help make a new connection and Frank was gracious and friendly.
In 1994, Frank Rich moved from the theatre desk to the New York Times Op-Ed page and the entire New York theatre community sighed a breath of relief.
When John Simon was still the theatre critic for New York magazine, he visited the Columbia University campus to give us a talk. I remember him gleefully recounting the furor he caused when he called Liza Minnelli “a toad” in one of his reviews. I asked him to explain the role of the critic and he sneered at me and said it was his job to be “provocative.” There was no intellectual conversation about divining the intention of the production or a dialogue concerning how a critic might help fix a production in future performances. John Simon told us his truth: His job was to write outrageous things that would sell a magazine.
If you are a Playwright with productions in your history, you have likely been stung by the barb of a provocative critic — and the fault is not in you, but in the critic.
Remember that critics are performers. They want to be read. They want to be important. They want power. They want to become greater than your creation and they do that by standing on your shoulders and then slamming your play around the room a time or two. I have had so many friends shattered by a bad review that I wonder how so much value and hope was invested in such a nasty dyad that will always end with a scrape and a slap.
I always advise my students and my friends to not read any reviews. If you read only the good reviews, then you must also read all the bad reviews to be fair to yourself. If, however, you read none of the reviews — then you are preserving your vision and inspiration because, in the end, it must never matter what a critic thinks of you or your play.
The only thing that can matter is what you think of your play and what nugget of insight and truth you brought into the world that never existed before you set word one of your script in motion.