EXCLUSIVE: Deadline theater critic Jeremy Gerard and Jujamcyn Theatres president Jordan Roth discuss the hottest topics on the Rialto, the only precondition being: no holds barred.
JEREMY GERARD: Your newest corporate neighbor, Ambassador Theatre Group, has christened the Hudson Theatre, beautifully updated and returned to service as a 1,000-seat Broadway house, with the Encores! revival of Sunday In The Park With George, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford. Those of us who reviewed the Encores! presentation were wowed, and so were the paying customers. Last week, ATG took Sunday In The Park out of contention for this year’s Tony Awards. Its limited run will have ended by the time of the Tony Awards, and comping some 800 pairs of tickets for Tony voters presents an onerous burden for the producers, who are virtually guaranteed a sold-out run given the combination of star power and buzz from the concert.
While I understand that thinking, it also strikes me as odd. What if Sunday In The Park is in fact the best revival of the season, or even in the top four? What if Gyllenhaal and Ashford are deemed to have given the best performances in a musical? Should it be up to a producer to decide whether or not his or her show is in contention for Broadway’s top awards? And should we be prepared to see the stars perform on the Tony telecast even though they can’t be nominated?
JORDAN ROTH: This one surprised me too, at first. Doesn’t everyone on Broadway want to win a Tony award? And then after a little more thought, it was my own reaction that surprised me more. Our agreed metrics of success are deeply engrained – reviews, grosses, awards – yet all are from others, none from within. How perfect to question the success markers of art on a show about the challenges of making art.
How do you know if you accomplished what you set out to accomplish? How do you know if your work is “good”? It’s so hard to know for yourself and hold that belief firm. Easier to look to others. Did they buy a lot of tickets? Did the critics like it? Did it win awards? Then it must be good. That may be easier, but not necessarily wiser. In the words of the master, “art isn’t easy,” and competitive art is even harder. Good for Sunday and its stars for trying to keep one piece of control in defining their own success.
To be sure, it’s easier to make that decision when you don’t need Tony success to generate any of the other successes (ticket sales, tours, future productions). And yes, not losing money on voters’ tickets could also have been a factor. (Worth noting here that every show can put up to $250,000 worth of tickets towards Tony voters, and for shows that could have sold those tickets for premium prices, the number is more like $400,000.)
But I’m sure that if Jake Gyllenhaal wanted to compete for the Tony, the money argument would not have prevailed. There is precedent for this: Julie Andrews rejected her Tony nomination for Victor/Victoria in solidarity with her “egregiously overlooked” cast mates. And over at the Emmys, Candice Bergen declined eligibility after having won what she considered more than her fair share for her indelible work on Murphy Brown. Putting yourself up for competition is hard. Taking yourself out can be even harder.
Next subject: Speaking of Encores!, their most recent production, Big River, is also a hot topic of conversation, not just because it was magnificent but also because of its controversial New York Times review by Laura Collins-Hughes who in addition to judging the production and performances quite positively, took issue with the show as “an awkward fit for this moment… because of the cultural conversation we’ve been having lately about the role of black artists, and women too.” Her concern is what she perceives as the sidelined narratives of women and people of color – including Jim – in both the musical and the original Mark Twain novel. In a letter to Collins-Hughes’ editors, Encores! artistic director (and Jujamcyn’s senior vice president) Jack Viertel called the review “politically motivated nonsense based on social and cultural trendiness.”
Editors Scott Heller and Danielle Mattoon defended the review, responding that “We do not hold art works to any sort of litmus test. But theater lives and breathes in the moment of its watching.” Former Times critic Frank Rich weighed in against the review on his widely read Facebook page, and in your own, you called the production “in a word, perfect.”
Not surprisingly, Collins-Hughes connected this question to the question of whether there should be a life beyond Encores! for this Big River. “This is part of the trouble,” she writes, “especially since every Encores! staging carries with it at least a whiff of hope that a full production will follow.”
Which brings us back to success metrics: Is it gonna move? And if it doesn’t, do we somehow think it was a failure? More and more, that seems to be our lens as an industry. Which serves the theater less and less. That’s part of my job – I have to watch a non-Broadway show asking if it should/could move into one of my theaters. And I’m sure you know we all read reviews looking for clues to the same. So how much do you take weighing in on that question to be part of your job?
GERARD: Your last question is the easy part of this issue. As the chief theater critic at Variety, I had to invert the usual writerly demands of reviewing in which one built an argument for or against a show, leading up to the final appraisal of its merits. At Variety, I – along with the regional critics who worked for us and often were giving thumbs up or down to shows with Broadway aspirations – was expected to reveal my hand in the first paragraph. Including – since I was writing for the industry – an assessment of its commercial prospects. (And then hope to be interesting enough to make readers want to stick around for the blovia…I mean explicating.)
As you know, much of this exercise is folly and all of it is gut. When Barry and Fran Weissler decided to mount Falsettos on Broadway, they clearly weren’t listening to the experts who said they were insane. It was a hit. When the late Gerald Schoenfeld moved Passing Strange to Broadway, he – the most commercially minded man in the business – put the imprimatur and cash of the Shubert Organization behind a show that stood small chance of appealing to enough people to fill a Broadway theater eight times a week simply because he loved it. It flopped.
The one issue on which I will publicly disagree with Collins-Hughes in her Big River review is that sentence about the “whiff of hope” for a Broadway transfer. Yes, Encores! struck gold with the Weisslers’ transfer of Chicago. (Hello, God: You don’t owe Fran and Barry any more for mounting Falsettos, trust me on this.) But one of the reasons we critics love Encores! is for the chance it’s given us to reset our own thinking in the context of a first-rate second look at shows we never expected to see again. There are plenty of examples.
To your specific question: You write, “I have to watch a non-Broadway show asking if it should/could move into one of my theaters.” I don’t mean to be facetious, but Why? You know, to coin a phrase, sometimes a show is just a show. Seriously, though, with more name actors heading off-Broadway to chase a great script, I think the larger challenge to you theater owners is freeing up your straight-play houses from musical revivals to provide more room for the star-bait audiences are rushing to see outside the high-rent Theater District ghetto.
Next subject (you probably saw this one coming): In a few weeks, Sousatzka will open in Toronto, clearly with Broadway in mind. The creatives are Broadway veterans and the leads are Broadway stars. The producer is a star of a different sort: Garth Drabinsky, who served time in prison in Canada for malfeasance as the head of Livent. If Mme. Sousatzka does indeed fly down to Times Square, Drabinsky can’t come with her; he remains a fugitive from justice, courtesy of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
I’ve always been of two minds about Drabinsky: On the one hand, he is a producer authentically interested in art, having been the force behind Hal Prince’s unequaled Show Boat revival, Kiss Of The Spider Woman and Ragtime, each of them serious undertakings. On the other hand, he ripped off a lot of people who weren’t bold-face names who got to fly back and forth between New York and Toronto on his chartered jet, and he left a human wake of wreckage in the collapse of Livent.
Canadian law prohibits him from involvement in the financial aspects of the new show (the model, no doubt, is the post-election Trump Organization), but it is presented as a Garth Drabinsky production. Are you planning to see it? Should Broadway welcome Garth or, more likely, his avatar, back with open arms?
ROTH: I don’t know about should, but Broadway will welcome him back – and on some level already has, given how many Broadway stalwarts are working on this show. Everyone loves a good comeback story, and this would be one worth putting on stage itself. That is, if the show is great. We’ll be going to find out. Stay tuned…