#4 - Who Decides?
Why we should stop giving critics who undermine musicals the power to judge them
My shows have been reviewed a lot at this point. I think I have had more than a hundred reviews of new musicals that I have produced or directed. And I can honestly count on one hand the reviews that really felt like they actually engaged with the work I have made on the level I have made it.
I guess what I am trying to say is, UK reviewers are not very good at engaging with new musicals. They often don’t respect the form. They often don’t truly understand the context and history surrounding the form. They often don’t understand the way examples of the form are constructed and developed and made. They often don’t value the form. They are often insecure about the form. They often lash out at the form.
Even nice reviews of musicals I have worked on are full of misapprehensions, misunderstandings, simplifications and undermining language.
In short, critics in the UK are not particularly well engaged with the development of new musicals and the form of musical theatre, and leaving them with the substantial power to judge, comment on and shape the future of a new musical is a mistake.
I have noticed that the more familiar a musical is, the more retrograde or old fashioned, the more established and well known its creators, the more critics tend to like it. They have fixed ideas of what musicals should be and the closer a musical sticks to those stereotypes and preconceptions, the more secure and stable their criticism of them tends to be. But as the form evolves and grows and develops, I notice that critics seem least well equipped to support, understand, analyse and understand the form. And as such I fear that giving critics too much power over new musicals will damage the future of the form.
In my book Breaking Into Song I write about having coffee with a critic. That critic admitted to me that when he reviews a play he is well equipped to understand its lineage along with how it stands alongside the cannon and landscape. He says that he understands the way European writers like Ibsen or Strindberg ,American writers like Miller, Wilson and O’Neill or British writers like Pinter or Churchill have led to and informed the writing they are seeing now. How classical writers like Shakespeare and Euripides have informed or tinted the work of this new play. He says that feels confident and prepared, engaged and expert.
He contrasted it with how he feels about musicals. He admitted to knowing little of the historical tributaries and topography that led to contemporary musicals from their shared inspiration and past. Little of Kander, Ebb, Rogers Hammerstein, Sondheim, Larson or Tesori. He says he views musicals more ignorantly and comes to them with a feeling of insecurity. This, coupled with a series of hard coded preconceptions of what musicals tend to be or have tended to sound like and look like has led to a number of critical blocks in truly understanding how musicals are made, how they work and what leads to new examples in the form.
Of course there are exceptions but in the main I believe that UK critics are mostly deeply ignorant about musicals. They don’t know about them, they don’t understand them, they don’t value them, and most of all, they don’t respect them.
And yet we often leave their fates in the hands of these careless, misinformed people.
And it’s time we change that.
It is also evident that UK critics tend to be good at enjoying and liking shows that come with triumph and awards from America. These are shows that they come to them with a sense of pre approval. Shows that it is easy to like. Shows that come from a place that is expert and making musicals. As such, critics give great reviews to shows like Fun Home, Here Lies Love, Scottsboro Boys, Hamilton. They treat these shows with warmth and respect because American critics and awards voters have already approved of and uplifted them. Liking these shows and treating them with care and respect, is easy. These shows also already arrive on these shores as adults. They are fully workshopped and interrogated, they are slick and polished and finessed. They are all grown up.
But homegrown musicals - especially daring, thoughtful, disruptive and innovative ones - I notice are often treated with fear, uncertainty, derision and misapprehension. Moreover when shows are partially developed they are wrongly treated like endings with no sensitivity or insight into the long and arduous process needed to grow, develop and build them.
When a writer puts a new musical into the world, I would say that they need multiple steps of development to get the show to the place where it truly speaks and functions as it is meant to.
And often, the current system means we are told that a new musical should put its faith in critics to give the show access to the next stage of development. We often say to critics. Tell us if we are allowed to proceed.
And this has to stop.
The undeserved belief in critics means people put enough effort to get a piece into the world for the first time and then asks the world to decide if it should keep on going. But I am done with that. I am done asking anyone else to decide if I or the writers or the piece is allowed to continue.
I have been part of a huge number of processes where a first production comes in front of reviewers who are careless, ignorant and insecure. I have told myself and the writers that they don’t matter. But then the reviews come out and if they are good, we all get excited and feel validated. And if they are bad, we begin to question ourselves and wonder if we have made mistakes.
But I will say it again. They almost always have no idea what they are talking about. And why on earth are we giving them the power to decide what happens with our new work?
So I am going to be taking a conscious break from inviting reviewers to new musicals I have produced, directed or worked on.
I want to say again, I have received many good reviews. But even the good ones are often full of put downs, misunderstandings and ignorance. They compare the work to shows that are in no way relevant or related because they make up the shallow, tiny data set of musicals that the critics have seen, heard or know a little something about. These critics rarely think about or understand the context of the show they are seeing right now. The scale, the stage of development, the potential audience or indeed the actual intentions of the person writing them.
Every time a critic watches a new musical it can feel like I am being forced to visit a casino and bet the show and the writing and the craft on Red or Black and that we just have to spin the roulette wheel. I know it might seem like a good show that is on its way somewhere good will get good reviews if it is headed in the right direction. But again i will note that some of the best new musicals I have seen in this country, some of the most audacious and innovative, thoughtful and intelligent get patchy, undermining, snarky reviews. I am done putting faith in critics to tell me and artists whether we are doing it right. When it comes to musicals I am becoming more and more certain, that they simply don’t know. Or at least they don’t know with enough accuracy to give them so much power.
I will make a terrible admission here. There have been new musicals that I have been hugely excited to see. Shows that I have put on to do lists and in diaries and promised myself that I will get to. And then I have watched these shows get mixed reviews and my desire to see the show has waned. I am ashamed to admit that I have felt myself take the word of critics over my own desires and feelings. I have then watched these once buzzy and exciting shows lose their nerve and become anxious and uncertain following these reviews. I have watched these shows then struggle to get the audiences they have deserved because they have been judged and categorised by people who rarely give the show they have watched much thought. I have watched promising and exciting shows stop evolving and growing and improving because the critics have judged them. There is a feeling that these shows have been marked indelibly and nothing except a miracle will really change their fate.
In America you hear do stories of shows that have had mixed reviews and then go back into workshop and tryouts and then manage to reappear down the line to better reviews in the coming years. But as ever America understands and values musicals and their process a lot better. The medium is part of the American cultural DNA and it is not something that is ever as loathed or misunderstood as it is here. Even mixed reviews tend not to be as much of a death sentence as they are here. In addition, I would add that American critics tend to be more steeped in the background and context of the form and even if the worst happens and they destroy a show, I would say they do so with much more respect and care for the form than most Uk critics can ever muster.
I would add that the new musical theatre scene in this country is much more grass roots than what is seen in America and as such, the shows being created are often less resourced and not attached to producers or buildings who can protect a show no matter what. Time and again I have seen delicate, well intentioned early stage work treated in bad faith and then forever tarnished with this small group of opinions that are given unnecessary weight. And the internet means that when an early stage new musical is reviewed badly, that the reviews stick around; following a show’s google traffic and search engine optimisation forever.
Musicals are already a form that is sadly deeply misunderstood, judged, undermined by so many so why are we giving power to those who have time and again shown themselves to be careless to decide its future.
There is also the fact that many people when deciding what to watch, look for clues as to whether something is worth their time and the ticket price. Reviews are a very visible clue of what audiences could or should gravitate towards and as such they have the power to gatekeep what work gets audiences and what doesn’t. Furthermore, people who don't see theatre often or aren't within theatre are even more dependant on reviews as a quality filter for what they choose to see. And if critics misunderstand the form more often than not then why are we making them gatekeepers? Surely there are other ways of letting audiences know what is going on in that room and that process that doesn’t leave a new show vulnerable to the judgement of someone often acting in bad faith.
So what will I do instead? This week I read this tweet and I think it holds the answer.
Academics peer review each others’ work. Work is discussed, deconstructed, analysed and contextualised. And this is done by people who are expert in the same field. Those with a background and with a profound understanding of how work is developed, evolved and unveiled.
And I think new musicals need more peer reviewing. They need more writing and information about shows, processes and writers by those who are fully aware of how they are made.
It is clear that those who make, have written and understand new musicals in their entirety would be most equipped to unpack and talk about them in a more nuanced way. It feels that these other artists would be most useful at explaining and describing them to those people who haven’t yet seen them and would be able to observe what a show does and doesn’t do with a knowledge of context, chronology and the process of development.
I think context is just as important as judgement. Information and detail are just as important as opinion. I suddenly wonder how much more we would know about new musicals if a number of long form journal length peer review articles were written about a new piece by those who are expert in the field.
And so that’s what I’m going to do. If you are an expert in musical theatre; an academic, a writer, a creative, and you want a free ticket to a future show of mine to write about it then let me know. To talk about it, to unpack it, to contextualise it, to wonder about it. To meet it in good faith, where it is, rather than bad faith where you might think it should be.
But also, I am going to work actively to uncenter critics from the new musical theatre scene. I am going to work hard to let audiences know what a piece is, and why they should give it a chance without putting a small group of people in the way with the power to decide its fate.
New musicals are fragile. They take so much work, and making innovative, strange, disruptive new ones is hard because seemingly no one wants them yet unless they are already successful. So why do we let critics make it even harder? So I am taking away the power of the careless to decide what happens to the things I care about. And maybe we all should.
Thank you for reading
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The difficulty with peer review may be finding independent voices willing to voice criticism. If it’s intended to be private, kept within trusted circles and for the benefit of creators, then I can see that working. If it’s intended to be public and help generate interest and potential audience, then reviews would probably end up being unrealistically positive.
Feature articles giving more information and context to new shows would be less of a problem. Not sure how much of a readership there would be for that sort of thing. It would be quite niche. I mean, I’d read them. Heck, I’d even write them! But I wouldn’t like to count myself as typical in this regard.
And, sadly, I suspect that you're absolutely correct not to rely on British theatre critics to do any of these things.
In the early days of theatre blogging (of which there’s a book documenting this now, and of which I was a small part) this is what started to happen (although not so much in musicals) - and IIRC you really tried to go to a show in its first week before any reviews anyway, form your own opinion and then either tell it to the creators if you knew them or blogged about it. It’s possible this could flourish again either via blog or podcast or even videocast, but for lots of reasons (I think maybe tied into the money and energy of the sector at the moment but it’s complex) I’m not sure it will happen. Excellent idea though. (Cf. Eg New economics papers are discussed via blog or Twitter etc. quite extensively as people try to form opinions…).