BWW Blog: Diversifying The Critical Landscape and Letting Young People Have Theatrical Spaces
A few weeks ago I saw The Lightning Thief on Broadway. I had heard good things about the show from their previous Off-Broadway and tour runs from people I know and so I was excited to see it. Another reason for excitement was that I was a fan of Be More Chill and I knew that Joe Tracz is the most amazing novel-to-stage adaptation writer possible, and I very much trusted Stephen Brackett's direction as well. I was personally extra excited to see the show, too, because when I was in elementary school the book came out and Percy Jackson and The Olympians became one of my favorite book series, along with Harry Potter and A Series of Unfortunate Events. Elementary school was a long time ago for me; I turn 24 early next month, so I actually got a copy of the novel and re-read it in the span of about 4-5 hours right before I saw the musical. So, with the book and lots of nostalgia fresh in my mind, I entered that theater very happily, ready to have my childhood dreams realized onstage in front of me. And I had a great time! I loved the minimal set and creative use of costumes. I loved the catchy songs. I loved the actors' performances, (I even saw an understudy! I love understudies more than most things!) I loved how it stayed true to the novel-even though a lot of things weren't included in detail because of time constraints, they were still referenced. You could tell it was aimed towards kids and teenagers but I as a nostalgic, theater loving, and open-minded adult had an amazing time regardless. Family theater is very important.
The Lightning Thief officially opened on October 16th, marking the Broadway debuts of nine out of ten of the cast. That's incredible! They are all so talented and so deserving. Usually when a show opens, especially ones I saw in previews, I don't read the reviews. I already saw the show and formed my own opinions. But in this case for no particular reason I decided to read the first one I saw. And by the end I had very clearly reminded myself why I never read reviews. This particular review (I won't name publications) was not very positive. And then I saw quotes on Twitter from other reviews that were similarly not very positive. Of course, not everyone will like everything and that is okay! Opinions about things like this are valid, as art is subjective! But some of these reviews were downright cruel. I don't dislike many shows, admittedly, but even when I dislike them I can find at least one thing that I did like. I wouldn't have agreed with most criticisms of The Lightning Thief in general, but the way that so many things were phrased in these reviews were just awfully mean and it really made me furious. I won't discuss every criticism but I have a few I need to address.
Firstly, I really saw one reviewer say that people over the age of twelve would not be familiar with the original novel. What! The book came out in 2005! People who are 12 years old were born in 2007! Literally the simplest possible research would have proven this claim false. Yes, a lot of children see this show. And that is a good thing! It's a very empowering beautiful great story for children with a lot of great role models to be found in its characters. There are also lots of people, like myself, who read the book when they were younger and are now grown up and still had a great time. It isn't just that one review, either. Many other publications wrote similarly off the mark comments about the show being for children. Being rude about a musical for being for children and teenagers and families is such a low blow. Theater doesn't have to be full of big words and complex plots to be valuable, and children are the future of theater and the world in general. Children deserve to have theater written for them. Children deserve to be given more credit. Do people think that theater artists just spring out of nowhere without having a prior love for theater?
There are many more issues I have with the reviews in general, but I will only talk about one of them that bothered me specifically: the reviews of the set. It is true that the set of The Lightning Thief is very minimal and unpolished. But all of the set pieces are very masterfully used. I saw many quotes of reviews that insulted the set because of its aforementioned attributes. This sets a troubling precedent for me. According to these people, sets have to all be polished and fancy? Broadway sets must be extravagant and visually striking? This stifles creativity. Some shows call for a smaller set. Some shows call for a set that looks dirty and imperfect. And that's okay! It's also okay to not be a huge fan of a specific set. Sometimes things miss. But, again, there is no reason whatsoever to be straight up mean about anything, as long as it isn't offensive.
I believe that The Lightning Thief will stay open until their January 5th closing, due to the small cast, brand recognition (including praise from Rick Riordan, the book's author), a low tech running cost, and the limited run. But this doesn't mean that the reviews were any less cruel. And this specific show's reviews are just one part of a wider problem: the field of theater criticism as a whole. We need to completely revamp the way that theater is reviewed and the way that theater reviews can bring down a show.
Theater is subjective. And so many people work hard on every piece of theater that makes it to Off-Broadway or Broadway. Why then, can a show close and all these hard working theater artists' jobs be lost or their work insulted because some specific people who have been tasked by specific publications didn't like a show? Why are certain people's feelings about something seen as the end all be all of theater opinions? Are these reviewers sent signs from some deity that give them divine decisions that they put in their reviews? I have so many questions and no answers. But I do know that this field needs some massive diversification. We'll come back to that concept.
In moving away from The Lightning Thief specifically and thinking about other shows that have been negatively impacted by reviews, my mind immediately went to another show, this one Off-Broadway, which I really enjoyed this year: Broadway Bounty Hunter. The show was so funny and so diverse with the catchiest songs. I saw it three times and would have seen it plenty more if it hadn't unfortunately closed an entire month early. The musical actually got pretty good reviews, for the most part, but The New York Times gave it a less-than-positive review. According to Lance Rubin, one of the book writers of the show, this one review had a heavy effect on the show's early closing. Until I read a blog post that he wrote, which I have linked at the bottom of this piece, I hadn't thought at all about how heavily certain reviews really impact whether a show stays open or not. Personally I am not a fan of the system operating this way. There is one particular quote from Rubin's blog post that stuck out to me and that I very heavily agree with:
"Dozens-in some cases, hundreds-of people come together to make a piece of theater, to pour their heart, soul, passion, intelligence, and creativity into it, often... making less money than they should for all the time, energy, and expertise they're devoting to it. And one audience member, coming to this viewing experience with their own cultural background, their own biases, their own life context/history/baggage, can knock all that to the ground with some hastily typed keystrokes?"
I touched on the topic before, although Rubin is of course better at phrasing things, of how many people put so much effort into a show and how criticisms often ignore this fact and can cause people to lose their jobs or have their hard work insulted. This isn't to say that sometimes elements of a show are genuinely bad! Of course they can be! And it's totally valid to have opinions but what I find to be the issue is that some people feel the need to be downright mean. And even if something is bad, shouldn't people be able to determine that for themselves? Why does it make sense that a show can close because of the opinions of a few select people instead of bigger groups? Critics often act like art is created in a vacuum, when it's really an amalgamation of lived experiences. And in forgetting this, their words can create real-life consequences. I think that the best word to describe how all of this works is "unfair". This leads me into my next topic of discussion-how should we change things? What can be done?
Obviously, I don't think that it would be possible to completely abolish the field of theater criticism. But I do think that word of mouth reviews, not ones published in print, are more effective and should be relied on more. And, most importantly, if you take anything away from me writing this: DIVERSIFY YOUR CRITICAL ROSTER. The current system of theatrical criticism's biggest gaping flaw is that the majority of the big critics are older straight white men. There is nothing wrong with having some people in this group reviewing shows. Sometimes shows that are very diverse and different and that help change the landscape of theater as we know it get good reviews even when people in the demographics represented onstage are not the ones reviewing the material. Two of my favorite shows are The Band's Visit and Hadestown, both of which got a lot of critical acclaim and are both very racially diverse pieces. But on the other hand there's shows I love like Head Over Heels, Be More Chill, etc. that don't have the same lucky fate. If we had Asian critics review Be More Chill, with its three Asian leads, perhaps it would have done better. Or a reviewer who is recently hired out of college and has a closer connection to the feelings of a high schooler. If we had lesbians or non-binary people or black trans women review Head Over Heels, perhaps it would have done better. It is unfortunate that we will never find out the answers to these hypotheticals. But, going forward, we can fix things! Let's add more women, more people of color, more trans people, more queer people, more people of any diverse experience-especially those who reside in the intersections of multiple diverse identities-to the critical rosters of major publications! Rubin suggests that the pool of major critics should become more diverse "so that the big shows don't always get assigned to the same voices occupying the same demographic landscape," which is a more well-put version of what my thoughts are. The world population is diverse and professional theater is starting, although there is a lot farther to go, to reflect this, at least onstage. But offstage, diversity is still lacking. Like we need more diversity with playwrights, directors, designers, stage managers, choreographers, we need more diversity with critics, the people who for whatever reason have a huge impact on the fate of a show. I still have an issue with how powerful critics can be, but if we are to keep theater criticism as it is in that sense, it needs to at the very least be a field that is not overpowered by the people who have the most privilege in our society at large. Earlier this month, Ayanna Prescod tweeted, "Please share all theater critics of color who are published on major platforms (NYT, New Yorker, Time Out, The Wrap, LA Times, etc.). I want to follow them and read their work. Thanks!" and got exactly zero replies to her tweet. She then follows up with a tweet saying, "Exactly." I think that this speaks for itself.
I want to end this opinion piece with a message to younger theatergoers and to future professional theater artists. MAKE THINGS! Follow your passions! Create! Write reviews! See theater! There is a place for you. There always will be and although some people like to stifle that, you are the future. People will always make theater for younger audiences, even if some other people don't understand it. You are valid and you deserve to occupy a space in the theater landscape. I urge you all to take your schooling years and truly learn how to hone your craft and find your talents and let them shine. The world is constantly shifting and there is room for you and you are allowed to take up space and demand change and be heard.