'Everybody's Got The Right: The Changing Face of Criticism and How New Musicals are Reviewed', MT Fest, The Other Palace
Paul Taylor-Mills hosted a conversation with Mark Shenton, one of a series at The Other Palace's MT Fest. Here are some of the key points that emerged from their discussion.
It is not the critic's obligation to support all new musicals - the first responsibility is to the reader, so if it's no good, you have to say that it's no good.
The public can hold a different opinion about a show than that held by most critics, partly because reviewers have seen a lot more shows, so have a different perspective. Sometimes critics have to distance their own tastes to reflect that, and the fact that theatres do need to make money - after all, nobody intends to make a bad show.
Musicals have to start with the story, even if it's blessed with great songs.
Shenton identified Guys and Dolls as his favourite musical: mythical and funny, it bowls him over every time he sees it. West Side Story has been hamstrung by sticking to the original choreography, but that's changing now.
Twitter started friendly and conversational, but has now become toxic - both an asset and a weapon. "Nobody" (well, fewer people now than ever) reads reviews because the public gets its information from social media. (Controversially, Paul Taylor-Mills excluded critics from a recent production of Heathers - at The Other Palace - he says because the young audience for the show doesn't read reviews.)
Cast albums can go viral and rescue a show that received poor reviews - The New York Times can no longer make or break a production.
To workshop a new musical in the USA can cost $750k: in the UK, it's £30k. That said, new musical theatre is being developed all the time in the US (but not in the UK), such is the unique position musicals hold in the history of American theatre. That's also reflected in the US talent base and the fact that "everyone" in New York talks about musical theatre.
US imports flood the West End, but the most recent UK musical is Only Fools and Horses. Why is there not a Howard Goodall show on in the West End?
Producers hate three-star reviews, with many British critics oriented towards plays and not musicals. Some critics don't seem to like musicals, as they never give them good reviews, so it's hard to know why they keep reviewing them. But (as a reviewer) you never know what you're going to get.
Star ratings can change as you write the reviews, with a broader range of views in the UK than one finds in the US. Reviewers (good ones) can rise above the noise and provide a broader range of opinion here than one sees in the US.
Online headlines have become sensationalised clickbait in the hunt for eyeballs - a worrying development as it could become a race to the bottom. Papers may decide only to review big shows.
Social media cannot be controlled nor policed, but it can be steered. Twitter can take its toll on one's health - being punched in the face every morning is wearing. Muting is the best way to deal with it. Self-censoring can come into play, as you can predict the lobbying groups' assaults.
Questions about diversity can produce a defensive attitude, making one uncomfortable.
New musical theatre needs proper development programmes like those enjoyed by Les Miserables and Matilda. That's far more common in the US, where regional theatres will produce new musicals and not just classics or jukebox shows. The risk of doing new stuff (in a financial environment in which books must be balanced) acts as strong deterrent against doing new work.
Shenton teaches contextual studies at ArtsEd, a History of Musical Theatre from Show Boat to the present day. Landmark shows also include: Oklahoma; Mamma Mia and Hamilton.
Like most jobs in theatre, reviewing is now not a paying profession - so you need a passion to do it and (probably) another source of income to support you.
If you would like to contact me to discuss any of these points or other aspects of reviewing theatre, please email me firstname.lastname@example.org