The Playgoer: "Life" Lessons

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Saturday, October 22, 2005

"Life" Lessons

Ok, I cannot deny enjoying catching up on the reviews of In My Life, the vanity B'way musical by the Dr Pepper-jingle-"YouLightUpMyLife"-guy. (You can cut to the chase with Brantley, if you like.)

But I also can't help feeling this is the chicken who came home to roost, as it were. Broadway deserves In My Life. And Lennon. And Suzanne Somers. In fact, I believe such names and such product will be the staple of the Great White Way, no matter how much Times critics may sneer. For somewhere behind that sneer is a tacit endorsement.

Take last Sunday's Arts & Leisure feature article on the Life auteur Joe Brooks. (Free access expires after today, sorry.) Yes, the piece plays up the freakshow aspect and its hook is "nutty billionaire puts on ridiculous vanity show." But, hey there it is in the New York Times! And at 2,000 words, no less, on the front page of the country's most prestigious arts section. I'm sure I need not repeat O.W.'s first rule of celebrity, "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about."

The truth is the Times (and other major media) is so beholden to the Broadway industry--and their press agents--that they have no choice but to run something on any Broadway opening. That they choose to do so with a condescending gently teasing piece like this is their teeny weeny exercise of journalistic freedom. (Like finding an innocuous off-color joke in "Pravda," if you will.) But at the end of the day the publicists were perfectly happy with this piece, I bet. And it certainly lets Brooks speak for himself plenty with no dissenters, so hardly an exposee.

What's there to "expose," you say? Well the real story here, between the lines, is how the economics of Broadway will make this kind of "vanity" show only more likely. With most sane investors realizing what a pitfall commerical theatre has become, only nuts like this will poor the unlimited funds it takes. (A highlight of the article is how thrilled the designers--all top-notch theatre professionals, by the way--were to finally work without budget constraints!) No shame will stop these people. And as long as they can count on glossy cover stories in the NYT immortalizing them, why not?

Which brings me to my modest proposal: that the NY Times not to cover these kinds of shows at all. Every feature they run on an In My Life, or a Lennon or Blonde in the Thunderbird--no matter how "in the know"--demeans both the theatre and themselves. If the show actually turns out to be worthwhile, great. Review it, praise it, go for broke. But why waste such valuable print real estate on something no one is looking forward to. Imagine the choices the arts editors must make with such limited space. And think of all the interesting and important theatre going on just this week not just in New York, but around the country and the world. And they devote 2,000 words to this!?

Bad shows like this happen (yes, sometimes to good people) precisely because of the understood agreement that the Times is obliged to cover anything (anything) that opens on Broadway. (If Anna Nicole did a one-woman show of Shakespeare soliloquies, you could expect similar ink, believe me.) To those who continue to urge us to look to Broadway for the future of the American Theatre because that's where the focus is, I say-- isn't this just a circular logic, a self-fulfilling prophecy? Doesn't the Times have the power to say, Enough! The focus will be where we put the focus! I can already hear the charges of elitism. But answer me this: do you really think the "average" playgoer will enjoy In My Life more than something from either the more highbrow or downtown ends of the spectrum?

You have the power, Times folk. The next time an obvious turkey calls, please learn to just say no. Lord knows you know how to say it to those theatres without the nutty billionaires and insistent press agents.

Endnote: the article does credit Joe Brooks with one oddly redeeming virtue in his tatse:

he already has his next two Broadway projects lined up: [including...] a new production of a musicalized "Metropolis" that flopped in London in 1989 (to be directed, if his plan works out, by the avant-garde pioneer Richard Foreman)

Anyone gotten a comment from Foreman on this???


Anonymous said...

Well said, Playgoer. Most plays are an embarrassment, but rigorous and ambitious arts coverage could help things a little. Instead it makes them worse.

Anonymous said...

I would love to hear from insiders what the relationship is between arts coverage and arts advertising at New York's newspapers. Sometimes I notice that when Andrew Sarris reviews a particular small-scale film in the Observer, an ad for that film turns up in the same issue. So it looks as if the editorial department there isn't above alerting the advertising department to what's going to be covered. At the Times, it looks as if Broadway-class shows, which routinely advertise, are routinely covered at least as a class. This would hardly need to be said, except it raises a question: does the Times cover these shows solely because a lot of people attend them (a kind of majority-of-the-audience rule), or is the advertising also a factor?

I rather doubt that any paper wants such details to be known. But they have a bearing (or would, if we knew them) on the integrity of their content.

Anonymous said...

The problem with this modest proposal is that it ignores the many different functions of a newspaper. The New York Times isn't only responsible for educating its readers about the best of culture (although thats part of it); it also must reflect what is going on in the world, and like it or not, vanity productions are part of that world. Try to apply this proposal to any other part of the paper and it quickly seems ridiculous. Ignore the terrible candidates? The pork-filled bills? The losing sports teams? Imagine what a narrow view of the world we would get. Lennon and In the Life aren't covered because of some paranoid idea about advertisers. They are covered because these kinds of shows are quite common and representative of the Broadway scene. Agreed that smaller, less commercial shows deserve more coverage, but leaving out the drek would be a disservice to readers.

Playgoer said...

I take your point, anonymous, that a mainstream "paper of record" feels a responsibility to cover what's "common" and "representative". But look at your own examples: "ignore the terrible candidates?"--uh, what is it you think the Times does in that respect?
My point was not to ignore "In My Life" like they're the Mets, a team of professional athletes just having a bad year. My point is--it's not theatre. Cover it in the gossip or "styles" column.

Two last points I feel are crucial that I didn't maybe spell out before. First--I'm not concerned for shows like "In My Life" lacking publicity. If the Times ignored them they would hardly be off our radar. Their PR budgets alone are more than some non-profits entire seasons, I bet.

And quite frankly I sometimes doubt there's any editorial decision even going into covering such shows. You imply there's some genuinely civic motive of "informing our readers" in running a puff piece (even if its styled as a gentle ridicule) on a billionaire who doesn't need it. I have to admit I'm dubious. It seems obvious to me that the Times automatically runs a feature (let alone a review) of every single Broadway show that's slated to open. I call that "beholden." (What smaller theatres would give just for a review! even a bad one)
I would be impressed if just once they showed the judgment to not cover or review a Broadway show--the exact judgment they have no problem excerising with numerous non-Broadway shows all the time.
That indeed, would be "representative", "fair & balanced," and all that...