The Playgoer: Sifton: "We don't work for B'way"

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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Sifton: "We don't work for B'way"

I just had to quote this particular reader exchange with NYTimes Arts Editor Sam Sifton in full. Regarding the Times's relations with the B'way biz...methinks the editor doth protest too much?

Q. I am a member of the Actors Equity Association and am currently on tour with "The Phantom of the Opera." I read The Times online and pick up the paper at Starbucks whenever possible. As a member of the theatrical community in New York City and as someone who is also meeting the public outside of New York City (I have been on tour for over five years, in more than 60 cities), I know that there is a hunger out here for legitimate reporting on New York's special theater events as well as the long and short runs of Broadway shows.

On Fridays, in the back of the Weekend section, there are capsule comments under the title of each running Broadway show that, inexplicably, have gone from being helpful and intriguing ­ quotations from reviews, plot descriptions ­ to sarcastic, jokey, completely useless paragraphs that not only give no information about the shows, they do not, in any way, encourage attendance. It would seem to me, that the national edition of The Times Arts section would want to encourage visits to New York's Broadway theaters. These capsule comments do nothing toward that end.
-- David C. Anderson, New York

[Sifton:] It is not our job to encourage attendance in Broadway theaters. [Ha! Note the Times's own link here!] News flash: We don't work for Broadway. We work for the reader. And it is our job as such to tell readers what's on Broadway, what's new there and what's old, what's coming and what's still hanging around — and whether readers interested in spending an average of $74.55 a ticket are getting what they pay for.

We do a number of things to fulfill that mandate. We have a fulltime theater reporter, Campbell Robertson, who walks along the Rialto every day, gathering news. We have two fulltime theater critics — Ben Brantley on the first string, Charles Isherwood on the second — to evaluate the productions the street brings forth. And we rereview those productions when they undergo major cast changes, or when years go by without them. Beyond all this, in the Weekend section, we list every production that's currently showing on Broadway. For long-running shows — like "Phantom" — we ape the vestpocket reviews that accompany the listing of movies on our television grid, and which used to be written with wonderful economy by an editor here, Howard Thompson. You don't like them. Hey, that's the music of the night.
I don't expect a Times editor to admit to any favorable treatment of Broadway. But the "news flash" sarcasm is kinda insulting to our intelligence.

Of course, there was a minor scandal a couple of years ago over what the Times was doing with their arts "listings" in the back of both the Sunday and Friday sections. What used to be a democratic assembling of descriptive short blurbs of shows not only on Broadway but Off and Off-Off, the editors wanted more control over it--over which shows got listed and what they said about them. And, as Sifton reveals here, more explicitly a consumer guide. While I don't sympathize with the questioner's wish for more promotion of shows like "Phantom," I do agree that the listings should be the place for snarky put-downs of shows. That's what reviews are for. Or blogs.

Also, do catch the sopt-on question about why Times "Arts" (that's "Arts") needs to cover Brangelina and Jennifer Anniston. Sifton's answer: "Well, here’s the thing. Jennifer Aniston is kind of a good actress." Again, the link is the Times's.


Anonymous said...

To answer Joshua James's question: most of the American publishing business tends to prefer "theater" over "theatre." The "-er" ending is listed first in the Webster's 11th Collegiate, and that's a standard reference.

Re. the Times's theater page, I don't think they have one anymore. The Sunday Arts & Leisure section typically has theater articles (which I'm pretty sure are labeled with "theater"), but the weekday paper mixes media together in its arts coverage. That's what I think--but I usually read the weekday stuff online.

Scott Walters said...

Yow! The tone of these responses are really snotty! That's how an editor responds to the readership?

That said, the snarky summary goes way back. Who was it that had the really sarcastic New Yorker listings for "Abie's Irish Rose"? One of the Algonquin folks -- Woolcott?

PeonInChief said...

"Theater" is the American English spelling, "theatre" is the British English spelling. Using the British spelling in American English is pretty harmless, unlike advocating for royalty or fox hunting or the comma splice.