During the Broadway season, The New York Times’s chief theater critics, Ben Brantley and Jesse Green, have their say in reviews of individual shows. In the run-up to the Tony Awards (airing June 10 at 8 p.m. on CBS), they look back in anger — and amusement — with prodding from Scott Heller, the theater editor for The Times.
In our weekly theater newsletter, I asked readers what they wanted to know from you. Richard Allan Edwards, from Sonoma County, Calif., has a good start: “If we look at Broadway as our national theater,” he wrote, “are we coming close to a balanced diet or are we feeding the audience more-than-enough high calorie dessert?” Dig in!
JESSE GREEN If Broadway is our national theater, we’re in trouble.
BEN BRANTLEY Broadway is our east coast Las Vegas, really, an importing house for tried and true entertainments with brand recognition value.
GREEN Which hang around forever and eat up space for anything else. That’s why only 33 new productions managed to crowd into this season, a far cry from the previous season’s 45. Among them, brands like Disney and Harry Potter and Jimmy Buffett and SpongeBob will always have more clout in terms of getting access to audiences. What they do with that access is another story, and not a happy one.
BRANTLEY I don’t think those examples are all on the same level. “Escape To Margaritaville” is, admittedly, a thought-free excursion. But there’s quite a bit of imagination at work in “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” and in “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical” It ain’t just the category, but how it’s filled that counts, even when the category is (and I do agree) essentially a baleful one.
Our colleague Tony Scott had the (unenviable task) of reviewing “Avengers: Infinity War.” You could almost hear him sigh as he typed, arguing that Marvel movies have “come to be less a creative or commercial undertaking than an immutable fact of life, like sex or the weather or capitalism itself. That makes the franchise hard to criticize.” Do you feel that way about Broadway?
GREEN Yes, except for the “hard to criticize” part. I think we have to keep fighting that good fight. And keep noting the glorious exceptions, of which there were a few. Top on that list, obviously, is “The Band’s Visit,” a totally noncommercial musical that is making a go of it on Broadway despite being excellent in every way.
BRANTLEY And let’s do remember that all franchises are not created equal in so many respects — including their invulnerability to criticism. And “The Band’s Visit,” like “Mean Girls,” was in fact adapted from a movie. So you can’t simply say that dipping from the well of cinematic precedent is creatively dry.
GREEN I’m not saying that; many great musicals have been made from films. But not all films are brands, and surely very few potential Broadway theatergoers have seen the movie on which “The Band’s Visit” is based. The musical came here almost naked — except for one important thing: It had already been a success Off Broadway, at the Atlantic Theater Company. Almost all of the most satisfying Broadway productions this year were mounted by resident companies: “The Children” (Manhattan Theater Club), “Travesties” (the Roundabout), “My Fair Lady” (Lincoln Center Theater) and “Lobby Hero” (Second Stage).
Let’s slow down a bit and talk about some of those shows individually. From the outside looking in, “SpongeBob” feels like the crassest of cash-ins, yet I (and many others) found it to be artistically adventurous and just plain delightful. What makes the difference (if you agree there is one)?
BRANTLEY I certainly enjoyed it, against expectations. I think the little miracle that happened there was not unlike what occurred 21 years ago when “The Lion King” opened — again, an unorthodox director (Tina Landau for “SpongeBob,” Julie Taymor for “Lion King”) was allowed to have her way, creatively speaking, with the prefab material and transform it into something genuinely and originally theatrical.
GREEN I’m in the minority on “SpongeBob.” I was in awe of its cleverness and theatricality, but I cannot endorse the application of so much intelligence to such an empty story and silly characters. I know: Call me Father Grumpo. But this is what I mean by the branding problem. Tina Landau (and her designers) did a brilliant job. But I’d rather see them given the same big-time resources to apply that brilliance to something more important. I imagine they would too.
BRANTLEY Honestly, I don’t look to Broadway for news, in terms of original ideas, anymore. For the most part, everything of worth this season started off elsewhere, including a fertile London theater scene. Two prime exceptions: “Three Tall Women” and (a lesser revival) “The Iceman Cometh.”
Let’s not leave “The Band’s Visit” behind. It’s been about a year since you both saw and raved about it Off Broadway and now it’s in the thick of the Best Musical race, the most important to the box office. How well did it make the transfer?
GREEN If “The Band’s Visit” could find a way to be powerful, beautiful, meaningful, clever, tuneful, entertaining — and commercial — shouldn’t that be everyone’s goal? Not just the “commercial” part? Granted, the transfer was an enormous risk and there was both intelligence and luck involved in doing it correctly. But it is the quality of the show itself, megaphoned by reviews and word of mouth, that made it into the semi-hit it is.
BRANTLEY To answer your question, Scott, it translated into the big time (and a bigger space) exquisitely. I found it actually better on Broadway — tighter, more organic, more a whole in terms of its staging and use of music. I do know people who see it and go, “What the heck? This is Broadway?” But I’m with Jesse — ideally, yes, this is the Broadway of our dreams.
GREEN Few straight-to-Broadway productions achieve as much. Without out-of-town tryouts (which are poorly used these days anyway) or pre-Broadway institutional mountings, opening a show cold on Broadway is dangerous. Did any new plays manage the trick?
BRANTLEY Well, let’s not forget the disappearing/reappearing elephant in this discussion: “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” which I think works quite splendidly on its own terms. But that of course originated in the West End in London.
Here’s a provocation: “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is the best production of a play this season — maybe in several seasons. But best play? Really?
GREEN Not for me. I had the SpongeBob response to it, greatly magnified: Awe at the stagecraft, apathy toward the content. People were running around with wands, for heaven’s sake. For me the best new play of the Broadway season was Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Children.”
BRANTLEY And I was as rapt as any Potter-weaned 10-year-old. I think Rowling, John Tiffany (the director) and Jack Thorne (the writer) did a fine job in adapting the appeal of the books (including their narrative drive and emotional button-pushing aspects) into vibrant stagecraft. I am ashamed to say I didn’t see “The Children,” though I would agree — on the basis of the script — that it is of course a better play, by all literary standards and in terms of cultural ambition. But what’s voted for ultimately is the production, how the play lives on the stage.
GREEN I can report to you that James Macdonald’s staging of “The Children,” on a set by Miriam Buether, was, in its own way, as awesome as John Tiffany’s staging of “Cursed Child,” on a set by Christine Jones. Only without the (spoiler alert) flying Dementors.
And what of Joe Mantello’s staging of “Three Tall Women” on another set by Miriam Buether (something of a new name to me, but wow, what a year she had)?
BRANTLEY Beautiful. The way Ms. Buether’s set gave physical life to the physics of time was an astonishment. This was a high-value production in every sense.
GREEN The stars — Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill — certainly. But Mr. Mantello also brought “Three Tall Women” to life by making subtle adjustments in tone, structure and staging that likely had Albee turning over in his grave. That’s a real revival! This in a season where revivals, in general, were better than new works.
BRANTLEY Especially when you consider the weight of their subjects. “Three Tall Women” and “Iceman” are essentially about death, and the denial of it. “Lobby Hero,” by Kenneth Lonergan, is nothing less than a consideration of the moral fallibility of everyone, and I mean everyone. And “Angels in America” — well, heaven and earth, bad faith in love and politics. You can’t get much bigger than that.
GREEN I couldn’t admire the play more, but I found this production leaden and overacted. I also felt that way, though less so, about “The Iceman Cometh” with Denzel Washington. Happily, there came — as a lovely dessert at the very end of the season — the revival of Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties.”
BRANTLEY “Travesties” is a delicious dessert. But it too is about the distortions of history and memory — not to mention the function and enduring value of art. Aside from “The Children,” the plays that spoke most directly to our contemporary woes were old ones. (Though of course there is that Fascist sequence in “Cursed Child.”)
Going into the season it seemed as if “Junk,” Ayad Akhtar’s panoramic look at financial chicanery, would be a play of the moment. It is nominated for Best Play, but why so little resonance?
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BRANTLEY “Junk” is undeniably topical. But strangely, given Mr. Akhtar’s earlier work, it didn’t feel newly illuminating. Perhaps that’s a sad statement on the abiding nature of duplicity on Wall Street.
GREEN “Junk” was the equivalent of one of those online “explainer” videos that use cute cartoons to illustrate complicated ideas. But the play didn’t engage as a play.
BRANTLEY You might have thought that a stage production of good old, direly prophesying “1984” would be an energizing slap in the face. (We are Big Brother’s keepers these days.) Yet this London import registered as a garbled scream, though I know you, Jesse, were enchanted by the torture scenes.
GREEN You mean the scenes of me, face down in my seat, covering my eyes?
Going into the spring, by contrast, the explosive #MeToo movement was the talk of the town. And suddenly reviving musical chestnuts like “Carousel” and “My Fair Lady” seemed poorly timed. So — do they hold up to the scrutiny?
GREEN The first thing to say is that the authors of both shows are exposing serious problems of gender inequality, not endorsing that inequality. George Bernard Shaw, whose “Pygmalion” is the basis of “My Fair Lady,” was an early and fervent feminist, albeit with his own problems in that area. The revival, barely changing the text, brought Shaw’s intentions to the forefront and, for me, showed how a work imagined in one era can speak authentically to another, if done thoughtfully.
BRANTLEY Might I interject that as much as I admired “My Fair Lady” for its conscientiousness in addressing the issue of women’s independence, the production left me cool if not cold. Sometimes when we raise a work’s consciousness there’s an attendant self-consciousness. And while I thought “My Fair Lady” provided a more successfully sustained point of view than did the “Carousel” revival, I did get shivers during “Carousel” more than once. I felt little emotional power from the “Lady.”
GREEN For me, the adjustments to “My Fair Lady” warmed it up considerably; it seemed less frozen in its perfections, more open to our lives today. As for “Carousel,” I certainly got shivers; it’s a great musical and was sung and danced as such. But I do think it completely botched the opportunity of this moment, neither standing up for the text as written nor giving us a new way to look at it.
BRANTLEY I can’t disagree. There was a cravenness about the second act, as if everyone decided to shrug and look away. But I felt that Jack O’Brien’s production did find the fatalism in the show, which is ingrained even in the music, and the force of gravity of erotic attraction. I suppose “What’s the Use of Wond’rin?” might be its theme song in that regard.
GREEN We shouldn’t leave out the other musical revival — there were only three this season: “Once on This Island.” It too was very fine and it too was criticized by some as a work that denies agency to its main character.
BRANTLEY Hell, she had agency! She had magical healing powers. What she didn’t have was good judgment in men, since she fell in love with a rich and superficial cad. But if we start eliminating all works in which women make bad choices in love, we’ll have to say bye-bye to “Anna Karenina,” “Medea” and “Madame Bovary,” for starters.
But if we had Tina Landau direct any of those three shows instead of Bart Sher, Jack O’Brien and Michael Arden, maybe we’d have different interpretations of the material. Is it time?
BRANTLEY Absolutely. I can’t imagine anyone saying it isn’t necessary to have more of women’s directorial gazes focused on such material. Look, for starters, at the sense of physical loneliness and intimacy — on a cosmic scale, no less — that define Marianne Elliott’s production of “Angels in America.” And of course we have the sardonic, clarion voice of Tina Fey, one of the most seductive and smartest comic voices in America, in her script for “Mean Girls.”
GREEN The key is getting producers to take more chances on material written by women. A musical I really enjoyed this season was Kirsten Childs’s “The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin,” part of the Encores! Off-Center summer series. I’m waiting for work like that, and work I can’t even imagine yet, to follow in the footsteps of Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s “Fun Home” in getting the Broadway platform it deserves.
That Bruce Springsteen would play Broadway might have been unimaginable a few years ago. Now it looks like he may never leave.
BRANTLEY That was a wonderful surprise, the antithesis of your basic jukebox musical and, I would argue, the most politically important show this season. It established a one-time renegade rock star as a great American father figure — a troubled, depressive, always questioning father figure — who was living through what we’re all living through on some level.
GREEN I would have been happy to consider “Springsteen on Broadway,” along with “The Band’s Visit,” as the best musical of the year. But the next person who tries the format isn’t going to be Bruce Springsteen.
BRANTLEY What if instead of the upcoming musical of Cher’s life (which should be called “Cher and Cher Alike,” with three actresses playing her), she followed Springsteen’s lead and sat down, naked of glitter and spangles, and talked the audience through her career?
GREEN I would be happier to ban all jukebox musicals forever, and see what grows in their place.
LaChanze, who is nominated for “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” has another idea — she suggested to us that there should be a Tonys category for jukebox shows, just as there is for musical revivals. What do you think?
GREEN I love LaChanze, but that is like opening up a category for Best Pestilence. I’m glad to see the return of Best Sound Design category, though. Technical theater — not just sound, sets, costumes and lights but also special effects, wigs, makeup, stage management, you name it — is now mind-bogglingly good. And in general, so are the performers. It’s what they are all focusing their hard-gained talents on that continues to worry me.
BRANTLEY On the other hand, when you have a perfect marriage of a performer and a part — Glenda Jackson as a savage old woman on the brink of death in “Three Tall Women,” Katrina Lenk as a wistful but pragmatic cafe owner in the desert town of “The Band’s Visit” — worldly, greedy Broadway feels next door to heaven.