Rick Hellman
KU News Service

A brief history of musical theatre criticism

Mon, 03/06/2023

LAWRENCE — Perhaps the democratizing effect of social media has reduced the make-or-break influence of legacy media theatre critics in the 21st century. And perhaps it has led to many banal observations in the name of criticism.

Paul LairdBut Paul Laird, University of Kansas professor of musicology, has said that as a historian of musical theatre, he appreciates the efforts of critics, and, in a new work, he documents how some shows have been improved by taking constructive criticism to heart.

Laird wrote the chapter “Mediated Taste: The Role of Critics” in the new "Routledge Companion to Musical Theatre" (2023). His frequent collaborator, William Everett, who served as one of the editors on the book, invited Laird to contribute.

“They wanted 8,000 words about the history of criticism of musicals in New York and London’s West End — and also asked for three case studies. So, at best, my chapter is cursory,” Laird said. “But it was one of the first considerations of this kind of thing.”

Laird said that, for his previous books on Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz, “I had spent a good bit of time on the critical response to their work, especially for Schwartz. You learn how various people perceived these shows. You also learn that the reviews aren't necessarily the be-all and end-all of how a show is received. Schwartz’s musical ‘Wicked’ is the biggest hit of the 21st century. Sure, ‘Hamilton’ has come along. But ‘Wicked’ has been playing for 20 years, minus pandemic time. And, you know, the critics weren't kind to it at first. Its critical response, at best, could be called mixed.”

Perhaps benefiting from its premiere in the internet era, though, Laird said, “Wicked” grew with strong word of mouth among an overlooked demographic.

“There are all these middle-aged to older white guys writing about a show that is directed at teenage girls,” Laird said. “They're not going to get it. They don't understand that you have these two young women who become best friends forever, and what that kind of music going along with that sentiment means to young people.

“We say these leading critics have all this power over a show’s future, but it's really not the case anymore. … Social media has compromised the power of the critic, and that's fine. I don't see why the critic should have such power, even though I value their work enormously.”

In addition to “Wicked,” Laird’s case studies deal with a recent production of Bernstein’s “West Side Story” in Madrid (the KU professor had just co-written a book on the subject, “West Side Story in Spain: The Transcultural Adaptation of an Iconic American Show” with Gonzalo Fernández Monte) and “The Secret Garden,” which bowed on Broadway in 1991 and which is a personal favorite. He said the research “gave me an opportunity to visit the theatre-on-tape collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, where a lot of musicals that were not otherwise filmed were actually filmed for this archive.” The library also had a repository for clipping files from the New York press, including even transcribed television reviews, Laird said.

While he said he shares a concern for the fate of legacy media critics, and, relatedly, for the resources available to future theatre historians, Laird said he somehow believes the form will endure.

“The venues for critics have changed, obviously,” he said. “There are only a few newspapers that keep theatre critics on staff anymore. But there's lots of criticism available online, much of it written by professionals whose opinions are worth valuing. Others are written by people who wouldn't know an orchestra pit from a curtain, but they know that what they like, and they write about it.”

Image: The “Wicked” marquee at the Ford/Oriental Theatre in Chicago, 2007. Credit: bradleypjohnson, licensed under CC Attribution 2.0 Generic.

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