Ever since it premiered at The Old Vic in London in 2016, the rumour mill has been rife with talk about if and when Tim Minchin’s musical...
Ben Brantley - Chief Theatre Critic of the New York Times
To many people in the theatre industry, the name Ben Brantley is enough to induce mild panic. As chief theatre critic of the New York Times, the position is one that has historically yielded enough weight to 'make or break' a show on Broadway, with a positive review, or 'love letter', securing the long running life of a production, and a pan committing the show to the walls of Joe Allen's restaurant.
Despite the decreasing lack of influence of print journalism felt both in the UK and USA, the arts section of the NYT is still a significant marketing tool for the many publicity companies who make a living selling shows to American audiences. Pull quotes from The Times reviewers light up marquees up and down Broadway, with their comments holding significant weight in the overall critical assessment of new work, and so the position of chief theatre critic certainly holds a great deal of weight.
Reading his latest assessment of the Menier Chocolate Factory's Funny Girl, I'm delighted that our thoughts coincide, not just on this production but a number of new shows that are on his radar, including a matinee of Guys and Dolls which he has just finished watching. In sharing schedules I'm struck at the breadth of work his trip to London takes in and am fascinated at his comparisons between London and New York, in particular the interdependence both theatrical capitals seem to currently have on each other. “For me, it's just one big planet” he says, “it's such a global culture now anyway, and accents have improved vastly which makes a huge difference. There was a generation where that wasn't so – Vanessa Redgrave for example - one of the greatest actresses in the world - could never master an American accent to save her life, whereas both her daughters Natasha and Joely were very good. There seems to be a more mailable quality in actors who can assume the identity of another culture and morph into a more friendly state”.
That said, I was keen to point out that internet opinion over the past year had certainly been quite vocal against the sheer volume of British plays transferring to Broadway and suffocating American work. “There are complaints from time to time about Broadway being cluttered with the West End” he affirms, “but then I come here and see Wicked, Jersey Boys, these behemoths that have been running forever, and you've got Motown opening next...These are bread and butter commercial things, they're essentially 'theme park' productions – shows where people go for the experience to see a big spectacular musical with a nice brand name attached”.
“There have been a few surprises” he says, One Man, Two Guv'nors was a huge hit on Broadway. I loved it here in London but never thought that American audiences would buy it, but they lapped it up. The History Boys again, I thought wouldn't translate either. I do wonder how it would do work post Jimmy Saville?”
Looking at the current and last Broadway season two of the biggest new plays, The Audience and King Charles III concern the British royal family, which Brantley suggests carry a brand name of their own. “Don't forget that the best seller ever on People Magazine was Diana even after she died. There's still a fascination in the colonies about our former masters! The Royal Family carry their own sort of brand name...”
Whilst Broadway may have lapped up recent new British plays, and is currently enjoying British made revivals of American classics such as A View From The Bridge and The Crucible, the lack of new British musicals is something many have noticed over the past few years. I ask Brantley, who has scheduled a trip to see Mrs Henderson Presents later in the week, about the sorry state of the British musical, and why that side of the industry is struggling.
“What seems to translate best from the States to here seems to be jukebox musicals” he explains, “for some reasons for many years Brits shared the American jukebox but it didn't really work the other way around. Even though The Kinks (Sunny Afternoon) aren't exactly unknown in the States, it's too particular or too local and the songs just don't even have that resonance.”
But aside from jukebox musicals, looking at the past two years of British musicals, nothing has really stuck. “Don't you feel that the musical comedy is essentially an American invention?” he asks. “The age when the British musical reigned supreme was really the era of the poperetta, with Lloyd Webber etc...not my favourite period for the musical!” I list the new musicals that have had limited shelf life in the West End over the past few years, including 'Stephen Ward', 'From Here to Eternity', 'Made in Dagenham', 'Loserville' and can't help but feel quite dispirited.
“You'll get School of Rock – that's essentially a British musical. It's quite agreeable” he responds. “Matilda is still running on Broadway and I think is a remarkable musical, there's a great distinction of talent. It didn't seem like anything we had seen in New York. There's been many attempts to make Dahl work in different mediums, and this just seemed to be the best example. I hated Willy Wonka, but I see that it's coming to New York”.
“I love Hamilton. I'm hardly in the minority” he laughs. “I think it's glorious. It's truly original. I've seen it three times now and every time I go back I just think how great it is. You know you start to get sour because there is just so much hype you question if it really was that good. It's amazing how that a piece without stars, an American history lesson, is so popular. It's marvellous because it's not branding - people are responding to the piece on the strength of its own excellence and that shows that it has something meaningful.”
The hype surrounding the show on both sides of the Atlantic seems unlike anything to have ever gone before, and I worry UK audiences could be bored of hearing about it by the time it finally transfers in 2017, as previously reported. “Again, I felt like that when I went back the two subsequent times to see it” he responds. “The third time I just cried from the beginning. I went to see the understudies as I'd heard they were interesting. As a show, it really does affect people - the songs for the women are just beautiful. I sing it in the shower!”
I move our conversation on beyond the specifics to the wider nature of theatre criticism, citing the news that The Independent recently announced it would end its print edition. Whilst the threat of closure may not necessarily hang over the head of the New York Times, I'm keen to ask Brantley's opinion on the evolution of theatre criticism, especially in print.
“I think critics will always exist be it a professional capacity or not” he responds. “I do think we're very much in 'Frontierland' in this respect. People still do, and will always want respected and thoughtful opinion, which you can't get elsewhere. You can't really 'tweet' thoughtfully for example. You can find criticism wherever you want – everyone has always been a critic, now everyone has the platform. And I love it. The more voices there are the better.”
I ask him about social media, and its affect on criticism. “I think it's dangerous for that very reason – it gets people into a whole lot of trouble. The age of over political correctness is a necessary period, I think it's making up for many centuries of all kinds of wrongs, but it does inhibit the way that people write. Again, I do think it's necessary.”
One of the most prominent aspects of a New York Times review is the lack of star rating – a form that is increasingly being adapted by American publications both online and in print. In the UK PR companies fuel the demand for star ratings – the reviews and the text themselves are becoming less and less important. “There is no objective measuring stick” he says, “and to me that's what stars are. People love quantification - what's the best thing? Is this the best show? Is this show better than that show? I don't even like indicating my thoughts too early. If someone beings a review saying “in her disappointing new novel....” I think why should I keep reading? You want to have some kind of energy that draws you in and it's true. When you see the stars at the top you think okay, if you can reduce it to that and I can see all that I need to know, why should I read on?”
I jokingly point out the website DidHeLikeIt.com, which is in no way affiliated with Brantley, but attempts to quantify his thoughts and reviews with an easy visual reflecting the review's spirit. “I don't look at it very often but when I do, I just think really? I was throwing up?” he laughs. “It's so subjective. Not only is criticism itself subjective, but so is people reading criticism. That's another layer of subjectivity – people interpret things differently.”
The history of New York Times reviews is deeply fascinating and the personalities of writers who have held the post from Frank Rich to Clive Barnes and Brooks Atkinson have been significantly different. I ask what he thinks makes good criticism, and ultimately a helpful review for the audience. “It's kind of like sports writing, you're watching history being made. With any critic what you want is to be able to experience what it was like to be there in the moment. What is the experience of the thing that you're sitting there watching and how to put it into words.”
Rather than considering the New York Times review as 'make or break', it healthier to look at it as a champion for theatre as a whole. Brantley's reviews, whilst they hold significant weight, read as a careful and personal assessment of the art he is experiencing, and continually make you feel that you're in “the room where it happens” to quote Lin-Manuel Miranda. “If you like something you have to be a cheerleader, because theatre is an expensive investment. If you want people to go to a certain show you have to say it loudly and with an exclamation point”. There can certainly be no bolder exclamation point than one from the New York Times, and as we depart to see our different productions (him, the Old Vic's 'The Master Builder' and I the transfer of 'Hand to God'), I feel heartened that such great responsibility is looked on in such a positive light.
Ben Brantley is the Chief Theatre Critic for the New York Times. You can read his reviews here.