A New York state of mind

US critics either love or hate Broadway shows. But what about their British counterparts? Paul Taylor takes his London eye to the Big Apple
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

I recently wrote a piece on these pages about Bill Kenwright in the Big Apple, focusing on what it is like to be an English producer originating work on Broadway. This week, my gaze turns to what it is like to be this English theatre critic in New York for a few days, trying to figure out why my responses to the shows are so out-of-step with the big-gun native reviewers.

I recently wrote a piece on these pages about Bill Kenwright in the Big Apple, focusing on what it is like to be an English producer originating work on Broadway. This week, my gaze turns to what it is like to be this English theatre critic in New York for a few days, trying to figure out why my responses to the shows are so out-of-step with the big-gun native reviewers.

The previous article provoked interesting reactions. I suggested that because of its monopolistic might - which means that the review of its first-string critic is the only one that matters - The New York Times could employ four reviewers of equal standing to cover openings in rotation. It has since been pointed out to me that the paper's website allows readers to post their own reviews. That is all well and good, but the day that quotes from those lay persons appear in newspaper ads or scream down at the public from posters is the day I believe that this gambit is a true correction of the Times's autocratic power.

I also argued that, unlike in Britain, there is a sports-like reaction to theatre in New York. If one show receives a rave, another (even if it's good) must be seen to lose. A prominent English director phoned me to ask if there isn't something of that in this country, too. Reviewers, he argued, officiate over a kind of rationing system. "If you see that a show has got four or five stars in the week that your own is about to open, you feel a tremor of fear," he confided. His implication is that critics worry that their readers will think they have gone soft if they don't ostentatiously run up and down the star-ratings scale. I sincerely hope he's wrong.

As The Independent's reviewer, I have seen theatre across the globe, from Bucharest to Phnom Penh. But nothing feels more foreign than Broadway. This is because, in some respects, it has the appearance of being so like home, while actually being very different.

In New York, for example, you're given free and interesting programmes (unlike the insultingly expensive and intellectually barren ones on offer in London). But at the matinée of Anthony Page's excellent new production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, starring Kathleen Turner, it was impossible to get a coffee or a glass of wine (ironic given the pair of lushes at the centre of that drama). As for seats, they are in general even smaller and more uncomfortable than in the West End, which creates real problems, given evolution and, well, the galloping obesity among US citizens.

In England, productions tend to fight shy of publishing their financial accounts. On Broadway, it's a case of: if you've got it, flaunt it. For example, over the ticket office at some big shows, there's a sign specifying the amount - usually astronomical - that will guarantee you a seat. The highest one I saw - it was more than $250 (£132) - was for Spamalot, the theatrical adaptation (with lyrics and book by Eric Idle) of the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. These signs are worn as a badge of pride.

The Python show, a runaway hit, is one of two big musicals to have opened this season. The other, also based on a film, is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; its composer-lyricist is the gifted David Yazbeck, who scored the Evening Standard Award-winning US musical version of The Full Monty. Now it so happens that, for reasons that will become clear in due course and that illustrate the difference between the critical mentality in New York and the one that prevails here, my reaction to these two events ran precisely counter to the received wisdom State-side.

I didn't care at all for Spamalot (Schubert Theatre), which stars Tim Curry as Arthur and (fresh from Frasier) the likeable David Hyde Pierce. It is, to be sure, strenuously jolly and it will satisfy, I suspect, not just its core audience of Python fans. There is, after all, a mind-set that deems simply securing tickets for a Broadway hit intoxication enough. The man next to me had brought his family and was jigging up and down with delight before it had even started. Boy, was this going to be great afternoon! And by a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, for him it was. I'm not patronising him and I'm glad he enjoyed himself. What I do think, though, is that Spamalot trades too facilely on this kind of massive goodwill.

There are some neat gags. The show gets off to a deliriously false start with a scene set in Finland at a jaunty "fisch"-slapping festival. The participants wallop each other with fish and warble about how: "You simply can't go wrong/ In traditional fisch-slapping song". The narrator-historian has to interrupt proceedings to point out that this is the wrong country. The humour soon starts to pall, though. It becomes wearisomely apparent that Spamalot is interested in nothing but the self-reflexive fact that it's a show trying to make good on Broadway. So cue a whole mock-glitzy routine about how a New York show can't succeed without Jews. The subversive aspects of that joke (Christian knights were not noted for their religious tolerance) are disappointingly under-explored in favour of standard-issue razzamatazz ("You may bring on a piano/ But they will not give a damn-o/ If you don't have any Jews") and a Christianised spoof of a dance from Fiddler on the Roof. The cumulative effect of all this is stifling in a manner that feels characteristic of the inward-looking nature of the Great White Way. Spamalot is not really a satire on how hermetic and self-absorbed the Broadway musical can become. It's more a further instance of that danger.

True, there are also allusions to other shows in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (at the Imperial Theatre). This is an elegant, wittily designed and deliciously mischievous musical about a pair of ill-assorted con men plying their trade on the French Riviera. John Lithgow, splendid as the suave smoothie, is brilliantly partnered by Norbert Leo Butz who is like a cross between Freddie Starr and Lee Evans as his vulgar, new-to-the-game sidekick. In favourable contrast to the Python extravaganza, though, the droll showbiz knowingness here earns its keep by providing a genuine metaphor. "Give Them What They Want" runs one of the songs, archly suggesting affinities between criminal and theatrical methods of fooling the public. What is beguiling about Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is that it also gives the public things they did not know they wanted.

The mainstream New York critical mentality has not proved kind to the show. There's an obsession out there with finding the Holy Grail of another hit as big as The Producers. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has, it seems, committed the grave offence of being about two con men while also being more laid-back. That's a ridiculous angle of attack. Are we now supposed to dismiss Ben Jonson's Volpone because Volpone and Mosca were commercially less successful forerunners of Bialystock and Bloom?

In addition to Scoundrels, I also enjoyed All Shook Up, an amusingly tongue-in-cheek compilation musical at the Palace Theatre. It rams together the Elvis songbook and a story that transports the sexual confusions of Twelfth Night to the small-town America of the 1950s. I didn't rate Doubt (Walter Kerr Theatre), the tipped-for-a-Tony John Patrick Shanley play about a Roman Catholic priest suspected of taking sexual advantage of a young boy. It struck me as old hat and not a patch on Michael Frayn's Democracy, an English play that is likely to be another contender for the gong. It is well known that New Yorkers like their plays hot, and Democracy, though brilliant, is a cool play until the last few scenes. But then as an English critic I am not supposed to be interested in contests, am I? Excuse me, I've had a thought: maybe I will now try to post this piece on The New York Times's website.

Comments