Rave reviews that can lead to death notice

Carmen may be not be quite a musical, and according to many critics the current production at the Royal Albert Hall is not quite an opera. The reviews last week described it as "cheapskate", "low-grade" and "third- rate - a disgrace".

But audiences, many of them new to opera, seem to have enjoyed the show put on by impresario Raymond Gubbay, and the number of performances has been extended so that as many as 50,000 people will be able to see the production.

Yesterday Mr Gubbay said: "I think I will simply not invite the critics next year when we stage the next opera. What is the point? They take up seats to rubbish us. And the public ignore them anyway ... and enjoy themselves."

Last night's Laurence Oliver Awards highlighted the fact that there is a gulf between critical opinion of many of the big shows and the public's acclaim for them.

The Oliviers stand alone among the awards ceremonies in having a large representation of ordinary theatregoers on the voting panels.

Whereas panels consisting only of critics often make judgements baffling to the public (such as Mike Leigh's Secrets And Lies being denied any prize at the Evening Standard British Film Awards earlier this month), the Olivier Awards for theatre give the public's view and this can be strikingly at odds with that of the experts.

The shortlist for best new musical consisted of Passion, Nine and Martin Guerre. Passion and Martin Guerre went on to feature on the shortlists of several other categories, including awards for acting, choreography and set design.

Yet the critics gave mixed reviews to Stephen Sondheim's Passion. And The Daily Telegraph punned after the first night of Martin Guerre: "It's not magnifique but c'est le guerre," continuing in plainer English: "The result is a terrible tendency to humourless portentousness in both music and script."

Producers are keen to stress that musicals, more than any other form of theatre, need time to develop. Both Martin Guerre and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard were reworked and improved within months of opening.

There is no easy answer for the critics, who have to review the opening of a show rather than see it after its first six months. But the public certainly appear to rely on words of mouth, recommendations from friends and their own gut instincts.

Sir Cameron Mackintosh, producer of Martin Guerre and Les Miserables, feels very strongly that critics can be out of tune with the public, particularly with musicals. "Les Miserables at its Barbican premiere in 1985 got a very lukewarm reception by the critics," he said.

It is not just contemporary events which prove him right.When Cats opened in 1981 one paper wrote: "... `Strange how potent cheap music is,' said Noel Coward. And cheap, I'm afraid, is the right word of Mr Lloyd Webber's music."

Another decided: "It can't match West Side Story or Chorus Line, because though it tries to be more than a series of charming vignettes, it doesn't really go anywhere." The public ignored the critics and made up its own mind.

The gulf between professional reviewers and public also works the other way around. City of Angels, a sophisticated and witty musical about Hollywood life, won enormous critical acclaim when it opened in the West End a few years ago, but the lack of tunes and poignant love story did not endear it to the public.

Such musicals stand in something of a grand tradition. The show pithily and publicly denounced on its opening by film director Mike Todd with the words "No Gals, No Gags, No Chance." The show in question was Oklahoma which went on to become one of the best-loved musicals of all time.

Where the critics and the public were at odds

Shows the critics gave a thumbs-down but the public loved:

Cats

Camelot

Les Miserables

Pal Joey

Charlie Girl

Shows the critics loved but the public didn't:

City of Angels

Tommy

Sweeney Todd

She Loves Me

La Cage Aux Folles

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