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News from Broadway, from Motown to Manderlay, Spider-Man, Variety and Backstage

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Motown’s advance and the critics

Never mind Tom Hanks and Matilda on Broadway: the show that wrapped the biggest pre-opening advance was Motown, which opened on Sunday with $16m already in the bank (against $14m for Matilda and $10m for Lucky Guy starring Tom Hanks as a real-life tough New York tabloid journalist).

Last Friday, two days before it opened, Michael Riedel wrote in the New York Post,

The Motown team is bracing for ‘a clobbering’ from the critics, says a source. And they’re mildly concerned that the reviews will put a damper on ticket sales. I doubt it. The fact is, that ever-dwindling group of people who still bother to read critics probably isn’t interested in seeing the show in the first place. And those who do want to see a musical called Motown probably don’t care what Ben Brantley, Jesse Green, Terry Teachout or George Jean Nathan have to say about anything.

Ouch! Funny that Riedel didn’t name-check his own paper’s critic Elisabeth Vincentelli (though amusing that he cited George Jean Nathan, a critic who died in 1958 and whom not many outside the inner circle of Broadway people with long memories will remember). But neither did the show get the full expected clobbering: in the New York Times, Charles Isherwood virtually acknowledged his own critical redundancy in the face of audience expectations.

For a full and coherent history of [Berry] Gordy’s game-changing music factory, you’d need to check out Gerald Posner’s engrossing book Motown: Music, Money, Sex and Power.

But audiences don’t go to Broadway musicals to see audiobooks performed live, and few are likely to complain that Motown skimps on what they have come to hear: the sweet stream of music that fused the soul of rhythm and blues with the ear worm hooks of pop to create a genre that played a role in America’s changing attitudes toward race in the 1960s…

The performers put their songs across with verve and an admirable lack of self-consciousness, given that the audience is likely to be intimately familiar with every nuance of phrasing from the original recordings.

Certainly the audience I watched it with last Friday were beaming with delight – and showing their joy by singing along to most of it. That, of course, adds another to my pet hates on audience behaviour that I’ve written about so much here. The show was exactly what I thought it would be – but as I ruefully remarked to a friend, that’s no excuse.

I just wished I was watching Dreamgirls instead, the fictionalised version of the Supremes story that remains one of the greatest stage productions I’ve ever seen on Broadway in its original incarnation that I saw on my very first trip to New York back in the summer of 1983.

That makes this my 30th anniversary of visiting the city regularly – I suddenly feel very old! That sense is amplified by the pace of change in the city. Last week I read in the New York Times that an acclaimed building built for the American Folk Art Museum on West 53rd Street, and described by the architecture critic of the New York Times as “already a Midtown icon” when it opened in 2001, is to be demolished by the end of this year, to provide room for a further expansion by its neighbour the Museum of Modern Art.

Spider-Man still flies….

Spider-Man Turn off the Dark is still making the news for finally turning off the lawsuits, as is Rebecca where the lawsuits still continue, as do attempts to raise financing to make it actually finally happen.

At Spider-Man, the producers and its original director Julie Taymor finally reached a settlement after more than a year of negotiation over profits, copyright claims and artistic credit without going to court. Though The New York Times reported that the terms of the settlement were not released, “both sides came away winners,” with Taymor stating, “I’m pleased to have reached an agreement and hope for the continued success of Spider-Man, both on Broadway and beyond.”

Not only does the deal finally allow the producers to re-engineer the Broadway production’s operating costs, so that the show may (at some point in the next 75 years) recoup its record $75m capitalisation, but more importantly allow it to roll out other, presumably cheaper, incarnations in other territories. And watch out – that includes London. Other territories being planned include Las Vegas, Hamburg, Germany and parts of Asia.

…And Manderlay may yet burn

Meanwhile, another much troubled show that failed first to reach the West End stage, then the Broadway one where it was due to open last October, is still clinging onto the hope that it might yet raise the financing to make it happen.

I am talking, of course, about Rebecca the Musical, whose offstage tales of woes included a major investor the producer had never met who turned out never to exist and then a replacement investor suddenly scared off by “an extremely malicious e-mail, filled with lies and innuendo, had been sent directly to the new investor that morning from an anonymous third party”.

In yet another bizarre twist, the producer is now suing his former press agent Marc Thibodeau as the source of that e-mail. But undaunted by the kind of publicity you can’t pay for, let alone make up, producer Ben Sprecher  is still reportedly pushing forward to make the show happen, with Playbill last week reporting that he now has $8m of the now expanding $15m capitalization required, and Barbara Sellinger brought on board to join him and Louise Forlenza to produce it. On March 11, she hosted a reading of the musical at her home, with members of the previously announced Broadway cast. Surely the way to more financing would be to sell the rights to the story of the show, rather than the show itself.

Variety recycles its reviews – and Backstage drops them entirely

Finally, it isn’t just Motown that is rendering critical opinion redundant – it is the traditional critical outlets themselves, not least amongst its industry papers. Last week’s opening of Matilda – the Musical on Broadway showed the sorry current state of journalism at the one-time industry bible Variety.

Almost exactly three years ago it laid off its full-time chief theatre critic David Rooney (who now writes for the Hollywood Reporter and New York Times instead), and since then has relied on freelancers to review for it. But for Matilda, one of the biggest openings of the year, they didn’t send one of them to review this almost entirely new cast (with only Bertie Carvel and Lauren Ward reprising their UK performances here), but instead reprinted their review from the Stratford-upon-Avon opening from December 2010, “with cast and credits updated to reflect changes for the Gotham edition.”  Hmmm…

Meanwhile, at Backstage, the bi-coastal US trade paper for actors and other theatre personnel that is their version of The Stage, theatre reviews have been dropped entirely from their print edition Executive Editor Daniel Holloway commented, “An analysis of metric data by our executive team led to the conclusion that too few readers are engaging our reviews for Backstage to invest resources in producing them.”

As my friend Tim Connor put it in an e-mail to me,

Alarmed that Backstage’s reason for cutting reviews was due to ‘an analysis of metric data’. By that logic, all things that don’t have a direct link to money – but might be engaging and interesting content – should be scrapped. Yet, we’re living in a digital age where we are told it’s ALL about content – that is, as long as the content providers do it for free. It’s so backward!…

Making creative industries that enrich our lives beholden to data only seems such a nonsense. Imagine if one half of a couple declared to the other “I love you – let’s get married” and the other party said “That’s lovely, but I can’t just believe you – I’ll need the data to prove it”. ‘Tis nonsense. Sometimes surely a passionate BELIEF in why we do things is enough.

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