Theatergoers buck reviews and strike out on their own

Michelle Newman doesn't know who Ben Brantley is - and frankly, she doesn't care. The young art director considers herself an avid theatergoer, but she merely scans the newspaper reviews of Broadway plays - which explains why she fails to recognize the name of the chief theater critic of The New York Times.

"I like to read reviews, but I don't necessarily believe them," Ms. Newman says. "I don't make my decisions based on reviews."

A recent poll conducted by the League of American Theatres and Producers indicates that her reaction is typical. The survey found that only one-fifth of audience members say a newspaper review inspired them to see a particular show, and that only 7.4 percent credit a critic they saw on television.

Most of the respondents cite word of mouth as their primary influence.

That's a dramatic shift from the days when Frank Rich reviewed plays and musicals for The New York Times, a 14-year period ending in 1993 that earned him the nickname "the butcher of Broadway" for his alleged power to close a show with a scathing review.

Today, producers rely more than ever on advertising, marketing, and public relations to maintain the buzz that has proved to be vital for filling theater seats.

An example of Broadway's turn to Madison Avenue for help is the much-panned musical "Footloose," based on the 1984 teenybopper hit film about a high-schooler who fights to lift a small town's ban on dancing.

Mr. Brantley wrote, "There have been worse musicals on Broadway than 'Footloose' - yet it's hard to think of one so totally unaffecting," while New York Magazine's John Simon chimed in: "Impossible though it is to finger the worst musical ever - the competition is too fierce - no list of the 10 worst should forgo 'Footloose.' "

But nine months after the show opened, audiences are still packing the Richard Rodgers Theatre. The show's producers fought back with ads highlighting positive reviews - most notably from Liz Smith, better known for her gossip column than her knowledge of theater. Ms. Smith proclaimed, "Broadway may have found its next long-running musical."

The show also hired marketing consultant Margery Singer, who helped promote recent stagings of "Titanic," "1776," "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," "Once Upon a Mattress," and "The King and I."

Ms. Singer knows her audience - "We're not 'Hamlet,' but if you want to be entertained, this is the show" - and she plots accordingly. She organized "Footloose" sweepstakes contests with Time Warner Cable, supermarket chain A&P, and New York radio stations, and arranged for local movie theaters to feature slides of scenes from the show and pipe in some of the toe-tapping music.

She also has relied heavily on radio ads, figuring that the hit songs that were introduced in the film, such as "Let's Hear It for the Boy," may inspire the nostalgic to buy tickets to the splashy stage production.

This 20-year veteran says she's not alone in using these techniques. "A few producers started participating in aggressive marketing, because they saw they had half-empty theaters," Singer says. "Producers aren't just back[stage] anymore waiting for the reviews to close the show. We prepare for bad reviews and get through it."

Newsday theater critic Linda Winer says the diffusion of power is a positive change. Other media, such as television, newsmagazines, out-of-town papers, and the Internet, as well as media personalities like columnist Smith and TV host Rosie O'Donnell, have their own soapboxes now. "It's healthy that critics and one newspaper [The New York Times] have less of a hold on life and death on Broadway," she says.

Jeffrey Lyons, a critic at New York's local NBC affiliate, agrees. "Now more than ever, Broadway shows are advertising more on TV," he says. "The buzz can be created way before the show opens and buck the reviews. Producers are more savvy."

Fellow broadcaster Roma Torre of New York 1 News, the local cable news channel, says that Web sites and Internet chat rooms add to the word-of-mouth effect. "Instead of a schmoozy phone call," she says, "it's a chatty e-mail."

The muffling of the traditional theater critic's voice - and the emergence of freshly amplified ones - has been caused by the old-time reviewers themselves, Ms. Torre says.

"They can embrace the theater audience, and they don't," she says. "They're writing from a highfalutin', crotchety point of view."

But former Times reviewer Mr. Rich, now an Opinion Page columnist for that paper, remains uncomfortable with the notion that the reviewer's pen was ever all that mighty.

"The power of the critic when I was one was equally overstated," he says. "You can't sell the public a production it doesn't want to watch." In "Hot Seat," Mr. Rich's book about his years as the Times critic, he lists productions that flopped despite his praise, including the 1985 staging of "The Iceman Cometh" starring Jason Robards, and shows that succeeded despite his tongue-clucking, like the musical "42nd Street."

In line with these examples, TV critic Torre sees a clearly reduced role for reviews. "Marketing has cut into the strength and the influence of the critic," she says. "I guess people are listening to us less."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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