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Ensnaring Theatre Critics in the Spider-Man Web

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Bill de Blasio, New York City's Public Advocate, asserted last week that Broadway's beleaguered Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark may have violated consumer protection laws by failing to distinguish previews from post-opening performances. So it's another headache for the long-delayed, migraine-prone musical, which will open on March 15 unless Armageddon happens first. Certainly the people happiest with de Blasio's view are journalists and critics, not merely because it adds fuel to Broadway's biggest conflagration in years, but because it takes the heat, for now, off of them.

And that's because, right before the New Year, mindful of audiences attending weeks of Spider-Man previews amid dramatic cast injuries and endless tech troubles, Bloomberg's Jeremy Gerard and Newsday's Linda Winer saw the production and wrote about it. While Gerard's piece was an outright review and Winer's a hybrid of news and critique, in the anachronistic kabuki of theatre journalism, both pieces were tantamount to wearing sneakers at a fancy-dress ball. By tradition, critics attend productions when invited and hold reviews until opening night. In exchange, critics receive complimentary tickets, usually a pair.

As a former first-string critic and current Drama Desk member, I believe the protocol breach represents an important opportunity to review how utterly outmoded the protocol really is. It offers us a chance to ask what constitutes a critic and who decides; and what influence critics -- traditional-media critics, that is -- exert in a social-media-wired world.

Make no mistake: the "pre-reviews" by Gerard and Winer sent the guardians of the status quo into fits of apoplexy. The inestimable John Simon, opining on his blog, skewered it as "grabbing a dish from a restaurant kitchen before it is fully cooked, and then judging the meal by it." New York Times second-stringer Charles Isherwood was less toxic but no less tsk-tsking. While the global media circus surrounding Spider-Man may explain critics "feeling like the last in line at the buffet," a work of art, he wrote, "should be allowed to achieve the completed form its creators had envisioned before judgment is rendered." Meantime, Spider-Man press agent Rick Miramontez was downright indignant. In a written statement, he told the Hollywood Reporter:

For a major critic to review a Broadway musical, or play for that matter, after only the twentieth preview, is disappointing and uncalled for...

Whatever reason the critic or their editor may have, it does not mask the fact that for decades, musicals have developed in front of paying audiences before critics are INVITED. ...this unprecedented new development is troubling, to say the least.

Putting aside Miramontez's remarks (as a press agent, his job is shaping stories, not following them), critics of Gerard and Winer err in two respects.

First, critics are journalists and reporters even if they style themselves to the contrary -- and to argue otherwise is to swim in a pool of sophistry. Gerard and Winer apparently decided enough was enough: Spider-Man has postponed its opening who remembers how many times, and with so much of the universe gabbing about the show via social media, and especially with stuntman Christopher Tierney's horrific injuries giving the musical even more press (followed by even more press following Tierney's recovery), they felt it was time to serve their readers, protocol be damned. Why should any work of art have it both ways? (And now that the musical has postponed its opening for yet a fifth time, the question is ever more salient.)

To rail against the breach of protocol, moreover, is to willingly overlook the fact that Gerard and Winer -- or at least their respective news organizations -- paid for their tickets. (Gerard has disclosed the amount; Winer, to my knowledge, has not.) So the terms of the protocol, in fact, do not apply -- unless someone from the Spider-Man side wishes to argue that Gerard and Winer have no right to engage in commerce. If the Spider-Man side really wanted to make a point, they could simply ban Gerard and Winer from the theatre. The precedent for this was set back in 1915 when the Shubert brothers banned New York Times critic Alexander Woollcott from their venues, a right that was ultimately upheld in court. The Times, in response, refused to run advertising for Shubert shows, and eventually, feeling the fiscal pinch, the Shuberts relented. One wonders whether such a tit-for-tat would bring the same results today.

Second, while one can debate the ethics of traditional-media critics reviewing Spider-Man before official invitations are issued, the whole idea that such critics still operate in some lofty, rarefied universe, with the unwashed masses breathlessly awaiting their verdict before deciding whether or not to buy tickets, is astonishingly 1970 (or earlier) in its thinking. In the real world, traditional-media critics and even some online critics compete constantly, unrelentingly, with the rest of the well-wired world for influence. Traditional-media critics can look askance all they like at twittery chit-chat websites like All That Chat at Talkinbroadway.com, or at every theatre-related hashtag imaginable, but the fact is, blog posts can be longer and more substantive than many so-called reviews, and even the occasional tweet can be as informative as the scribblings of the reviewing gods. Factor in the articulate theatre bloggers out there and what we're really hearing from traditional-media critics is the sound of dinosaurs roaring in denial about the asteroid that detonated in their feeding ground. Those who carp over what Gerard and Winer did are clinging to the idea that they're gatekeepers. The gate is wide open.

If a blogger-critic can attract thousands of readers a week (it can happen now, and will happen more in the future), and if a blogger-critic can buy tickets for a show and write about it, what will prevent that blogger-critic from generating even more readership, even more influence? What will press agents and traditional-media critics do then? How long will tradition, protocol and reality exist in opposition?

Consider the following, especially if you think I'm writing in generalities. As the controversy over Gerard and Winer shook Broadway out of its post-holiday slumber, Time Out New York's David Cote, readily describing himself as a "great big media whore" for all the commentary he's given to press outlets about Spider-Man thus far, wrote a blog post about Isaac Butler, a well-known blogger who, Cote says, may aspire to traditional arts journalism. On his own dime and for his own blog, Butler saw Spider-Man and wrote a 3,210-word piece about it, including a detailed assessment of the production, the story arc, the special effects, the performances and even the audience. His piece additionally featured a 121-word addendum directly attacking the free-ticket protocol violated by Gerard and Winer:

NOTE: The performance of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark that I saw was, obviously, in previews. I paid full price for my ticket and I have no deal with producers where they give me free tickets in exchange for waiting to see a show when they want me to. I also think that custom is somewhat arcane and should be rethought, but that's a post for another day. The show at this point has had a longer run than most of the plays I've directed put together, and the issues outlined above aren't going to change in a meaningful way, even if the show itself might improve in some small ways prior to its opening, whenever that turns out to be.

Traditional-media critic Cote, having extolled Butler's epic-length post, argued that Butler's review was not a review because it didn't "adhere to the technical specs of a theater review," the definition of which Cote left undefined. We'll agree to disagree: Butler's post is quite manifestly a review. The greater point is a question: By what right does Cote decide who and what is critic is, and when a review is a review? His post is like an Orwellian feedback loop: a critic who is a critic promoting a non-review review by a non-critic critic.

Let's tie this back to the source of the upset within the community of critics: that Gerard and Winer did not wait for their complimentary tickets before publishing their Spider-Man reactions. If, in Cote's view, Butler is a non-critic critic writing a non-review review because he bought a ticket, surely Gerard and Winer are non-critic critics writing non-review reviews now, too. This, I suppose, would dovetail with the view of Miramontez that a critic-critic is someone who accepts complimentary tickets and a non-critic critic is someone who buys their own. That, of course, would mean press agents decide what a critic-critic is and what a non-critic critic is, and not a critic-critic or a non-critic critic. Or the consumer. And who, I wonder, decided that?