05/24/2012 10:45 am ET Updated Jul 24, 2012

Conduct Unbecoming to 'An Officer'

Followers of the ethical issues surrounding the press in general, and arts journalism in particular, spent the first few days of this week watching and opining on Peter Gelb's decision to remove reviews of The Metropolitan Opera from Opera News and his decision, only a day later, to restore said reviews, amidst an almost unanimous outcry against his maneuver. Gelb's efforts inspired sufficient umbrage that even when he reversed his decision, people then criticized him for folding so quickly and not having the strength of his own convictions.

As a result, you may be unaware of another critical contretemps that has set the theatre world abuzz - the Australian theatre world, that is. This past weekend, the stage musical of the film An Officer and a Gentleman opened in Sydney, Australia (please, hold your contempt for musicals derived from movies for the moment). This opening was a source of national theatrical pride, as Australia seeks to bolster its image as the starting place for major musicals, a position declared in the pages of Variety only last week. Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Dirty Dancing, also film-derived, are two previous productions cited. With the advent of the internet, going out of town to work on a show without press scrutiny has become increasingly difficult. Australia is seeking to supplant the West Coast of the U.S. as a place where one can go relatively free of prying eyes.

So what's the fuss? The Australian, a national daily, first published a short review on May 19 critical of the musical and, on May 21, the same critic reinforced her views with a longer piece. But on the 21st, The Australian also saw fit to publish a letter from Douglas Day Stewart, screenwriter of the film and co-writer of the book of the musical, in which he lashed out strongly at The Australian's review and its critic, going so far as to suggest that she is "incapable of human emotion." Because I have seen this coverage on the Internet, I do not know the relative prominence each piece received in print, although it is fair to say that The Australian sought to provoke controversy, since they could have declined to run the letter.

Now artists writing to newspapers to complain about reviews is hardly a new phenomenon. It's not hard to understand why someone involved in a creative venture would feel compelled to try to debunk not only criticism but the person who wrote it. After all, no one likes being told their baby is ugly. However, in my experience, it's an impotent gesture at best and a counterproductive one at worst: I am unaware of any critic ever seeing such a missive and then realizing that they were "mistaken." More often, the critic will respond to such letters by reiterating or embellishing upon their original position, and the artist doesn't get a second whack. The critic may harbor resentment, to be expressed in the future, against the artist or the producer, whether commercial or not-for-profit. When this sort of thing has come to me as press agent, as general manager, as executive director, I have always sought to talk the artist down, expressing genuine compassion, but trying to explain that other than making themself and perhaps the company feel better, no real good comes of such an action.

When this first blew up in Australia, several of my Twitter friends down under were quick to send me various links, saying, more or less, "Have you seen this?" My initial reaction was to not comprehend why this perennial conflict merited much attention, but consistent replies said that, indeed, national pride was at stake. If that's the case, then it is unfortunate that so many people have invested emotionally in the current state of Australian theatre through this one production - and even more unfortunate that Mr. Stewart (Mr. Day Stewart?) caused more attention to be focused on An Officer and A Gentleman. The fact is, were it not for his letter, this opening might have escaped me (and no doubt many others internationally) entirely and the show would have been free to develop in relative solitude. Instead, it's now "the show where the author got mad at the press." By citing "a plethora of five-star reviews," Stewart sent many looking for them, and let's just say I hardly found a "plethora." (For your reference, here are a selection of reviews from: The Daily Telegraph, The Sydney Morning Herald, Australian Stage, Crikey, Nine to Five, and The Coolum News.)

Thanks to Mr. Stewart, my sense of An Officer and a Gentleman is that it did not meet with general critical acclaim, save for The Australian, but (thanks to comments beneath reviews) that it is a crowd-pleaser. If the creative team feels they have an impeccably wrought success and feel no further work is necessary, the show may be a risky venture based on what I've read. The more strategic response to the reviews, if there was to be a response, would have been to talk about the value of many opinions, critical and general public, and talk about how the time in Australia was going to be used to make the show even more successful and entertaining before conquering the known world.

Like the Gelb incident, the Officer and a Gentleman kerfuffle is a result of people not thinking through their actions fully in advance, perhaps not seeking (or accepting) the counsel of others, to the detriment of their institution or their production. The Metropolitan Opera will go on, and it's very likely that An Officer and a Gentleman will be seen in other countries one day soon. But in both cases, focusing on the productions instead of the press would have been more, well, productive.