So Broadway Bounty Hunter closed on Sunday, earlier than anticipated.
This happened for a multitude of reasons, all of which fall under the banner of Doing a Completely Original Musical Off-Broadway With No Built-in Brand Recognition and No Subscriber Base is Incredibly Hard.
But the most frustrating reason is this one: we got a bad NY Times review.
It’s possible you didn’t know about that review, that even writing these words right now is the equivalent of me saying “Isn’t this birthmark on my thigh super-weird?” and though you’d never noticed it, now it’s all you can see.
But I can’t not mention it.
Because even though you might not have read that review, the theater industry as a whole did.
And they care about it very much.
If theater worked the way books do, the way movies do, the way TV does—a multitude of reviews, a plethora of opinions of varying weight—I wouldn’t be writing this. I might feel bad about the review privately, remind myself that it’s just one person’s opinion, then do my best to shrug it off and move forward. Anyone who makes art understands that creative work is tremendously subjective, that, just as the sun rises and sets, there will always be people who don’t like what you’ve made. Of course it’s a vulnerable feeling (and by “vulnerable” I mean “terrible”), but enduring this kind of negative feedback (and, in a best case scenario, extracting some constructive criticism from it) is 100% part of the creative person job description.
But what’s unique about theater is that, for a small original musical like ours with very little pre-existing brand recognition, the words of a NY Times critic are more than just negative feedback. For whatever reason, much of the Theater Establishment—people who buy tickets, people who invest in shows, people who want to be told what is worthy of support and what is not—looks to this one review, and this one review only, as if it is Gospel. As if it is the official decree of whether a show should Succeed or Fail.
Stepping beyond just our show for a moment, let’s think about the insanity of that, of one human on the sidelines acting as gatekeeper to a show’s success. Dozens—in some cases, hundreds—of people come together to make a piece of theater, to pour their heart, soul, passion, intelligence, and creativity into it, often—as was the case with our show, where an Off-Broadway budget (no matter how large) can only go so far—making less money than they should for all the time, energy, and expertise they’re devoting to it. And one audience member, coming to this viewing experience with their own cultural background, their own biases, their own life context/history/baggage, can knock all that to the ground with some hastily typed keystrokes?
Like I said: insanity.
And yet, this is the system all of the theater community tacitly agrees to. Never mind all the other critics out there doing great work at all kinds of other publications (many of whom did, in fact, have positive things to say about our show)! No, no, let’s not give their thoughts any credence! What did the Times say?
I know, I know, it seems like I’m exaggerating. But on our show and others, one can tell from the daily analytics and ticket sales that the NY Times review does indeed have this impact, on both number of tickets sold and the amount of money people are willing to spend on them. Shows need to make a certain amount each week to stay open, and a good or bad Times review is very often the tipping point for this when it comes to original musicals.
So when you’re on the receiving end of NY Times praise, it seems like a great system. You have been chosen! In fact, the last production of our show at Barrington Stage in 2016 got, not a rave, but a solidly good review. (If it hadn’t, this NYC production likely wouldn’t have happened! Haha, I’m totally not kidding!)
But now, seeing the disproportionate power of a not-so-kind review, the whole thing just seems ridiculous. And highly problematic.
Though Broadway Bounty Hunter played to one vocal audience after another, people laughing, gasping, cheering, wildly applauding, demonstrating the textbook example of “having a good time” (so much so that we were constantly told the show feels like a hit), one person who didn’t feel that way—in this case, co-chief critic at the NY Times Jesse Green—was the deciding vote on whether our musical is worthy of a future.
I’m not saying Jesse Green was the only audience member who didn’t enjoy our show. Of course there were others, that’s why art is so beautiful; it means something different to everyone who experiences it. But, again: there were so many people who did love our show. And it’s such a bummer that so many more won’t get a chance to see it and decide for themselves because of this one opinion.
I should mention that my co-writer Joe Iconis has been in this situation before, with multiple shows punched down at by the Times in the past (often in unnecessarily cruel ways, which I guess makes better clickbait?). Joe’s Be More Chill is actually a rare example of an original musical (though it’s adapted from Ned Vizzini’s great novel, I’m using original in the sense that it doesn’t have the brand recognition of a movie or a famous person’s music) making it to Broadway in spite of a bad NY Times review Off-Broadway, but that was only possible because the show was a once-in-a-lifetime viral sensation, with massive support from a devoted teen base. This is truly amazing and miraculous, but after the Broadway production got another genuinely mean review, again from Ben Brantley (which, come on, once a critic hates something, is that really the person who should be sent to see it again? Is that what the NY Times is about? Shitting on the underdog as many times as possible?), it was only able to run so long and just closed, a week before Broadway Bounty Hunter did.
This is all to say that, barring a viral movement, it’s nearly impossible for an original musical (that doesn’t have a bottomless supply of money to throw around) to succeed without the blessing of the NY Times.
I am not, by a long shot, the first person to point this out, and Broadway Bounty Hunter is hardly the first to suffer this fate. It happens all the time. Which is why I think we should all be speaking more about it. Because otherwise nothing will change.
Joe Iconis, Jason SweetTooth Williams, and I started writing Broadway Bounty Hunter in 2011 as a love letter to Annie Golden, who we’ve been lucky to know and collaborate with since 2005. Annie is one of the most unique and badass performers/people we’ve ever met, a powerhouse in every way, and we saw how the vast majority of roles available to her as an older woman in musical theater were supporting ones. We wanted to write her a star vehicle that could showcase all of her awesomeness. Which, naturally, meant writing an action musical with her as the hero.
As the project evolved, our guiding ethos was that this musical should be filled with actors playing roles they rarely, if ever, had the opportunity to play, getting material to really dig into and put their own unique stamp on. Drawing upon exploitation films as inspiration—specifically Blaxploitation and martial arts films—suddenly made sense on a number of levels; these were genres where Black and Asian actors, tired of always playing the sidekick or villain, were finally able to take center stage and be represented onscreen in a way they’d never previously been able to. What if we could write a love-letter to Annie Golden and to these films, a celebration of people who have felt underestimated, marginalized, and forgotten, a show populated with characters rarely represented on a stage?
This was the beating heart of our process, through the writing, through both the 2016 Barrington Stage production and this one, and I couldn’t be prouder of what we, along with a truly incredible group of artists, have made.
But the cold reality of this business is that, even though this is exactly the show we’d hoped to make, it doesn’t matter.
And since my issue is with the system itself, with the idea that one review shouldn’t hold so much weight no matter what it says, it also doesn’t matter what I think Jesse Green got wrong about our show.
It doesn’t matter that his quick and condescending dismissal of exploitation films (“if you enjoy the genres they say they are drawing on….perhaps you will enjoy this.”) reveals an immediate lack of cultural context for the show he goes on to deride.
It doesn’t matter that he says the show “is neither very loving nor very funny” even though the show’s heart and how much it makes people laugh are the two pieces of feedback we’ve gotten more than any other, be it from Broadway producers or people who rarely set foot in the theater.
It doesn’t matter that Mr. Green can sit in an audience of people laughing hysterically and write that a show isn’t funny, even though comedy knows no other definition of success than the presence of laughter. (The undervaluing of comedy in art is a whole other conversation for another time, but this essay by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb does a fantastic job of laying out the bias against comedy in theater.)
It doesn’t matter that, even though there are still, in 2019, barely any women directing Broadway shows, Mr. Green went out of his way to call out Jennifer Werner’s direction as “amateurish,” when I know how tricky a tone she was able to brilliantly strike, what a triumph it was to get an entire cast and team of designers into the same world, telling the same story.
It doesn’t matter that Mr. Green chose to wield his power not to lift new talent up, but to smack it down.
It doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter.
And it didn’t matter for the countless number of other shows trying to do or say something that didn’t fit the sensibility of the two co-chief critics at the Times either.
So what to do?
Lots of people say, “This is just what it is. This is what it’s always been.” But why? Who is this system actually serving? Is kicking around artists, the vast majority of whom are already struggling, really worth the price of a few awkwardly crafted zingers?
I can’t say I even know what change would look like. Maybe the NY Times scraps the idea of chief critics altogether, instead divvying up their shows amongst a roster of diverse critics of different genders, ages, races, sexual orientations, so that the big shows don’t always get assigned to the same two voices occupying the same demographic landscape.
Maybe—as was discussed in this smart, thorough piece by Kitty Drexel and Regina Victor—there’s something to the idea of some reviews being written by people who are also working theater artists, who would hopefully approach their critique with the precision and care that comes from knowing deeply what it’s like to be on the other side of it.
Or maybe it’s enough to make people aware that this is how it all works, to encourage those people not to decide whether to see a piece of theater based solely on one opinion in the NY Times.
To make them understand that original musicals with original scores and no brand recognition are becoming an endangered species, in no small part because this system makes success nearly impossible.
I don’t need Jesse Green to say our show is good. I know it’s the show we intended to make, easily one of my proudest artistic achievements, a truly spectacular run.
But I do wish our show’s survival wasn’t so tethered to him saying it isn’t.