In September of 2020 Ben Brantley, the infamous theatre critic/assassin, announced that he’d be resigning from his critic position as the New York Times. And many rejoiced. Thousands of theatre fans, many with some theatre reference in their usernames, celebrated that the tyrant was taken down. Theatre fandom and Brantley, along with other theatre critics, butt heads. With article titles like “King Kong: The Mess that Roared,” Brantley has been under fire for being “too negative” and killing the show, a premature close. However, are critics really the only show killers? Or better, is there a future where this question will not exist anymore?
First off, let me say that theatre fandom is intense. “Fandom” is a mixture of “fans” and “kingdom,” and it’s a vast one always at war with itself. You can scroll through hours of fanart of characters, covers on YouTube, animatics, etc. What’s most interesting is the comment sections and forums. Theatre fandom doesn’t center around theatre as a whole, but on a few choice shows through some bizarre process that I can’t crack. And in these comments and forums people, being adventurous through their anonymity, have no qualms of being their own show killers by tearing each other apart.
I am not saying that this intense passion is a bad thing. On the contrary, this fanbase is the reason for theatre’s recent rise in popularity. Armed with fan blogs and theatre Twitterers, theatre is being shaped in a wonderful new way.
Through social media every theatre geek can have a voice...which is not always a good thing. As an example, let us look at Heathers the Musical. With cult followings in both film and theatre, it was only a matter of time before the show hopped the pond into London in 2018. At first, fans were so excited. But that excitement morphed into poison when it was announced that the cast was led by Carrie Hope Fletcher. Fletcher, now preparing to star in the titular character in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cinderella, is many things: a YouTuber, a regular on many book best-sellers list, and currently holds the record for the longest running Eponine in Les Misérables. She also is not a size two, something she’s not ashamed of showing through her body-positive videos and Instagram posts. It was the theatre fandom that was body-negative. Another quirk of theatre fandom is being a hardcore purist, so there already was a dislike for the show not being a carbon-copy of the Off-Broadway production. Many people called for the role to be reprised by actor Barret Wilbert Weed, the original actor. Weed is also closer to female beauty standards than Fletcher. Audiences bereaved Fletcher for her rolls and stretchmarks.
However, they are not the only ones who body-shame. In 2018, the New York Times review of 2018’s Smokey Joe’s Cafe critiqued actor Alysha Umphress’ weight. The Times later apologized, but this shows that critics sometimes take their job’s name too far. Critics do hold a very important job in the theatre scene, however. As ticket prices skyrocket, reviews help patrons decide what to buy. Like buying something online and looking at the star-rating, reviews are necessary. And theatre fandom is heavily influenced by marketing, which monopolizes theatre discourse. Critics should offer unbiased outlooks.
This is where many people point out a flaw in the institutions of modern theatre journalism. Many critics are adults, a demographic that Broadway increasingly caters to. Because of this, theatre journalism is no longer apt to judge every show, leading to bad reviews which kill a show. Theatre journalism must change.
One person of one demographic (oftentimes the most privileged demographic) can not sufficiently criticize every show because not `every show is made for everybody. However, there also needs to be some sort of structure to avoid that monopoly of theatre marketing. It has become a question of which show killer should be the most prominent, but can they work together? The future of theatre critique needs to be built off mutual respect between the two sides which will take both sides meeting each other halfway. News corporations need to recognize the changing audiences and have a more inclusive gang of critics to publish their thoughts. And theatre fans everywhere need to recognize the invisible influences that dictates their Twitter rants. Theatre is for everyone and both journalism and audiences need to reflect that. It is only then will the league of assassins will put down their knives for better theatre enjoyment.