You’re Gonna Be Populist

It is ten years ago. You are reading The New York Times and you come across this sentence about the latest musical to open on Broadway: the show “does not, alas, speak hopefully for the future of the Broadway musical.” And if somehow that piece – along with the production’s other scathing reviews – is the only piece of media you come across about this show, you would be astonished when Future You announces that this musical just celebrated its tenth Broadway-versary.

That’s right. The musical with “not one memorable song” (according to The New Yorker) is Wicked – a show I once saw while sitting next to a group of pre-teens that sang the entirety of Act One alongside Eden Espinosa & Co. Unmemorable songs indeed. And the enthusiasm of my audience-neighbors still pervades ten years later. As I scrolled down my Facebook newsfeed last Wednesday, I realized that I had never seen so many people posting about theatre in such a concentrated space and time before. I read post after post of people congratulating Wicked on its success and sharing their personal connections to the show – whether part of their daily lives or just remembered for the occasion. Love the show or hate it, Wicked has accomplished quite a feat.

At The Daily Beast, Kevin Fallon considers some of the incredibly varied factors that have contributed to Wicked’s success over the years. One particularly interesting observation:

as Wicked turns ten, it’s no less fun to celebrate the power of unabashed populism, and a show that defied odds, and a little bit of gravity, to become that future of Broadway critics feared so much. Because as it turns out, this scary “future” of musical theatre that Wicked represents is one that the public at large actually gets to be a part of.

We're gonna make you popular.  (Photo Credit: Kat Wade / The Chronicle)

We’re gonna make you popular.
(Photo Credit: Kat Wade / The Chronicle)

In today’s day and age, where a show’s future can hinge on the reviews it receives, Wicked remains the big green exception that makes the rule that much more interesting. I’m not going to go all Alec Baldwin on the system of theatre criticism, but I am really interested in thinking about Wicked as a space where that system breaks down in spectacular fashion and, as always, asking: what can we learn?

In my last post, I wrote about Public Works’ Tempest, a production that strove to represent The Community on its stage. Wicked‘s lasting audience-driven success represents The Community offstage, indirectly, instead – but by its doing so, the critical voice of “the public at large” occupies Broadway’s largest theatre.

One of Ken Davenport’s latest pieces on The Producer’s Perspective focuses on a similar phenomenon through the lens of CNN’s iReporters. By allowing anyone and everyone to claim the title “Reporter,” he writes, CNN shows its audience that it cares about what they witness and what they think. He concludes the piece by considering what Broadway can take away from CNN:

if we continue to treat our audience like their voices aren’t worthy, they’ll either talk even more smack than they already do… or worse… they’ll stop talking about us altogether.

This model recalls’s Word Of Mouth videos or Theatremania’s Bros On Broadway series. Though neither one allows everyone to be a critic, they both attempt to give some kind of critical platform to “regular” audience members. What if it did go a step further? What if stood outside the Gershwin Theatre with a camera and filmed a review by anyone who had something to say deeper than “I liked it”?

I don’t know what that would mean in commercial terms. And I admit that I’ve loved many a critical-darling-but-popular-flop – shows that I might not have gotten to see if good press hadn’t saved the day by overriding the public’s dislike or (more often) disinterest. But I don’t think that means that audience feedback is unimportant in commercial terms, nor do I think that Wicked shows that critics shouldn’t be part of the equation. The discourse on Wicked – and, I would extend, criticism in general – shouldn’t be framed as a competition between the audience member and the critic, between the regular spectator and the qualified spectator. Instead, as Davenport suggests, there needs to be space for all spectators to talk about what they’ve seen.

And what about the Wickeds that haven’t gotten to their Gershwins yet? What about contemporary shows that don’t have such widely recognizable names as Stephen Schwartz and Kristin Chenoweth attached to them? In a way, audience reviews alongside professional critics’ may be even more important in this arena. Wicked‘s reviews came while the show had the vantage point of a 2000-seat theatre. A different new show with a similar audience response and similar reviews might not have received anything more than 5 performances at a 99-seat house through NYMF or the Fringe. It’s not about getting seen for 10 years; it’s about getting seen at all. A space open to more critical voices could make room for more theatrical voices, too.

Congratulations on your ten years, Wicked. Keep on greenifying the great white way.

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