The casting of Bernadette Peters as Rose in the third Broadway revival of Gypsy was one of the most controversial events of the 2002-2003 Broadway season, so it can be assumed that theater mavens avidly tore open print publications, logged on to websites, and turned on their TVs and radios in order to get the critics' takes on the star's efforts when the show opened on May 1. What did they find? Well, in The New York Times, Ben Brantley wrote that Peters had "delivered the surprise coup of many a Broadway season," that she had "created the most complex and compelling portrait of her long career." Dennis Cunningham, reviewing for NY1, declared Peters's performance to be "blissfully brilliant" and "a total triumph." John Simon of New York magazine felt that B.P. had achieved "the perfect blend of fanaticism and femininity, of monster and victim" necessary for the role. And, according to Clive Barnes of The New York Post, Peters sang with "enormous character" and acted with "total conviction."
On the other hand, Martin Denton of nytheatre.com wrote that Peters was "badly miscast as Rose" and that she "can't manage the songs at all." Howard Kissel of the Daily News found Peters's Rose to be "charming" but felt that the star seldom conveyed the character's ruthlessness and that "much of her work, especially her singing, seems forced." While TheaterMania's David Finkle opined that Peters "takes the ominously thrilling 'Everything's Coming Up Roses' and javelins it to the back of the auditorium," he went on to write that she "hasn't as yet formed a consistent characterization" and that, "from vignette to vignette in the episodic script, she seems to be starting anew rather than picking up momentum." And Variety's Charles Isherwood insisted that "the controversial casting of the downy-soft Bernadette Peters as the flinty Mama Rose proves to be, as many had feared, a miscalculation that all this talented performer's hard work simply cannot overcome."
To say that Peters's Gypsy reviews were all over the place would be a gross understatement. I use Peters as an example because there has been and continues to be so much discussion of her achievement, but we might just as well talk about Brian Stokes Mitchell in last season's revival of Man of La Mancha. Was Mitchell's performance as Cervantes/Don Quixote (a) wonderful, or (b) an embarrassing sojourn by an actor way out of his league? That depends on whom you talk to; you'll find people who cling tenaciously to one opinion or the other and, of course, many who had mixed feelings.
Do you want to talk shows instead of actors? A short list of productions that divided critics and audiences during the past year or so would have to include Amour, Imaginary Friends, The Play What I Wrote, Life (x) 3, A Man of No Importance, Fucking A, and Adult Entertainment. Then there's the case of the Off-Broadway musical Zanna, Don't! which was largely despised by at least three reviewers (myself included) but highly praised by many others, including Bruce Weber of The New York Times and two TheaterMania contributors: Peter Filichia and David Finkle. As for this season, Internet chatter indicates that there's already a wide range of opinion on Little Shop of Horrors, The Boy From Oz, and other productions now in previews but yet to open.
Relying on reviews in order to try to decide if one is going to like a show or not is far from foolproof under the best of circumstances but even more so when a reviewer doesn't adhere to his own standards. A recent example of this was Ben Brantley's mind-bending New York Times review of Melanie Griffith's performance as Roxie Hart in Chicago, wherein Brantley noted that the star "has only minimal command of the skills traditionally associated with musical comedy," that "she dances very little and her well-known, baby-doll voice has only a casual relationship with melody," yet "Ms. Griffith is a sensational Roxie, possibly the most convincing I have seen." Lest this piece of journalism seem an aberration, think back to Brantley's evaluation of Mamma Mia!, in which he basically wrote that he enjoyed the ABBA musical even though it wasn't any good. What possible guidance can anyone glean from such reviews?
Ultimately, there is no accounting for taste. Witness the fact that, despite mixed reviews, Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out seems to have caught on with audiences. Personally, I was tremendously put off by the play's unbelievable characters and its plot incongruities, so it's hard for me to understand what aspect(s) of the show audiences are responding to -- unless, of course, it's all those naked men on stage. For the purposes of this article, it's also worthwhile to take a look at the play's leading actors. When I saw Take Me Out at the Public Theater and later on Broadway, I was unpleasantly surprised by what I considered to be an amateurish, one-note performance by Daniel Sunjata -- who went on to receive Tony and Drama Desk nominations and Theatre World and Lucille Lortel awards for his work. And reaction to Denis O'Hare's portrayal of Mason Marzac demonstrates that, even when there would seem to be unanimous agreement on someone's skill and talent, there isn't. O'Hare won great praise and a number of honors (including the Tony, Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel, Obie, Outer Critics Circle, and Clarence Derwent awards) for his characterization. I consider all of his accolades to be fully deserved -- but, for what it's worth, a very small minority of people have said that they view his performance as over-the-top and offensively stereotypical.
What of the Sam Mendes-Roundabout Theatre Company version of the great John Kander-Fred Ebb-Joe Masteroff musical Cabaret? This award-winning Broadway revival has run far longer than the original production and has also been successful on tour, but that doesn't change my opinion that it's tasteless and dumbed-down to the point of idiocy: To drive home the decadence of the cabaret world, the bruises and needle track marks sported by the cabaret girls are large enough to be visible from the last row of the balcony, and there are also such delightful bits of business as the simulated insertion of someone's fist into someone else's anus in silhouette behind a sheet. Lest anyone still miss the point, there's the emotionally pornographic final image of the show, which conjures a Nazi concentration camp. I've sometimes felt like a lonely voice crying in the wilderness when I've deplored this production -- yet every time I've done so, either verbally or in writing, at least one person has responded with, "I thought I was the only one who felt that way." (This Cabaret was co-directed and choreographed by the great Rob Marshall, but I prefer to think that he was responsible for the show's pacing, snap, and pizzazz rather than the fisting sequence.)
Needless to say, that strange feeling of "Did I see the same show as everyone else?" works both ways. I still can't decide if I'm more upset when a production that I consider to be unworthy is well received and runs for a long time, or when a show that I love is dismissed by critics and shutters quickly. A friend and I both loved Radiant Baby when we attended one of the show's final preview performances last season, and we told someone in the cast whom we knew that it sure smelled like a hit to us. (This is why I'm not a producer.)
It should also be noted that the very nature of live theater contributes to a range of reactions. Differences of opinion regarding Bernadette Peters in Gypsy may be partly due to the fact that, on the evidence of video clips and first-hand reports, the star has been giving performances of widely varying quality on different days. Even when a performer is consistent, all kinds of variables can affect people's responses, as my experience with the Off-Broadway play Fully Committed proves. When I saw the show at the Vineyard Theatre before it opened to raves, I thought it was one of the funniest evenings I'd ever spent in the theater, and the audience obviously agreed with me: People were almost literally pitching out of their seats in laughter. But when I caught the same show with the same star (Mark Setlock) some months later at the Cherry Lane, a dead crowd spoiled everything. Have you ever tried to laugh at something you think is funny when hundreds of people around you are behaving like corpses? It's not easy!
Why were the folks who gathered to see the show on that occasion so unmoved? Perhaps they were there not because they had an affinity with the humor of Fully Committed but because they had been told the show was a hit and they simply wanted to check it off on their "to do" list. To throw yet another variable into the mix: I remember that the winter night in question was one of the coldest in recent memory, and this may have had a chilling effect on the responsiveness of the audience.
Considering all of the above, the easiest thing to do is to throw one's hands up in the air and exclaim, "Everything in the world is just a matter of opinion!" As if to provide a test case of just how incompatible people's value judgments can be, two different stage musicals based on the Joseph Moncure March poem The Wild Party played in New York in 2000 -- one Off-Broadway, one on. An admittedly unscientific survey that I have conducted indicates that the largest percentage of interested parties liked one version but disliked the other; a smaller but still significant percentage didn't like either; and a very small percentage liked both. I can't even begin to guess why the numbers fall out this way, but I'm willing to entertain all theories.
One of the strangest things about this sort of lack of consensus is that it seems to have gotten worse over the decades -- if, indeed, it is a bad thing. In the 1950s, almost everyone thought that My Fair Lady was great, and the show ran for seven years. On the other end of the spectrum, almost everyone considered Whoop-Up to be a turkey, and that show closed after 56 performances. Meanwhile, entries that were considered okay but not great had decent but not marathon runs. I believe that, prior to the modern era, the phenomenon of a show playing for years after having received mixed to negative reviews -- e.g., Aida, Beauty and the Beast, Jekyll & Hyde -- was extremely rare.
So, where does all this leave us? If there can be anything like a last word on the subject, perhaps it should be left to the eminent producer/director Hal Prince. When I interviewed Prince some time ago, we talked about the fact that his magnificent career had been punctuated by some notable flops. I asked him what he would say if I told him that I considered the musical Roza -- a 12-performance misfire in 1987 -- to be a far better show than The Phantom of the Opera, which by then was already several years into its run. Prince chuckled with the air of a man who's been through it all and then said (I'm paraphrasing): "If that's the way you feel, then that's the truth for you, no matter how many people might disagree." Mr. Prince, I think you've got it.