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The Best of Times

The New York Times celebrates a century of Broadway theater criticism.

By New York City

As long as there has been a Broadway, there has been a New York Times reviewer to cover it: making stars, closing shows, heralding trends, and imparting judgment to the people of New York and the world at large. Now, the Times has issued an anthology of its most important theater reviews.

The Book of Broadway is the portentous title of this collection (subtitled On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century). It is edited by the Times' current chief theater critic, Ben Brantley, with the help of former second-stringer Peter Marks. They include 125 reviews--though not, Brantley cautions, a "Top 125"--citing "intrinsic merit" but also "historical context" and the "degree to which [a show] engages the critic" as criteria for inclusion. They also highlight "25 Productions That Defined the Century", from The Hairy Ape to West Side Story to Peter Brook's staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream to A Chorus Line.

Brantley's introduction is pleasantly anecdotal and informative, employing an easy style largely absent from his critical work. He includes some interesting trivia on the way the format and style of the paper's reviews have changed over the years. For example: Did you know that, before the 1920s, reviewers rarely divulged their names? That was quite a different world than ours, in which the job of top Times critic comes with built-in power and notoriety; Brantley admits that he won't even go to parties with theater people in attendance, as he dislikes having martinis thrown in his face. But he bypasses any discussion of the impact that the New York Times has on Broadway or the role of the drama critic in general.

This is a celebratory volume: The reviews featured are mostly positive, highlighting the impressive qualities not only of the various shows but of the reviewers as well. The Times, of course, is known for first-class writing, and its theater criticism is especially bold as the writers try to capture the excitement of the stage on paper. Reading review after review by Brooks Atkinson (whom Brantley calls the "hero" of the tome, given Atkinson's lengthy stint as chief drama critic), you won't wonder why the Great White Way named a theater after him: Atkinson's professionalism, dedication, and love for the theater shines through in his writing. Walter Kerr, known for both his stinging jabs and effusive praise, makes only a cameo appearance here. But there is plenty from Frank Rich, who, based on the reviews included, did not really deserve to be nicknamed 'The Butcher of Broadway.'

It's difficult to skim through this book without wanting to stop and indulge in every single review. The flowery prose of the earlier pieces makes for entertaining reading, and it's a joy to experience now-classic plays through the eyes of someone encountering them for the first time. Critiques of three productions of Hamlet are included: those that featured John Barrymore, John Gielgud, and Richard Burton. Musical theater fans will be fascinated to see how the shows of the Golden Age were first received. Reading through the decades that cover our own theatergoing experience is perhaps even more interesting, as we can relive our own favorite productions and performances through the critics.

The book is a terrific read and a great reference resource; but if Brantley and Marks were attempting to define the past century of Broadway theater through their selections, they haven't come close. At one point in his introduction, Brantley quotes Howard Taubman's 1964 Fiddler on the Roof review: "It has been prophesied that the Broadway musical theater would take up the mantle of meaningfulness worn so carelessly by the American drama in recent years." Then Brantley himself writes: "This was not, one is quick to add, a prophecy that would be fulfilled." Content to ignore the 1990s phenomenon of meaningful--if flawed--musicals that did take on the mantle of American drama, the book doesn't include reviews of Hello Again, Parade, or Ragtime, favoring instead The Lion King, Chicago, and The Producers as representative of contemporary musical theater. This is more than a little frustrating, though Brantley openly acknowledges that readers will find entries and omissions aplenty with which to quibble.

It is in this spirit, of course, that all New York Times reviews (and reviews in general) should be read: It's wiser to examine them from a scholar's point of view than to rely on them as guides in choosing what shows to see. (Had I always taken Times reviews as gospel, I would have missed some of my best theatergoing experiences.) As the distinct personalities of these writers emerge, one is able to judge and often admire their critical skill while simultaneously questioning the influence they hold (or held) over the theatergoing public.

The Book of Broadway is a great read, but it presents a picture of theatrical history as seen through the eyes of a handful of people. Even as it guides us through the great years, it reminds us that reviewers are individuals with individual opinions. One should always ask: Who are these people and why do we trust their taste so implicitly? After all, when you come right down to it, everyone's a critic.


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