Wednesday, February 16, 2011

THE ROAD TO QATAR! Critical Mass



"Drama critics are like eunuchs in a harem. They know how it's done because they see it done every night, but they can't do it themselves." ~Brendan Behan

Lately, I have had a persistent scene playing out in my mind from the brilliant film version of "Amadeus." It's late in the film, and Mozart, whose wife has left him and who is teetering between poverty, madness and illness, is conducting a performance of "Don Giovanni," the Commendatore Scene.
The scene reaches its amazing conclusion, with glorious voices and stage pyrotechnics, and in the silence that follows the last reverberating crash of the orchestra, there is a smattering of applause from the few members of the tiny audience. Mozart, sweating and weak, turns and helplessly acknowledges this meagre reception of his work. You see, Mozart, one of the greatest and now most revered composers who ever lived, was a critical and popular failure in his lifetime. And I guess this scene, and this fact, are haunting me of late as I grapple with the almost universal critical dismissal of "The Road to Qatar."

Being in a show--particularly in New York--that receives negative press is an excruciating experience for all involved. One has to proceed with performances of the show with the same commitment and energy that one employed before the reviews came out, and because many actors try to avoid reading reviews, whether favorable or not, one can't even mention them in the back stage life of the show. Other theatre people greet you with a slightly veiled pity, treating you somewhat as if you had a deadly disease but you don't know it yet... lots of forced smiles and questions like, "Are you having fun?". In short, the actor in a badly reviewed production has to put on a happy face and endure. This has been the modus operandi of all involved in our little production at the York, particularly our wonderful writers, David Krane and Stephen Cole, on whom the critics unleashed the lion's share of their vitriol. Despite the notices, these two men have persisted in a positive and optimistic attitude about the entire project, and all of us have followed suit. Truth is, while this is the first time I have been in a show that has met with this kind of critical disapproval, this has also been one of the most joyous and harmonious creative experiences I have ever been blessed with in my twenty years as a professional actor. Every single artist, crew member and production person has been a complete pleasure to work with and the talent and creativity of this group is something to be marveled at. And while we all hoped for a flood of positive press after our star studded, gleeful opening night, we have all turned to each other in support and in a spirit of fun to see this project through. I don't want you to think that all of our reviews have been negative; they haven't. Here's a positive squib from an online review:

"The musical moves at a swift pace, taking care never to lose the audience's attention as one-liners zip by, clever low-budget set pieces and props magically appear, and Muhammad Ali tap dances... James Beaman and Keith Gerchak, who play Michael and Jeffrey, respectively, bring comedic justice and sweet, natural voices to the lead writing team's self-incarnated characters."

--Matty Daley,

Does have the same impact as the New York Times or the Associated Press? Alas, perhaps not.

It is considered, for the most part, bad form for an artist to respond to criticism, to challenge an opinion or defend his or her work. I was, however, delighted to read recently that Judi Dench, not too long ago acknowledged as the greatest stage actor of all time, wrote to a critic in response to a negative notice, "You are an absolute shit." I guess you have to be Dame Judi to get away with that. There is a sort of unspoken rule about how artists should respond to criticism: if you want the free benefit of using positive notices to further the success of your work, you have to take the negative ones as sort of 'bad medicine.' The role of the dramatic critic has changed over the years. There was a time when critics were great men of letters who not only assessed the drama of their time in terms of its artistic and socio-cultural relevance, but who also did posterity a service by describing the live performances of actors pre-film or television, adding their own visceral responses to that work. For example, would we have a sense of the greatness of the 19th century tragedian Edmund Kean had his performances not been captured by William Hazlitt or described by the great poet Coleridge as "like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning?".
George Bernard Shaw, one of the greatest playwrights in the English language, also shaped theatrical trends and popular attitudes toward theatre with his dramatic criticism. It might be said that great critics like Kenneth Tynan, James Agate, and Alexander Woolcott (himself a frustrated actor) championed the careers of certain actors who went on to become acknowledged titans in the theatre, and that they fostered a lively interest in the art form by creating a social discourse about theatre; one that kept theatre patrons passionate about attending live performance.
Perhaps in our time theatre has become less relevant than it once was. The best assessment of the drama critics of today that I have read is by brilliant screen and stage dramatist Ronald Harwood: "The critics of today do not go in much for describing performances or telling you what it was like to be in the theatre on a particular night. They are more interested, it seems, in writing either a sort of lit crit, as though they were wanting to impress their university tutors, or, more often than not, writing snarling and sneering reviews in the hope of impressing their editors." However, with the proliferation of the internet, theatre reviews, whether positive or negative, are as accessible to the curious theatre patron as the click of a mouse. In New York, at least, this makes the words of the critic exceedingly powerful, resulting often in a devastating impact at the box office. It took a little of the sting out of our bad press when critics both here and abroad, impatient with the numerous delays of its opening, took it on themselves to bludgeon the Julie Taymor multi-million dollar behemoth, "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" before it was officially 'open.' The criticisms leveled at this massive spectacle make our negative notices look like valentines. But ultimately, will such notices affect the box office at the Foxwoods Theatre? It's doubtful, since the show is playing to packed houses during its preview period and posting box office returns that recently beat the Broadway juggernaut, "Wicked." For a quirky little show like "The Road to Qatar" the impact has been somewhat more damaging.

Adversity can be the best teacher; it shows you what you're made of and tests your resolve and your ability to persist in your endeavors. It's difficult not to feel a little discouraged. As you can imagine, getting a leading role in a new show off or on Broadway is something of a feat, and to even get a new work on the boards is something that takes monumental amounts of moxie and the willingness to keep going despite seemingly insurmountable odds. So of course, everyone involved in "The Road to Qatar" has had high hopes that it would do great things for each of us in our careers. And, it still might! This is a fairly whimsical and unpredictable business. You just never know. And from my personal point of view, the critics have not killed this show, although bad press does hurt at the box office. It's the audiences we have had that have taught me the true value of our work. People have been truly enjoying our performances, and entering into the silly spirit of the production, with laughter, cheers and applause. Additionally, some of the greatest stars of the Broadway community have come out to see us and have showered us all with their praise and acknowledgment-- from director/choreographer Susan Stroman to legends like Chita Rivera and John Kander, we have received nothing but support. And what a thrill it has been for us to meet these amazing people. Just one of the incredible benefits of being a part of this production.

While I do have my moments of darkness, and do at times feel like poor Mozart facing the sound of one hand clapping, I haven't a single regret about this adventure. Being entrusted by the writers, director and producers of a new show with the responsibility of originating a leading role is something I have dreamed of for twenty years, and which I was blessed with on this show. I have had the good fortune of showing up for work each day with a cast of some of the dearest, most hilarious and multi-talented actors I have ever known, and I have been directed and choreographed and coached by some of the best in the business. I have been given the gift of returning to a New York stage for the first time in three years. I will also mark another milestone when I take part in recording an original cast album of "The Road to Qatar." The blessings far outweigh the troubles. Ultimately, I have learned about the power of believing in oneself and in the joy, creativity and hard work that give birth to any new project. Mr. Krane and Mr. Cole, both accomplished veterans of show business and fine artists, both singly and as a team, have set the tone: keep on keeping on, with optimism and good humor. I feel so blessed to be a part of their vision and will remember the glow of this experience long after the sting of a few catty reviews has long faded into memory. Come down to the York and make up your own mind about this funny fresh new musical, now playing through February 27!

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