A stunt that belongs in some theatre publicity hall of fame was pulled off in 1961 by famed Broadway producer David Merrick for his musical Subways are for Sleeping. Never heard of that play? For good reason. Read on. The show had received poor reviews and was sleeping at the box office. Not to be discouraged, Merrick went out and found seven New Yorkers with the same names as the seven leading New York theatre critics at the time, brought them in to see his musical, prompted them for enthusiastic comments, and then ran an ad in which the seven namesakes praised the show. “What a show! What a hit!” said a Walter Kerr, though not the Walter Kerr employed by the New York Times. “No doubt about it – the best musical of the century” raved another faux critic. The stunt woke up ticket sales and kept the show running for almost six months.
This wacky and wicked stunt demonstrates how desperate producers covet and dread reviews. The assumption of course is that reviews, particularly one published in that unassailable arbiter of taste, the New York Times, impact ticket sales. Fifty years after Merrick’s ploy, even after the advent of the Internet and hundreds of theatre blogs, that assumption still prevails.
I suspect there is also another factor operating. And here I can speak not just as a writer for the stage but as a former show producer who made money and lost money. Broadway is a poker table with million-dollar antes. Seventy to seventy-five percent of Broadway productions lose money. But if you hit the jackpot, a la Phantom of the Opera, Wicked or Book of Mormon, there is gold in them there hills. Because the odds are so long, the stakes so high and the rare payoffs sometimes so big, the frantic producer, like a sailor overboard, grasps fiercely onto anything that might keep him afloat. Reviews are one such real variable that a producer instinctively latches onto.
The power of reviews is widely assumed but poorly substantiated. And even when correlation can be discerned, that does not establish causation. The hard truth is that plays fail because the script is inferior or the show is poorly produced, not because of the reviews it received, whether good, bad or middling.
The New York producer Ken Davenport recently examined this matter, using data he has compiled over the last decade about reviews by the lead New York Times critics, Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood, and shows’ profitability. Davenport has summarized the findings on his blog “The Producer’s Perspective.” He categorized productions eight ways: musicals and plays; new works and revivals; comedies and dramas; and commercial and nonprofit productions.
Here are a few of Davenport’s findings that caught my attention:
1. Reviews are not all bad. As prominent Seattle theatre critic Brendan Kiley has observed, “People tend to remember a sting much more vividly than a compliment.” (Isn’t that a general life-truth for all of us?) That phenomenon amplifies in our minds bad reviews, particularly if it’s our ox that’s been gored. From 2005 to 2014 Brantley and Isherwood wrote 387 Broadway reviews for the Times: 45% were positive, 29% negative and 26% mixed.
2. Both Brantley and Isherwood wrote positive reviews more often for plays than musicals.
3. Musicals was the only one of the eight categories that received more negative than positive reviews, and that was only by Brantley. Isherwood looked more favorably upon musicals than his colleague.
4. Nonprofit productions got significantly better reviews than commercial productions, by a margin of 13 percentage points for Brantley and 21 points for Isherwood.
5. The correlation between positive reviews and a show recouping (at least earning back its investment) is surprisingly weak. In fact a higher percentage of shows getting a mixed review recouped than those with a positive review: 33% of shows with a mixed review recouped vs. 29% of shows that got a positive review. Explain that one to me. Fewer shows with a negative review recouped, just 18%, as one would expect.
6. There is a very strong correlation between a positive review and Tony Award nominations and winners.
7. As for playwrights, buy Tom Stoppard stock and dump David Mamet. Reviews of Mamet’s plays were 75% negative whereas Stoppard’s were 83% positive.
I asked Brendan Kiley what he has heard from Seattle theatre companies about how reviews in The Stranger impact ticket sales here. He knows the topic is often debated but comments made to him have been all over the board. He has been told that Stranger reviews, even, perversely, negative ones, substantially boost ticket sales. He’s also been told that whether a show gets a review, or what kind of review it gets, has no impact on sales.
That sounds a lot like the theatre biz in general: it’s an ephemeral art form that is unpredictable. As John Guare once told me, we’re all trying to catch lightning in a bottle.
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