I spent seven years as one of the most hated, hateful, grumpy, delighted, even-handed, fair, miserable people in theatre. It’s no secret—I was a theatre critic in Atlanta, first for WABE-FM and Southern Voice, and then for Atlanta Theatre Weekly. I refer to this as my time on the Dark Side.
Yet I would never trade the experience, even though it was soul-crushing having to give honest reviews (some good and some bad) to people I liked and respected. Yes, even theatre critics have souls. They might be hard to find (nearly impossible, some would say), but we have them.
Just don’t do something stupid. That can incur our wrath.
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One of my fellow critics at the time had a tendency to go off on tangents, and the tangent would become the main thrust of his reviews. He was a nice guy in real life, but you’d never know it from what he wrote. (As long as I knew him, he was trying to write a biography of actress Piper Laurie; I don’t think it ever was published.)
I tried very hard not to do this, and I succeeded—except once. A local company was doing a production of Pump Boys & Dinettes, a musical I genuinely like. It was going well until the middle of Act II. From out of nowhere, a character holds up a logo and says, “And I buy all my stereo equipment at Hi-Fi Buys,” the local chain serving as a sponsor of the theatre company. Totally broke character. Totally not in keeping with the script or spirit of the show. Just. Plain. Wrong.
I was pissed. I couldn’t enjoy the rest of the show. I was seeing red. When it came time to deliver my review, I went off on a tangent—and couldn’t come back. Hi-Fi Buys banned me from its stores.
(BTW, not the first or last time I’ve ever been banned. Soap opera actress Deirdre Hall—who hated being called a soap opera actress but that’s what she was—once had me declared persona non grata at NBC for a year. A local theatre company here recently banned Grumpy Olde Guy® because I told the truth about its production of the highly-offensive Jewtopia.)
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The late Robert Goulet was touring in South Pacific (a show I genuinely don’t like) playing Emile. In my review, I referred to him as the “dipsomaniacal Robert Goulet,” because, well, frankly, he was the night I saw him. His wife (and fierce protector) pointed out to him what I meant: he was drunk as a skunk onstage. He decided he liked the other reviewer better. Okay, I pissed him off, but he was really inebriated, and you could tell by his performance.
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Speaking of pissing off famous people, there was the time I reviewed Marla Maples (soon to become Wife #2 to Donald Trump) as Ziegfeld’s Favorite in The Will Rodgers Follies. Okay, so I called her a “celebrity by osmosis.” Sure, I noted how you could see her counting steps to herself when she tried (unsuccessfully) to dance. But was that any reason for Mr. Trump (not POTUS then) to call the station and demand I be fired? (BTW, I wasn’t fired.)
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Sitting next to me right now as I type this is the London cast recording of Hot Mikado, conceived, written, and directed by David H. Bell. It’s a terrific show, and it deserves a Broadway production. Of course, I’ve been saying this for 20 years. Yet before he did Hot Mikado, David wrote a musical loosely based on the history of the Beach Boys. It was awful—a show with no conflict (every minor dispute was resolved by the end of each scene, with no reason to lurch forward to the next one). Yes, I panned it, and David wouldn’t speak to me again until the glowing review of Hot Mikado made it into print. No, I wasn’t surprised. But it was kind of soul-crushing.
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Can a critic really kill a show? I truly do not believe so. Yet I know from first-hand experience a critic can definitely do in a cast. I was seeing Les Misérables for the fourth time. The first time (and not as a critic) I saw it, I thought it was fantastic. So, this was not a matter of me not liking the material. The opposite is true—when it’s done well. The tour of Les Misérables pulls into town, and the cast is clearly tired from being on the road too long. Opening night. Everyone is dragging their collective asses on stage—leads and chorus. Even the orchestra seemed to lack enthusiasm. So, I gave this production a bad review for the reason I cited. The theatre was furious at me (the people there had not seen the show the night before). They decided to go see for themselves how wrong I was—but they concluded I had been justified in what I said. The next morning, they called Cameron McIntosh, who flew in to see for himself that night. After the performance, he gathered the cast together on stage—and fired every single one of them (he subsequently did the same thing to the Broadway cast). Oops. (Yes, I feel badly about this. I keep telling you being a critic can crush your soul.)
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One review landed me and my partner in Atlanta Theatre Weekly in a whole lot of trouble because it was totally accurate—and that was the problem. One of our friends works at the Rodgers and Hammerstein Library and has for many years; he was also a subscriber. For a long time, I had been hearing about this radical idea an artistic director had for Oklahoma, which he finally was able to present. While there were many problems with the production, the main one was he had added a prologue, epilogue, and interpolated dialogue into the musical. He had also reset the show in a rehearsal hall on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed (BTW, Oklahoma opened nearly two years after Pearl Harbor). It was totally going against the spirit of the show (I consulted Rodgers autobiography, Musical Stages, to verify this). The R&H Library saw the review and threatened to shut the show down immediately if the changes weren’t cut. A brouhaha ensued. Our review was at the center of it. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution damned us. We were blamed for doing our jobs. Indeed, a few years later, a book about gay theatre came out, and the first chapter blasted us for publishing a review critical of this “daring concept.” More than 20 years later, I stand by that review.
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There are some things a critic may never do. You can’t go to a show drunk (not a problem for me since I never was much of a drinker, and these days not at all). You may never express an opinion about a show until it appears in print or is aired (the producers of the Miss Saigon tour tried to get us to break that rule—and were sorely disappointed as a result). And no matter how bad the show is, you can’t walk at intermission. Well, almost never. I saw over 600 shows during my time as a critic, and I only left at intermission twice. It wasn’t my idea either time. The first time, I had initially been asked to come to dress rehearsal to do my review. Frankly, the show wasn’t ready to be reviewed. At intermission, the producer came up to me and asked if I could come back at a different time, half-expecting me to laugh and turn him down. He forgot I had spent many years on the other side, so I completely understood the dilemma. I told him I would gladly return at a later date to do my review—and I did (I gave the show a good review, too).
The second time I walked I did not return. A theatre company had imported a show—sight unseen—from South Africa. The first act was ghastly (to be kind). Indeed, it was so bad I really did not want to review it because I could see nothing redeeming about it. But I still planned to stay for Act II. Again, the producer came to me and asked me not to review what I had just seen. I couldn’t grab my coat fast enough.
Having now come back from the Dark Side, the ability to walk at intermission of a truly awful show is a luxury. I savor those moments when a show is so bad I don’t want to come back (wish I had done that for Love Never Dies, which I knew was going to be dreadful from the first five minutes; it didn’t get better after that).
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One of life’s great ironies is I studied to be a theatre critic (major in theatre, minor in journalism). Once I did it, I never wanted to do it again. Now I just kibitz from the audience like everyone else. And I’m okay with that. At least my soul is still intact. I think.
Michael Kape is an opinionated, miserable, and decidedly grumpy decrepit olde guy. Other than that, he’s a pretty nice person.
Never cross a critic. It can get ugly.