Tell It Like It Is

 Darren Wildeman

How many times have you heard someone say something like, “we should acknowledge all shows on Broadway are in some way good; after all, they got to Broadway, so they have to be good. We shouldn’t talk down on any of them”. I’ve seen comments such as this and this type of narrative many times. People seem to think every show is somehow good in its own right and that people should be happy to just be seeing a show and they shouldn’t complain about it being bad or heavily criticize it. I’m not talking about straight up bashing a show, or saying it should close or things like that. That’s downright hateful. However, criticism of theatre and art as a whole is important. Moreover, it’s also important to acknowledge that no, not all shows are equal, not all shows are good, and some are downright dreadful. However, it’s also important to acknowledge that yes you can still like a bad show. Just because you like it doesn’t make it objectively good.

 

To discuss the first piece. Criticism is important. As I said, I’m not talking about hating on a show or saying things like “it should just close”. That’s just hateful and unnecessary. However, valid criticism of a show is important, I’ll even go so far as to say if there’s nothing to like about a show and it truly has no merits (yes these shows exist), it’s important to say just how bad it was with valid criticism.

If a show doesn’t get bad reviews, or get told it’s bad, then we won’t improve upon future shows. Of course, some critics write solely to flame shows and that isn’t right either. However, if we tell a bad show that it’s bad and it doesn’t sell tickets, we can look to that show as an example of what went wrong, and future producers, directors and other people involved in shows can learn and adjust their own productions. There really isn’t much room to coddle a bad show.

The attitude of “every show deserves love and is in its own merit good” is hurtful to actual good shows and simply not true. Are you really going to sit there and tell me that Amelie is equal to Hamilton? Even if you don’t like Hamilton you have to look at it from an objective standpoint. It checks off so many boxes of what largely constitutes a musical to be good. While Amelie checked off a lot of boxes of how not to put together a musical. As was later proved by the reviews and how quickly it closed. Not that a good show can’t be overlooked and close early because that certainly happens. However, when a show does close early you can usually find a reason; if not that the show was bad, maybe it didn’t advertise enough, maybe it didn’t have enough star power, etc. The point is you can usually find a reason. However, with a show like Amelie, the reason stares you right in the face. It has fun, but unsubstantial music and a book that drags its feet around every turn and is, for lack of a better term, pretty abysmal. To compare a show like this to Hamilton and insist that they somehow have the same merit and are on some level equal is a downright insult to the how innovative and objectively well-done Hamilton is. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you can’t like Amelie. However, just because you like a show doesn’t make it good. You can like a bad show.

This is I think a very important point. I’ll say it again. You liking a show does NOT make it good. Sometimes the bad shows can still do something really well or have a personal appeal to you. I think for me Ghost is a really good example of this. I love the score, and it’s a fascinating story. However, from an objective standpoint, I see a slow-moving book, with songs that don’t move the plot and cause the entire show to stall at times. You see, I like the show as a whole but I’ll acknowledge where it was lacking. I can still look at it critically. My love for the show doesn’t blind me to how painstakingly bad it is in some places. It’s important to distinguish between your love for a show, and how good it is. In fact, it almost makes me mad how disappointing Ghost was at times because without the songs that stop the plot and choppy book it would have been a fantastic show. Instead we get a show that at times completely stops and fails. So rather than letting your love of a show blind you, I encourage you to study the show from an objective standpoint and see if you can find the criticisms that other people see in it. This doesn’t have to take away from your love of the show; however, theatre is always evolving and it’s important to figure out what does and doesn’t work for the purpose of future shows.

For example, up until Showboat and Oklahoma! a few years later, musical theatre was almost unrecognizable by today’s standards. The plots of shows back then were very simple. Back then, a musical was closer to being a cabaret with just a series of songs loosely tied by a simple plot. However, in the 20 years following Oklahoma! where the music told the story this soon became the new standard. Now if the music doesn’t move the plot that’s largely considered a bad thing.

There was also a time when musicals were almost expected to be happy. Oklahoma! dealt with heavier themes and a few years later we’d get another heavier show. Carousel, and then a few years after that South Pacific also, was an early show that dealt deal with dark or challenging themes, and in the years after would follow we would get West Side Story. In this stretch of years and in the years following darker themes in the theatre would become more and more popular. It would take some time but it would happen. Today we aren’t surprised when a show deals with suicide, mental illness, racism, sexism, or other heavy topics. These early shows and the ones that came after it into the 60s, 70s, and 80s helped this happen.

The point is that in both of these instances people found a way to improve theatre. Without criticism and analysis of theatre these changes wouldn’t have happened. If people just took the shows they liked and called them good enough we wouldn’t seen new or revolutionary shows. Without mistakes we’d have no corrections. If you can see what a show- even a show you like- has done poorly, you can also see where it could be improved. Not that you still can’t like that show, but if you can see where improvements can be made, then you can understand how theatre will evolve and it may also help you to appreciate future shows, or what a different show is trying to do. As a whole you can appreciate theatre on a whole other level if you can understand the criticism. It’ll help you to understand where other people are coming from and why a show is largely liked or disliked. Even if you don’t agree with liking or disliking the show it can be helpful to understand why other people do, and why a show is considered a revolution or a flop. Understanding what other people think can lead to further discussion and contribute to the changing shows, which if you think about it is a really cool thing to think about and realize; that your discussion can in some way, even if it’s just a very small way influence theatre. Whether someone sees what you say online for many people to see or you tell a friend who tells a friend and so on and so forth. Either way the word gets out and indirectly has some influence.

The fact that your opinion can have influence is a very cool thing, however, that’s also why it’s important to think about how you’re forming it and understanding what others say. The better you can state your case and fully form your opinion, the more productive your conversation will be. And I don’t think anyone will argue with having a productive discussion.

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