Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Ben Brantley ’77, the chief theater critic of the New York Times, spoke Friday on the state of Broadway (dire) and theater generally (not quite so dire).
Brantley posited that “mainstream theater in New York has fallen in thrall to the tyranny of fame.” He cited modern Broadway’s dependence on stars from other media such as film and TV, coinciding with the decline of the true stage of the stage. Quoting Andy Warhol’s theory of celebrity as a valid sort of currency, he emphasized that this is not a new phenomenon, reading a fawning 1900 review of superstar Lily Langtry’s performance in some forgettable play. Most of the review described her costumes.
The New York Times, he noted, is not immune to the allure of celebrity, for it too sells newspapers. Brantley said that he, like many theater lovers, is tempted to sanction anything that gets people in the theater, but the majority of stage debuts by screen stars range from disappointing to dreadful. Some productions, like the Broadway revival of “Chicago”, have become “revolving doors” for B-list stars, and nearly the entire cast of “Friends” has played the London stage at some point, usually not to very good effect. The has-beens’ debuts become even more talked-about when any nudity is involved, he noted.
One must keep one’s mind open, Brantley said, as there have been a few celebrities who have proved to be good on stage, such as Reba McEntire in “Annie Get Your Gun” and, surprisingly, Melanie Griffith in “Chicago” (as her role allowed for dreadful singing and dancing). But in the majority of cases, there is no guarantee that “a star remains a star in 3-D.” This is quite unlike Broadway’s “Golden Age” stars such as Ethel Merman and Zero Mostel, who had an “extra something” on stage that was never quite as successful on camera.
The stunt-casting is only part of a larger creative bankruptcy in big-budget theater, Brantley said. “The governing principle seems to be ‘give the people what they already know.'” Many musicals are from movies or assembled by committee from a popular band’s catalog, and even some plays are drawn from films. The only original plays to achieve great success during Brantley’s tenure at the Times were “Art” and “Doubt”- both tight 90 minute pieces with one syllable titles.
The real creative force in New York theater, Brantley said, lies in fringe venues and companies such as The Wooster Group and the works of Richard Foreman of the Ontological Hysteric Theater, a scene he, as the first-string critic of the Times, does not review very frequently.
Brantley said of his work at the Times, “I continue to believe I have the best job in the world,” and said that he has never been asked to change an opinion. He took questions from the very large crowd “about anything not involving the two words ‘Judy Miller.'” In an afternoon session at Career Services, he gave advice to prospective theater critics, “assuming that newspapers and theater both still exist after you graduate.”