Podcast Episode 26 Transcript – Ben Brantley
Ken: Hey, everybody, it’s Ken Davenport. Before we get into this week’s podcast, did you know that I have a theater with my name on it? Okay, it’s not really my name. It’s named after my great-grandfather, Delbert Essex Davenport. He was this crazy Ziegfeld-like wannabe from way back in the day. He was a publicist, he was a producer, he was a lyricist . . . you name it, he did it. He wore a lot of hats. Sound familiar? It’s like this guy. Anyway, I named my theater after him and guess what? That theater is available for rent. We do workshops, readings, full productions. We have a 60 seat black box and a 150 seat main stage, so check it out at DavenportTheatre.com. That’s DavenportTheatre.com. We’d love to host your show. Now, onto the podcast!
Ken: Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. I am Ken Davenport and I am so excited about today’s guest, because if you are interested in Broadway and the theater then you, without a doubt, have read today’s guest. But today you’re going to hear from him. I’m honored to have with me one of the most influential people in the world of theater, the Chief Drama Critic of the New York Times, Ben Brantley. Welcome, Ben.
Ben: Thank you so much.
Ken: This is the part of the podcast where I usually talk about some of the things my guest has done and list their credits, but I think the title “Chief Drama Critic of the New York Times” says it all, although part of me wants to introduce him like a movie trailer . . . “The man who makes producers’ dreams come true or can break a heart, with a few strokes of his pen” . . . but I won’t do that. So, Ben, let’s just start at the beginning. How did you get to the chief critic desk?
Ben: It was a long and winding road. The first job interview I had outside of college was with John Fairchild, who was the head of Fairchild Publications, who died recently. But, he asked me if I could have any job in the world what would it be, and I said chief theater critic at the New York Times, and we both laughed at that because it seemed like an impossible dream and it obviously wasn’t what I was interviewing for. I did get the job there, covering sportswear news for Women’s Wear Daily. From there, I wound up covering fashion for them. I went to their Paris office. From there I went to work for Tina Brown for seven years, first at Vanity Fair, then The New Yorker. At the same time I was doing movie reviews for Elle magazine. My first editor there was Alex Witchel, who was engaged to a man named Frank Rich, who was then the theater critic at the New York Times. When they were looking for a new second string critic she said, “I know you like theater, do you mind if we throw your name into the hat?” Frank actually called and asked that. I said, “Oh yeah, right,” and then it happened very quickly and I’ve been there for, oh gosh, 22 years.
Ken: So where did the love of theater come from? What was the first moment?
Ben: It was really early. My mother had been in love with theater, had studied at Provincetown Playhouse, but I grew up in Western Salem, North Carolina. My grandad taught Shakespeare so I was read Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare even before I could actually properly read. And the university, or college it was then, at Lake Forest where my dad worked had a very active theater department and when they needed a spare kid, I went and did that. It was magic for me. Theater and books I fell in love with at the same time, and they have been two loves that haven’t let me down.
Ken: Do you remember the first Broadway show you saw?
Ben: Absolutely, it was Follies, the original Follies. I think I was 15. It was the first time it came to New York and it happened to be the show my dad had gotten tickets for. With Alexis Smith, Dorothy Collins, John McMartin, who was still very active. And it was, oh it was thrilling. The musical numbers, the staging. It was the perfect introduction to Broadway, now that I look back on it, in that it was sort of an analogy for the Broadway that was disappearing. It was seeing a Stephen Sondheim show for the same time and also seeing movie stars of that vintage . . . well, Dorothy Collins was more television and radio, but who’s the woman who sang “Broadway Baby?” Ethel Shutta. It was a whole generation of stars and it was really a kind of last hurrah for them, and it was highly memorable. I’ve seen about six Follies, different versions, since then.
Ken: Was it the most memorable, if you could rate all of the Follies you’ve seen? How did your 15 year old self review it back then?
Ben: I loved the staging, loved the songs. I had a problem with the book.
Ken: Do you still have a problem with the book?
Ben: Yes, I do, but I think it can be worked around. The music is celestial. And the music carries so much of the meaning, as it often does with Sondheim, because it’s layer upon layer of memories within the same song, and also a sense of the friction between the past and the present and the paralysis that results sometimes when you’re standing in the middle of the floor, not going left, not going right.
Ken: What was the first review you ever wrote when you were the chief critic?
Ben: Well I remember the first review I wrote, period, I mean for the Times when I came on in 1993. It was Annie Warbucks, which opened at the now-demolished Variety Arts Theatre, which is a shame. It’s in my neighborhood in the East Village and it was a great old theater. It wasn’t a highly successful sequel, as sequels and musicals tend to be. First Broadway show . . . I don’t think there was really a deciding point. Frank retired from theater criticism pretty soon after I arrived, really a matter of months. David Richards had the job for about a year, then Vincent Canby when David left. Vincent Canby, who was the film critic for many years, filled in for about 16 months, and during that time I was reviewing stuff on Broadway, so I can’t remember what the dividing point would have been. So by the time I actually stepped into the shoes officially, I had been kind of shuffling along in them for a while.
Ken: When you did step into those shoes, or really just writing a Broadway review for the Times for the first time, did you have a moment where you were like, “I joked about wanting to be the chief critic and now I am, and these words ripple through the world of theater, all over?” Did you have a moment before you put your fingers on the keys?
Ben: No, honestly I didn’t. Women’s Wear Daily, where I started off, turned out to be the best graduate school you could have gone to, at least in terms of psychological preparation for what I’m doing now, and these days I presume it still is. It was an extremely powerful organ within a small, rarified world and you were told to say what you thought and just to go ahead with it, and damn the torpedoes. So, to an extent, I guess I absorbed that. I’m not incredibly confident in some areas of my life, but somehow, on this I always have been. I do know my mind.
Ken: What I find fascinating and what I love about what you do is obviously you have this incredible theatrical knowledge, but you’re also an incredibly skilled writer at the same time.
Ben: Thank you.
Ken: Two very different things. Where did the writing training come from?
Ben: I come from a family of writers. Both of my parents were journalists. My sister, who is seven years older, came to New York before I did and actually followed a similar trajectory in that she started off at The New Yorker and then went to the New York Times, where she was an editor for some years, and then moved to California. My parents were very word . . . not obsessed, but they loved words and they passed it on to us. We all started reading fairly early, and I was also part of the kind of family that I would say was naturally critical, so when you were seated at the dinner table if you said, “Oh, I really liked that Dr. Seuss book,” my dad would say, “And why did you like it?” We learned how to shape our thoughts really well. But it came naturally. I was writing for newspapers by the time I was 10. I was like a kid correspondent and so forth. I also went to a tiny college outside of Philadelphia called Swarthmore that was very graduate preparatory, academic intensive and went into the honors program in that, where you had to read an awful lot and regurgitate an awful lot and do a paper every week, and that was incredibly good training as well. So it all feeds into the same river.
Ken: And if you didn’t end up following the career towards the chief drama critic seat, what else do you think you would be doing?
Ben: Probably academia. That was the obvious other path. They’re both paths of minor resistance, journalism and academia. That’s what my family background is so it would have been one or the other, I think.
Ken: So tell me about your process for writing a review. Many of my listeners may still think that Broadway reviewers go on opening night, rush home and spit it out to get it before the rise on the sidewalk at 5am. That’s obviously not the case anymore. Can you just tell me a little bit about what you do?
Ben: That tradition of going back and spitting it out, which was still current in Brooks Atkinson’s day . . . I think it stopped in the late 1960s, as long ago as that . . . but that’s why we have seats on the aisle to this day, the idea that you can rush back to the newspaper and get your work done. We usually have a few nights, at least, before the proper press opening, and we still write it as if it’s the show that opened last night, or the show that opened Tuesday night when it runs in Wednesday’s paper or it’s posted online late on Tuesday night. It comes fairly naturally to me. You watch on two levels. As a critic, there’s a part of you that’s calculating, the cerebellum or whatever it happens to be that’s processing it all and thinking, “Okay, do I have a lead here? Where is this play going?” But then you’re watching with your gut too, which I think is the most important part, and so what you want to do is translate what you’re feeling into what you’re thinking. What you’ve got to trust is the feeling much more, and you can intellectualize it if you want to figure out why you responded in the way you did. I often write the next morning. I still take notes but I don’t really look at them again. It’s like tattooing. Once you’ve written it down it’s somehow inked into your memory. I usually write the next morning. It takes me a couple of hours, I would say. I don’t work in the Times building. I keep an office downtown, and so everything, thanks to the wonders of the internet, is sent through the ether, and usually the next person I deal with is a copy editor at the Times. The Times has a fairly particular style about the placement of commas and the use of prepositions and so forth. You learn, but you sometimes forget. And they’re wonderful. They save your ass so many times, the copy editors. And then it’s online fairly quickly now.
Ken: How much do the editors change, shorten, take out chunks? Does that happen at all?
Ben: No. I mean I will be told that space is tight and, instead of 900 words, could I write 700 words? And you have to be obliging about that. I do think all of us who write any kind of cultural criticism for the Times feel incredibly lucky to have as much space as we’re given, but no one’s ever asked me to rethink something or change my opinion, and they’re very good with critics, depending on your point of view. But they’re fairly respectful of critics in terms of they won’t rewrite or change unless they consult with you.
Ken: My dean of undergraduate drama at NYU, Arthur Bartow, once said in a class, “How I know I’m really enjoying a show is when I forget that I’m in academia in the theater.” I can’t even imagine what that must be like for you. Do you ever get totally transported and forget?
Ben: Oh sure, yeah. I cry a lot at the theater.
Ken: You do? What’s the last show you cried at?
Ben: Oh, gosh. Actually it was a puppet show I saw last week called Ada/Ava, a very progressive puppet show, beautifully done out of Chicago, and it was partly because it was so utterly original and partly because you had these young people, I think they were all still in their 20s, adding another chapter to a theatrical tradition, a tradition of entertainment. So, yes, I get moved pretty easily. It’s rare that I go to something by Shakespeare that I don’t have tears in my eyes at some point, really from the language as much as anything else. And musicals . . . I mean how can you not cry? Whether it’s good or bad, there’s just something about people being able to find a rhythm, a song and a dance in life’s drudgery or agony or ecstasy that I find very moving.
Ken: Let’s go back to the writing a little bit. You obviously don’t really think about what you’re doing in terms of the ripple effect, like we talked about, but I sometimes wonder what it must be like to be you and walk down 45th Street and look up at a marquee and see something . . . a quote that’s been pulled . . . that maybe is just a little bit massaged, or a little bit different than you ever anticipated it being. Does that ever happen?
Ben: Yeah, I think my editors take umbrage more than I do and I think that there’s been a campaign by some of the more virtuous editors at the Times to put a stop to the more egregious uses. As long as they get the sense right, I don’t really care. I have learned that, if I haven’t read reviews and I see pull quotes, not to trust the pull quotes, but years ago, long before I had this job, I remember I was doing a freelance piece for, I think, Harper’s Bazaar, an interview with Catherine Deneuve. I wrote the piece, it was fine, she was appearing in a movie I hadn’t yet seen but we talked about it. And the deck – that is, the copy right below the headline – said, “In this movie, Deneuve goes beyond stardom to become a spellbinding actress.” Well, shortly after the magazine came out I saw an ad for the movie and it said, “Deneuve goes beyond stardom to become a spellbinding actress.” I had not seen the movie, I had not written those words. They were editorial window dressing that an editor had tacked onto it. So I’ve learned never, ever trust what you see critics saying in the ads.
Ken: I’ll admit it, I quoted a headline once of Jason Zinoman’s for an Off-Broadway show. He used to e-mail my press agent all the time about it. I think he’s forgiven me. I think. Speaking of those quotes . . . when you’re writing, do you think, “Oh, they’re going to quote this?”
Ben: Sometimes if I do, if it seems too blatant, I will stop and go back and change it. It’s “I laughed ’til I cried” kind of stuff, not that I say that very often. The ad people are pretty canny in terms of extracting things. Some press people do e-mail and say, “Is this okay with you?” And, again, if it doesn’t change the sense it’s usually fine with me.
Ken: I’ve been in a number of those conversations. “Can we say . . . ?” And everyone looks at the press guy. “Don’t add an exclamation point,” that’s my other favorite. I want to ask a couple of questions about the logistics of reviewing in this city, which is filled with so many live entertainment events and live theatrical events you could cover. Obviously there are many critics at the Times. You and Charles, how do you decide who reviews one Broadway show or another?
Ben: I get first choice. If Charles is seeing something out of town our policy is usually to let whoever has reviewed it out of town review it again, unless that person really didn’t like it the first time and thinks it might be fair to let the other critic do it. I try to do as much Off-Broadway as I can because I think there’s usually more of interest there. Obviously the news is what’s happening on Broadway and that’s where the commercial interest is, but if you’re looking for innovation, you don’t look to Broadway. If it comes to Broadway and it’s new, it’s been new somewhere else before. I do try to get to the periphery as much as I can.
Ken: I’m sure there are plenty of Off-Broadway theater companies and artists listening to this right now, going, “Oh my gosh, if I could only get Ben to see my show.” How do you find out about all of these shows? This puppet show from Chicago . . .
Ben: That was actually . . . the theater editor, Scott Heller, has a thing for puppets and he said, “This might be interesting,” and it was something I had actually noticed on my own. I do read the press releases that fill up my e-mail inbox, and also word of mouth. I don’t really have any friends in the theater but I don’t have friends who are ardent theatergoers, especially downtown or south of downtown, Brooklyn or whatever, who know certain companies or certain artists involved and say, “You might want to check this out.” This summer, for the first time, I’ve seen everything that Clubbed Thumb is doing, simply because the artistic director wrote to me and said, “Could you just take a look at what we’re doing? You haven’t yet,” and I thought, “Well that’s fair.” I can’t always say yes, unfortunately. My first obligations, obviously, are to the news-making, bigger productions. When I go to London I try to see as much that’s not West End as I can as well. There’s a lot of creativity out there, it’s just not always in the obvious places.
Ken: You just said something which I found pretty interesting. You said you don’t have any friends in the theater industry. As someone who loves it so much and is so involved you’d think you’d have lots of friends. Is that by choice?
Ben: Totally, yes. You can’t really write about someone you know. It’s just too uncomfortable. My parents were friends with Julie Harris so I was never actually able to review Julie Harris, who was an idol of mine when I was a kid. Occasionally there are certain anecdotes I drag out at this moment. A friend of mine gives great dinner parties, beautifully simple dinner parties, and she was giving a dinner for Simon Russell Beale, the British actor, and he had just come to New York and was doing Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night in repertory, and my review came out and she called and said, “It’s a great review. Can’t you come? It’s a great party.” And I said, “Oh, alright.” He’s English, it’s a slightly different relationship, I think, the theater industry has with the critics there. So I arrived and we’re all standing in the living room with our cocktails and someone sees Simon and me in the same room and says, “Wait a minute, you guys aren’t supposed to be in the same room, are you?” And someone else said, “Oh, I think it’s alright. Didn’t he just write that Simon was the greatest classical actor of his generation?” And Simon said, “No, he said perhaps the greatest classical actor of his generation.”
Ken: That must have made for some interesting conversation afterwards. And since then, no friends in the theater. No more cocktail parties.
Ben: Occasionally you’ll sit down besides someone you reviewed, just inevitably. If you go out, you do see people. But I don’t even like to interview people who I’m going to be reviewing later because you have a kind of insider’s information that’s not quite fair, and you’re emotionally invested, I think, in them doing well for reasons that don’t suit a critic.
Ken: I want to go back and ask a question about that policy of reviewing out of town and reviewing in . . . that’s a Times policy, right? I’ve always wondered why that is, only because sometimes I think, whether they like it or don’t like it, wouldn’t it be great to have two totally different perspectives, just to put them side by side?
Ben: Well often something will move. I mean, for example, I don’t think Charles was all that keen on Fun Home, which I loved obviously, and so if that had come to Broadway and he had reviewed it and said, “This is nothing” . . . I don’t think he would have but you know what I mean, it would have been much more respectful. Especially if it’s been a very encouraging review that has helped producers decide to bring it in, it doesn’t really seem fair to give it to someone who might possibly slam it.
Ken: That’s a very good point. You just set the policy that way, you get it either way. I remember when I first moved to the city and started going to see shows, sometimes you got two reviews. You got Sunday reviews, right?
Ben: You did, and I’m sorry that doesn’t exist anymore. I liked there being different voices. Even after I became the first string critic, Margo Jefferson was doing it for a while on Sunday, and then Vincent was doing it on Sunday, and I don’t know why that was discontinued, but I sort of miss it.
Ken: Well we’ll try to bring it back. Everyone write letters to the editor of the Times . . . “Bring back the Sunday review!” So obviously Tony season has just ended which, this period of time, March, April, has got to be the busiest time of the year for you.
Ben: It is.
Ken: How many shows a week do you see?
Ben: Maybe five.
Ken: Five shows. Is it tiring?
Ben: No, I do more in London actually. There I’ll see 10 or 12 shows a week because you can, because of the way matinees are staggered. I suppose you want to collapse at the end, of it but you do get into a groove and momentum builds, so it’s self-perpetuating. You worry about getting careless, just in terms of spellings and factual things, if you’ve been on a blitzkrieg. I wouldn’t want it to be like that all year, but there’s something kind of exhilarating about a concentrated period of openings like that.
Ken: And what do you think about reviewing and how it’s changed? How long has it been? You started in 1993, so over those few decades now, how has writing a review or reviewing in general changed for you?
Ben: I think it was beginning to change even under Frank Rich, in that you couldn’t take the public’s interest in theater for granted anymore. It used to be such a central part of the New York conversation, and it hasn’t been for a long time. I think you have to raise your voice a little more. I think you have to be more emphatic. Also we’re in a culture now where people don’t like nuanced opinion. Some people may respect it, I certainly do, but it confused people. They want to go, “Did you like it or did you hate it?” Really, it’s one extreme or the other.
Ken: It sounds like a website . . .
Ben: Yes it does! The reviews I’m usually proudest of are mixed reviews, so-called mixed reviews, because they’re the hardest to write, the way you balance it and let people extract what they will. We’re obviously a much more celebrity-driven culture than we were when I started. There’s always been that aspect to America, but it seems to be dominant now. If there’s a famous name in the cast you make sure the famous name in the cast is mentioned very early on in the review. I think that’s, unfortunately, essential. Also there’s a much bigger community of critics, even as the professional critics are shrinking in number. Anyone can set up a website or use a Twitter account to project his or her own opinions. So there is a big garden of different voices screaming to be heard out there and if you’re willing to do the research – that is, visit a number of sites – you might find someone whose tastes are perfectly in tune with yours. That’s not why I read criticism, personally. Even when I was a kid I didn’t read criticism to know whether I should see something or not. It’s not so much as a consumer, I just like the dialogue it creates in your mind, which I think is still ideally what it should be, but if you’re writing for a daily newspaper you are, to some extent, a consumer advocate.
Ken: Have you poked around any of the message boards or other sites?
Ben: Oh no, that way madness lies.
Ken: What do you think about the current state of Broadway right now? If it was a patient in a hospital, if you will, would it be dying, critical, healthy?
Ben: I think it’s pretty robust. There have been some transfusions recently that I think have really helped it. If you look at the slate of Tony nominees this year, it’s encouraging. The shows that won . . . Fun Home for Best Musical and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time for Best Play . . . each is a show, in its genre, unlike anything that’s been on Broadway before, and I find that incredibly encouraging, and my hat’s off to the Tony voters for going in that direction. Curious Incident is sort of a no-brainer because, even though it’s fairly technologically advanced and is ingeniously showing the point of view of an autistic teenager, it nonetheless has sort of both the spectacle and feel-good qualities that I think people want in a hit play. But it’s highly original and it’s using, I think, technology in a way that hasn’t been used before. And Fun Home . . . it’s not just the subject matter, it’s the scale of it that I think makes it such an unlikely winner. It’s a very internal musical, very interior. It’s the landscape of someone’s mind. They both are, in different ways. I enjoyed last season. Again, the winner for best revival, Skylight, a fabulous revival, one of the best I’ve seen in years and probably David Hare’s best play. I made a case for that. So I was pretty happy at the end of the season.
Ken: Did you predict An American in Paris would win?
Ben: I did.
Ken: So you must have been quite surprised.
Ben: I was surprised. I was pleasantly surprised, as my math teacher said whenever I got anything right on exams.
Ken: We talked a little bit about stars on Broadway. We’ve also seen an infusion of star writers, if you will, over the last several years, from Sting to Larry David. What do you think about these big star names coming into Broadway?
Ben: The proof, I suppose, is in the box office receipts. Larry David didn’t get great reviews for Fish in the Dark but, especially as long as he was in it . . . I think it was as much a matter of his presence as his byline, so to speak, that brought people in. Sting . . . well, it’s great that he wants to try. Sheryl Crow is working on a musical now, a lot of people from other disciplines. Steve Martin is working on a musical now that’s coming in. Why not? I think it’s nice when theater has a slight coolness quotient, when it’s something that people actually want to do. You could say that it’s also a place where dead stars go to have their careers reborn, but I don’t really think that’s true. I mean when Julia Roberts made her Broadway debut that wasn’t the reason. It was just something she wanted to do. Nicole Kidman, I think it actually really did help, professionally. Theater is a testing ground and it’s good, I think, that it challenges people who are already proven successes in other fields.
Ken: Do you ever get angry letters from producers or actors?
Ben: Well, sure. Actually, the nastiest responses have been public responses. Josh Brolin, accepting an award years ago for Best Supporting Actor, I think . . . maybe it was for Milk or No Country For Old Men . . . when he accepted his award he said, “Oh, you critics, I don’t really care too much, except for Ben Brantley. God I hate that motherfucker.” And I didn’t know anything about it until the New York Post called me the next day or sent me an e-mail.
Ken: Riedel, he sent you an e-mail.
Ben: It wasn’t Riedel, no, it was someone from page six, which would have heard about it, because it wasn’t really Riedel’s beat. So I said, “Well, for what it’s worth, I’ve really liked his work.” It was actually a review of True West in which he’d replaced Philip Seymour Hoffman, which was a really tough thing to do, which I acknowledged in the review, but they just weren’t ready to do it. And it had been maybe five years since then and obviously he was still smarting so I said, “For what it’s worth I’ve really enjoyed him as the guy who tried to kill Harvey Milk and as the raging guy on the lam in No Country For Old Men. He really seems to have found something constructive to do with his anger,” and I got an e-mail from him, I think that day, saying, “Loved your comments in the Post. No harm, no foul. xx.” And we’ve been sort of e-mail acquaintances since. Alec Baldwin wrote something for The Huffington Post, basically saying I should be put to death, and James Franco, after what was actually not a terribly mean review for Of Mice and Men. What was it he called me? A little bitch? In an Instagram post, saying no wonder the whole theater world hated me. It’s kind of fun when that happens. It gets people talking. It makes it seem sort of like we’re still living in the All About Eve era. It’s nice that it evokes that kind of passion from people. Does it personally hurt my feelings? No, not something like that.
Ken: It’s so obvious to me, even in this short conversation, how much you love the theater and also love writing about the theater for the theater and hoping it can continue to foster. Will you just keep writing and writing? Is your idea to just keep being the critic for as long as you can keep writing?
Ben: I guess. I spent a lot of time, before I was at the Times, doing profiles of people, interviewing people, and I did learn that whenever they predicted something they would almost invariably be wrong, so I have learned myself never to predict what’s going to happen with me. But if it all stopped tomorrow I have gotten to do exactly what I wanted in life. I have no complaints.
Ken: In all your years of theater going, I won’t even say as a critic, if you could only see one production that you’ve seen already again for the rest of your life every day . . . in other words, what’s your most favorite thing you’ve seen?
Ben: Oh, that is so tough. Because of course it’s also much a matter of when you see it, what’s happened up to that point, so you’d have to put yourself back in time at that point too. I was so happy at Book of Mormon the first time I saw it. I was so moved by Janet McTeer’s performance in A Doll’s House. But I think if it were one show it would be the Globe Theater’s Twelfth Night with Mark Rylance.
Ken: That’s a very interesting point you just made about the timing of things, when you see something that resonates. That’s what’s great about theater. You’re bringing into it and you take away. Have you ever seen something, let’s say a play ten years ago, and you were like, “Eh, that’s okay.” And ten years later you see it again and go, “Oh my gosh!”
Ben: Again, that’s the glory of theater, one of the glories of theater. It exists in the present moment, and it’s a confluence of so many different elements. True West . . . I didn’t see the early production but it was famously disastrous, the Sam Shepard play, when Joseph Papp directed it at the Public Theater, and then suddenly it’s reborn through Steppenwolf, because there are people who have an understanding of it. It becomes exciting. I’ve mentioned A Doll’s House with Janet McTeer. At the time I went to see that, I thought, “Oh, not another Doll’s House,” and suddenly it seems reborn. I think the best revivals . . . I mean there are perfectly pleasant revivals, passable revivals, but I think the best ones are the ones that do make you rethink and say, “But this is new.” Or one response is, “This must have been what it was like to see it when it opened, even though it’s been retranslated for our times. This is the kind of energy and newness it must have had, the freshness.” I thought even the current revival of On the Town, when I saw that out of town in the Berkshires in a small summer theater . . . because people had been trying to get that right for so long . . . I thought, first of all, you realize the show is about sex, which really wasn’t clear in other revivals. And it’s about horny sailors on shore leave, suddenly making connections and knowing it could all be over very quickly. And I found that very moving this time around, which I hadn’t expected. Once, the musical, when I saw it downtown at the New York Theatre Workshop, I liked it but I didn’t love the book. I still don’t love the book, even though I adore the guy who it, Enda Walsh. I think he’s a marvelous playwright. But when I saw it on Broadway in a bigger space, with things scaled up just a little bit, I thought, “This is so cool, to have this on Broadway. And it’s a new vocabulary in musicals, it doesn’t sound like any other musical,” and I found myself not only liking it more and appreciating it more but being more moved by it the second time around. People say, “Do you ever think you were wrong?” and the arrogant answer is no, because what you’re doing is you’re writing about what you saw, as you saw it at that moment, and that changes. As I said, the glory of theater is that it changes from moment to moment. No performance will ever be the same and you will never be the same person who sees the next performance.
Ken: Fascinating. Anything this season you’re looking forward to? Can you tell us what you’re looking forward to this coming year?
Ben: I’m looking forward to seeing Hamilton again. It will be interesting to see that in a larger theater. You were asking me what the last year was like for me . . . it was incredible to have that, too. Again, things that keep changing the vocabulary at a moment where you think the musical is sort of falling down, an outmoded form, then something like Hamilton comes up, or Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 or Preludes by the same composer, Dave Malloy. There’s life in the old gal yet.
Ken: Okay, last question. I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin . . . you didn’t review Aladdin, did you?
Ben: No, I didn’t review Aladdin.
Ken: Did you see it?
Ben: I haven’t seen it, no.
Ken: So we can’t ask for your official comment. So the genie from Aladdin shows up at your office in the East Village and says, “Ben, the passion you’ve shown for the business and your incredible writing . . . you deserve a gift. No more angry letters from Alec Baldwin . . . I want to give you one wish. One wish.” What drives you so crazy about Broadway or the theater? What keeps you up at night, the thing that makes you angry that this genie could, with the snap of a finger, make disappear? What would be the wish that you ask for?
Ben: Inflated ticket prices, I’d ask to disappear. I’d like Broadway to be more accessible to more people. I think it would be a much more interesting place if it were, if people didn’t have to worry so much about charging so much and justifying the cost of admission.
Ken: A very good answer. I’ll see what I can do about it. Ben, I want to thank you so much for being here and also just thank you for your passion. I have to say that, even when I don’t agree with you . . . and I actually agree with you more often than not . . . I always love reading your reviews. They’re so well written and obviously your love and your passion really shine through each and every single one of them. So thanks for being here, thanks to all of you for listening. Don’t forget to subscribe, we’ve got great people coming up. Thanks so much!
Ken: Thanks for listening to this week’s podcast, everybody. Don’t forget, if you’re looking for space for your reading, your workshop or your full production, check out DavenportTheatre.com. That’s DavenportTheatre.com.
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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.