Why Broadway still needs reviews more than other mediums.
Fact: reviews do not make or break a show.
As much as it feels like they do, they just don’t. John Caird, the original director of Les Miz, was just telling me how Les Miz was crushed by the critics when it first opened. And we all know how that turned out. Wicked didn’t get great notices either. And yep, it works the other way around, too. Last season’s revival of Side Show got a fantastic set of reviews. So did the revival of Finian’s Rainbow. And both of them closed prematurely.
It’s been this way forever, but in the 21st century, or the “age of the audience” as I call it, professional reviews in all art forms have even less of an impact (I’ll leave you to decide whether that’s a good thing or a not-so-good thing – click here to hear what Ben Brantley thinks). Audience reviews (Yelp, TripAdvisor, Rotten Tomatoes, etc.) are another story, but the power of the critics is just not what it used to be.
Film certainly doesn’t count on ’em. TV? Ha. When was the last time you tuned in to a television program because you read a great review?
But here on Broadway we still need ’em. And here’s why.
We all know that positive word of mouth is what propels all products to success. Hands down, it’s the best and most powerful form of advertising there is. I’d take 1,000 people raving about my show over a 100,000 piece direct mail any day of the week.
But word of mouth isn’t instantaneous. It takes time. And because the theater isn’t a one-click purchase that appears on your phone or at your doorstep in a few seconds, positive word of mouth takes even longer to take effect. Think about it. When was the last time someone told you that you HAD to see something? Did you whip out your phone and buy tickets? Run to the box office, pushing grandmothers to the ground, to make sure you got a front row seat? No. Maybe you did more research, or asked a friend if they wanted to go, or more than likely, you just waited, until you saw an ad or five that reminded you that you needed to go.
It takes time.
Because of the extremely high price of producing a show on Broadway, shows can’t sit around waiting for word of mouth to hit. We need a jolt of big business much sooner to ensure we can sustain ourselves until our word of mouth takes hold (or we need a super low-cost show).
Reviews are that jolt. There is still a large group of people that do read those reviews and do what those reviewers say. And when a show gets a good set of reviews, it’s like a steroid shot of sales. The reviews dump money into the box office fast, boosting the grosses to sustainable levels, while we wait for the audience to make up their mind about whether the show will be a longer runner, or a short term success.
But take heed . . . just like steroids, reviews wear out. If the word of mouth on your show is not good, even with a great set of notices, the shows won’t work. As a high powered Broadway exec. once told me, there’s nothing you can do if an audience has decided they don’t want to see your show. Pithy, but truthy.
So yes, we’re getting away from our dependence on reviewers, but don’t be so cocky to not give them and their writers the respect they deserve. Because until we can reduce the cost of running a show on a weekly basis (good luck to us all), we will always need reviews to get our nose up in the air. Whether we get to our destination or not, well that still, and will always, depend on the audience.
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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.