Changing Universe of CriticsBy Carol-Ann Rudy

Ever wonder just what you can expect of a Broadway production on Opening Night?

To whom do you turn – your neighbor who has attended a preview but whose opinion you wouldn’t accept on a comparison of the merit of paper products, let alone the artistic and entertainment value of a new production?

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Or a renowned critic?

Oops, you can’t rely on the professional critic, because he’s in the same boat you’re in. Until Opening Night, he can’t voice an opinion. He can’t comment on the production because of the long-standing tradition that producers do not allow the press to attend until Opening Night. It has been a tug-of-war: on one end of the rope, the production’s need to gauge a live, paying audience’s reaction and the opportunity to make improvements. On the other end, a fair and balanced evaluation by a critic, published, for the paying public. The conundrum for the theatre patron is whether or not to shell out the money for an unknown quantity – and quality.

A survey of Broadway shows from Feb. 26 to August 26 of this year turns up these results:
there were 317 previews
5,357 performances from Opening Night to closing on Aug. 26
a total of 5,674 performances
the number of previews compared to the total of performances is about 5.5%
Regardless of the numbers, critics still count at the box office.

It used to be that shows would preview off Broadway, fine-tuning the production before arriving on the Great White Way. This practice involved much greater expense, hence the shift to the practice of previewing on Broadway, often running for four weeks before opening. Lately, there’s been a twist on previewing, calling productions “developmental,” and “in workshop.” The end result is the same: the press is in the dark and the theatergoer too. But it appears a shift is taking place in the tug-of-war.

That shift is modern technology, the proliferation of blogs, and the posting of theatergoers’ opinions on those blogs. If you or your neighbor attend a preview, there’s nothing to stop you from posting your opinion of a production, and nothing to stop anyone from reading it and choosing to attend – or not. So why not allow press access to plays still in development, and scrap the preview system, so the customer can have the benefit of the professional critic’s assessment?

As a customer, you have to assess the paper products – money – in your pocket and at the box office. It may be that you want to know the opinion of a professional critic you can trust.