WHAT DO CRITICS KNOW? By Peter Filichia
Matthew Gurren and James Campodonico have a point.
They’ve written a musical called WHAT DO CRITICS KNOW? which I fondly remember from a presentation. It came to mind while I was perusing Anthony Slide’s SELECTED THEATRE CRITICISM, VOLUME 3, 1931-1950.
I don’t own Volumes One and Two, and have no idea if there were ever Volumes Four, Five or more; this is the only such Slide book that I’ve found.
At least I was able to see what some critics thought of shows that opened during that nineteen-year span of the twentieth century.
Steven Suskin covered some of this ground in his magnificent OPENING NIGHTS ON BROADWAY, where he culled a few paragraphs from reviews. But Suskin started in 1943, so Slide gives us a dozen earlier years.
More to the point, Suskin quoted famous critics: Brooks Atkinson of the Times, Walter Kerr of the Herald Tribune, John Chapman of the News among them. Slide far more often than not selected critics much more off the beaten Broadway path.
And if you read them, you may see why they didn’t rise to the top. Hey, what do critics know?
Actually, some Kerr reviews are included, but ones that he wrote for The Commonweal, a Catholic periodical, some years before he landed at the Herald Tribune. In his rave to GUYS & DOLLS (“real superiority”), Kerr made an observation that may have you scratching your head even if you did have a thorough shampoo this morning. “Frank Loesser,” he wrote of the show’s composer-lyricist, “draws on his background in folk music.”
“Folk music”?!?! Which of us would choose that term to describe Loesser’s contributions to Hollywood and his two musicals that had by then reached Broadway?
When Kerr reviewed CALL ME MADAM, he took issue with “a straight campaign song, ‘They Like Ike,’ which seemed to me in such gratuitous bad taste that I would have sworn that it would have killed the show or Mr. Eisenhower’s chances” to become the nation’s next president.
“So far it hasn’t hurt the show,” he admitted. “I am waiting to see what happens to Eisenhower.”
In fact, Eisenhower served two full terms, which only seventeen men before him had managed. When he won the first time, some political observers felt that “They Like Ike” actually helped his name recognition.
Taste was also an issue with Oliver Claxton when he reviewed PAL JOEY for Cue: “The lyrics supplied by Lorenz Hart in ‘Bewitched’ and ‘In Our Little Den of Iniquity’ hit an absolute low of bad taste.”
What would Claxton have thought of a song in SILENCE! – the musical spoof of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – in which Hannibal Lecter describes his extraordinary sense of smell?
Thomas Brailsford Felder, also in Cue, thought Mary Martin in SOUTH PACIFIC was “reminiscent of Tallulah Bankhead.” To be fair, Martin famously worried that pairing her with Ezio Pinza would cause the musical to have “two basses.” But listen to that original cast album and you be the judge.
Irene Kittle Kamp – yet another Cue reviewer – wrote that “ANNIE GET YOUR GUN is not in a class with OKLAHOMA!, CAROUSEL or BLOOMER GIRL.” Her first two comparisons remain solid, but BLOOMER GIRL, for better or worse, has fallen by the theatrical wayside. And while the two Rodgers and Hammerstein hits that she lauds have passed the test of time, no score in Broadway history has ever yielded as many hits and standards as Irving Berlin’s 1946 effort.
Louis Kronenberger wouldn’t have predicted that. In writing for PM, he stated that “Berlin’s score is musically not exciting. Of the real songs, one or two are tuneful.” Too bad that he didn’t tell us which ones struck his fancy and which – for him – didn’t pass muster.
Actually, one critic may teach you a detail: Baird Leonard in Life magazine. In reviewing GREEN GROW THE LILACS – the sixty-four performance flop that became the 2,212-performance OKLAHOMA! – let readers know that Aunt Eller’s surname is Murphy.
Meanwhile, I’m still trying to decide if Gilbert W. Gabriel in – you guessed it – Cue was trying to be funny or was simply inaccurate when he referred to the source material that gave us the tuneful musical GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES as “Anita Loos’ hardy old bedtime classic.”
Those who know and love PINS AND NEEDLES (and which of us does not?) might assume that DeWitt Bodeen in a publication called Script made a mistake in giving the title of a song he admires: “Dear Beatrice Fairfax” is clearly “Nobody Makes a Pass at Me” (sung by a young Barbra Streisand on the heavenly 1962 studio cast album). But a look at the original Playbill shows that indeed “Dear Beatrice Fairfax” was the title then given that song. Perhaps composer-lyricist Harold Rome purposely chose a vague title because the more logical one would have given away the joke in advance.
Cue’s Irene Kittle (apparently before she married and became Kamp) approved of CAROUSEL but hastened to add that “for those who like a little more meat on the table it may prove a trifle disappointing.” I’d say that in “Soliloquy” alone – let alone the rest of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s magnificent score – there’s enough meat to fill the type of enormous pig with an apple in its mouth that was standard fair at medieval dinners.
The famous quip “Everybody’s a critic!” is once again reiterated in an interview with Duke Ellington. Concerning PORGY AND BESS, his opinion a couple of months after the opera opened was that “the music did not hitch with the mood or the spirit of the story.” What’s more, Ellington insisted that Gershwin “borrowed from everyone from Liszt to Dickie Wells’ kazoo band.” And to add insult to insult, Gershwin, he said, “missed beautiful chances to really do something.”
We can forgive Ellington, for he didn’t make his living as a critic, but George Jean Nathan certainly did. Indeed, each year one or more writers win a George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism. He felt that PORGY AND BESS “lacks the sufficiency of soaring wings” and that Gershwin was able “to confect better than usual popular Puccini-flavored music.”
(And you thought those Puccini comparisons began with Andrew Lloyd Webber …)
Not all of Slide’s selections demonstrate that the critics missed the mark. Robert Benchley in The New Yorker said of ANYTHING GOES that Cole Porter was “in a class by himself and by ‘class’ is meant ‘class’. In ‘You’re the Top,’ he has exceeded even himself as a writer of original lyrics, and unless I do not know my theatergoers, the town will soon be driving itself crazy trying to memorize the sequence of items indicating ‘top.’ In this one song, he has summarized American civilization better than any symposium of National Thinkers has ever been able to do.”
Then there’s the review of BABES IN ARMS by Herbert Drake in, yes, Cue. (That magazine apparently went through critics the way the rest of us go through Kleenex.) “Nearly every tune in the show seems to have the requirements which will endear it to radio audiences as well as showgoers. Put in your memory book such items as ‘Johnny One-Note,’ ‘Way out West,’ ‘Where or When,’ ‘That Lady Is a Tramp,’ ‘I Wish I Were in Love Again’ and ‘Imagine.’”
Luckily, because of recordings, we don’t have to imagine.
And Theophilus Lewis – not of Cue, amazingly enough, but of a magazine called America – said that FINIAN’S RAINBOW was “imaginative, melodious, humorous, colorful and grand.”
He’s right; the FINIAN’S songs are grand – and not just grandish.
Yes, sometimes critics DO know something.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.