It's not just Bill Marx, really. It's The Boston GLOBE.
I don't think anyone at the GLOBE --- not even Bill Marx --- really hates theater in Boston. It's not that they're hateful people; they just do hateful things.
It wouldn't matter much if the GLOBE weren't so powerful. It's not that Boston is a one-newspaper town --- not yet, anyway --- but apparently the people who spend money on theater all read the GLOBE, and those who don't read the PHOENIX. So I'm going to try to tell everything I know about the GLOBE in an effort to explain why it matters so much to me what their writers say about the friends of mine who try to make theater in this city.
About thirty years ago when I reviewed plays for BOSTON AFTER DARK, the wife of the person who founded the paper (Joe Hanlon; his wife was Marsha Wishney Hanlon) was assistant producer at The Theater Company of Boston. Since I worked for a weekly that was rising in clout, she asked me to come to a rehearsal of their new show (I think it was "Benito Cerreno"), so my review wouldn't be a full week late. So I did, said it was unfinished when I saw it, but turned in a positive review which ran in Thursday's paper.
Later Marsha told me about the week the show opened.
My review was positive and came out Thursday, the day after the play opened. Samuel Hirsch reviewed it in Friday's HERALD-TRAVELLER and it was wishy-washy negative. Eliot Norton reviewed it in Saturday's RECORD-AMERICAN (this was before those "four" papers merged into today's HERALD) and it was wishy-washy positive. But the word was out that the show had opened, and as each review came out, more and more people phoned TCB to make reservations.
On Monday Kevin Kelly's review appeared in the GLOBE. It was a clear pan --- and that afternoon forty people called TCB to cancel their reservations.
That is P o w e r.
The Boston GLOBE is the biggest, loudest megaphone in town. Who is allowed to speak through it, and what sort of things get said, are tremedously important.
Rosann M. Weeks, one of half a dozen gifted directors who have worked in Boston, once told me that she could predict audience-size by my good or bad reviews in B.A.D., and also that though her Hub Theatre Centre had been open a year, doing a new show every five weeks, I was the only one who ever came to review them. So I sent a letter to Gregory MacDonald --- he was the GLOBE's Arts Editor and hadn't written any of those "Fletch" mysteries yet --- asking why his paper paid no attention to about ten smaller off-Broadway-size theatres here (this was about 1970). He called me with some very straight-forward observations.
He said first that, were the GLOBE to follow the advertising-money, they would only review movies and pop-music and records. They were only being magnanimous in giving any space whatever to galleries, concerts, plays or books.
Second, he said the GLOBE couldn't do these small companies any good, whatever they said. "If we pan them, they collapse; if we praise them, all their talent goes to New York and they collapse anyway. Either way, they lose."
Nonetheless, about a year later the GLOBE hired William A. Henry III to cover those small companies Kevin Kelly distained to notice. Bill moved on to reviewing television, and I think got a Pulitzer as the first serious critic to add cable shows to his coverage of the three networks. He went on to do arts reporting for TIME Magazine.
In about 1975 a friend suggested I try writing freelance interviews for the GLOBE and I went in to talk about it with someone. The subtext of his advice was that they'd read anything I sent them, but it would have to be damn good before they'd buy it. But then he said Mr. Winship was waiting to talk to me.
I was astonished, and even more astonished when the first thing he asked me was "All right, what would you do if you were Arts Editor of The GLOBE?"
Greg had left the paper --- somewhat unexpectedly --- and WAS writing his "Fletch" books, but I knew I couldn't do his job, nor did I want to try. Stumbling, I told Winship what Joe Hanlon my original editor and mentor had always said --- that anything a reviewer said should be backed up by examples from whatever was being reviewed, and that describing what you'd seen was a reviewer's job just as much as a reporter's.
"Exactly!" he enthused, "Get that opinion in, first and fast and hard, and then back it up."
I said, no, for me opinion wasn't important. Describe a show accurately, I said, and people would know exactly what you thought whether you expressed an opinion or not.
I didn't get the job.
People move on from the GLOBE. Kevin Kelly didn't.
The GLOBE's theater coverage hasn't yet recovered from Mr. Kelly's long tenure on the paper. He joined the paper in the '50s, when both Boston and its three newspapers were pivotally important in the Broadway-tryout circuit. Producers back then had to sign up a year in advance to get a two-week slot in any one of the three big tryout theatres here, and when they opened in Boston what Eliot Norton and Samuel Hirsch and Kevin Kelly said made economic ripples in The Big Apple.
As I said, P o w e r.
When new at the job, something Kely said rankled David Merrick, who gave orders that the GLOBE's new reviewer would not be allowed to see any of his productions ever again. Kelly sneeked into a theatre in Philadelphia and wrote a glowing review of "Subways Are for Sleeping" and Merrick relented. But he learned early that the power to make-or-break a Broadway production was something he enjoyed.
Then, by the middle 70's, Broadway shows stopped stopping by Kelly's bailiwick on their way to opening --- for economic reasons, though I've been told avoiding Kelly's capricious wrath did have a little to do with it. Instead of being a gate-keeper to fortune, Kevin Kelly found himself a big fish in a dwindling puddle.
He wanted to be Clive Barnes, and he should have been; his tastes and temperament and his ego were New York in size and style, and if papers weren't dying down there he might have had a shot at it. Certainly whenever any critic on a New York newspaper quit or retired or died, Kevin Kelly's resume was on the editor's desk before the body was cold. No one gave him a shot at being power-broker down there where he "coulda been a Contender", and in the hometown of the Redsox anything the home teams put on the boards were beneath the great man's contempt. If only Mr. Kelly had gone on to New York, both he and theater here in Boston would have been much better off.
Kelly's econo-tropic fascination with Manhattan still dominates the GLOBE.
The week that the A.R.T. gave the world premiere of a new play by David Mammet right here in Cambridge, Ed Siegel instead went down to write His reviews of several shows on Broadway --- none of them newly opened. His own rave review of Mammet's "The Old Neighborhood" ran below the fold, while his opinions of stuff down south got bigger space at the top of the page.
Mesmerized by Manhattan as they are, none of the Boston reviewers have been content to let the local teams determine what success and failure means. One of Ed Siegel's first major articles bemoaned at great length Boston's inability to fill the vacuum left by absent Broaway try-outs. With friends like Ed cheering them on, why would the Lyric or the Publick or Centastage or Speakeasy or Sugan or Java or Threshold or New Neighborhood or Wharf Rat or New Rep or NSMT or Huntington or A.R.T. even want to try?
Of course, critics are Always concerned more with what's Not there than with what is. Even Skip Ascheim, who at least reviews the plays instead of reviewing only himself, conforms to what seems to be the GLOBE standard form: "This production has both good things and bad things. Let's talk about all the bad ones first." Not even Tom Winship decreed that the opinion that should be gotten in "first and fast and hard" had, always, to be a negative one. The GLOBE's editors, certainly the GLOBE's reviewers, think so --- though, oddly enough, the headline-writers often go out of their way to highlight the positive no mater what the reviewer's first paragraph says.
The fact is that there has never been a perfect production nor a perfect play. "There are flaws here" isn't news. But an unremitting concentration on flaws-first helps no one --- especially not those sixty-five audiences I've sat in since January already who really liked what they were seeing. Unless a critic is really prepared to help those people enjoy what they see MORE, what's all their quibbling carping for?
Last year I was present when some Boston critics gave an award to someone as best in the field; I was truly surprised to hear the acceptance speech, which defined for me the state of affairs between the creative theater people working here in Boston and the people commenting on their work.
"We had lunch once, years ago," the recipient said to the critic. "You told me then that reviewing theater in Boston was like being buried in --- shall we say excrement? --- up to the chin, and hoping every time that no one would kick your head under the surface once again. I assume you're giving me this because I kicked your heads under less often than anyone else. Thank you very much."
In my opinion, just whose head is being kicked by whom is very much the other way round.
( a k a larry stark )