When the publicists for the Broadway revival of “The Music Man” starring Hugh Jackman announced that theater critics had to see the show on opening night, the pushback might have baffled people who don’t pay attention to New York theater.
Don’t critics routinely attend opening night?
No, they don’t.
Opening night doesn’t mean what it used to. Indeed, some argue that it’s become nearly meaningless now. And if the “silly hoops” of “the latest stunt” (as Washington Post critic Peter Marks called “The Music Man” announcement ) are inconsequential, they bring up issues that have been a sore point among some theatergoers and theater critics for years
Here are seven facts meant to clear up the confusion, and explain the controversies.
- Opening night is still an occasion for cast and crew to bring out the champagne, and for producers to get some publicity for their show. But it used to mean both the night the critics attended a performance and the night their reviews came out in the newspaper; they had just a few hours after attending a show to write it up. That reportedly stopped happening some time in the 1970s. Now, “opening night” generally signifies just the night the reviews come out online (or the next day in print publications.) Usually now, critics attend earlier performances (and agree to keep their reviews under wraps until opening night, honoring what is called an embargo.) “The Music Man” is the single exception.
- What this changed practice has meant for critics, at least theoretically, is that they have more time to think about the show and produce more considered reviews. This is not, apparently, of great concern to Rick Miramontez, the head of the publicity firm promoting The Music Man. He issued a statement, printed in an article on the opening night decree in Deadline: “We feel just terrible for offering dozens of theater critics premium seats to a Broadway show. I am sure they will simply loathe having to tell their grandchildren about the time they were forced to witness Broadway history in the making. Most of all, it pains me personally to imagine the burden of having to turn around a review on such a tight time table — has such a feat ever been attempted before? Well, let it be seen as the greatest vote of confidence by this production in our beloved press corps that we think they just might be up to the challenge!” This feels a notch or two too far to register as good-humored.
- The earlier performances that critics usually attend are called previews.
A Broadway show’s official opening night is never its first performance in front of a paying audience. That first show is called the first preview. Broadway producers use previews the way they used to use out-of-town tryouts — to see how an audience responds, what works for them and what doesn’t; also to continue fixing structural, technical and other challenges. The creative team will sometimes (but not always) make changes to the show. But that’s only until opening night; at opening night, the show is “frozen” until the end of the run. That’s one of the few things opening night still means.
The preview period varies in length. To pick the most pertinent example, “The Music Man” revival began previews on Monday, December 20th and scheduled an official opening night for Thursday, February 10, 2022 – more than seven weeks of previews. An extreme example is the preview period for “Spider-man: Turn Off The Dark” which was seven months long, a record; it had 182 preview performances by the time it finally opened. Why? There are two answers: They wanted time to fix the show. They wanted to sell as many tickets as possible before the critics weighed in.
- If the general public and even some frequent theatergoers no longer understand the difference between a first preview and an opening night, there is a reason for this. Shows rarely publicize or promote the distinction. It’s not in their interest to do so.
- The ticket prices before and after opening night on Broadway are almost always the same. That’s not the way it used to be,( as an article in the Wall Street Journal in 2010 explained.) Tickets were cheaper during the preview period until the 1990s — as they still are during preview periods in other world class theater cities, such as London. Given that a preview performance can be (but won’t necessarily be) beset with flubbed lines, tech mishaps, and scenes that are later omitted, or new ones later added, this Broadway practice of charging as much for previews as for regular performances, bugs a lot of people, if the response to my two Tweets about it is any gauge.
- Even under normal circumstance, most theater critics aren’t invited until after the opening night. That’s true of “The Music Man” as it is of most Broadway shows. The so-called “second night” as opposed to “first night” critics (although they can be invited a week or more afterwards) comprise the majority of those invited to review the shows on Broadway. This puts such critics at a competitive disadvantage, given how theatergoers largely pay attention only to those reviews that come out on opening night – a situation exacerbated by the rise of the Internet.
- Indeed, the new media landscape – the Internet and social media — is a large factor in turning opening night into a quaint anachronism, in several ways. Social media influencers and the denizens of online chat rooms start offering their reviews of these shows from the very first preview.
It also makes clear how outdated the critical hierarchy the publicists persist in imposing. Reviews on the websites of legacy publications (i.e. newspapers) don’t necessarily get more traffic than those in online-only publications. And the critics without big corporations behind them are more likely to offer the more diverse perspectives that most everybody in the theater community is at least giving lip service to wanting. Critics dismissed as “second night” often write just as well and know just as much about the theater.
If the people in charge of New York theater want change, there IS an opening to do so.