Jersey Boys ~ theatre notes

Monday, July 06, 2009

Jersey Boys

My review of Jersey Boys is in today's Australian.


Avi said...

Hi Alison,
I know I've not participated in the blogosphere for a while, but I still keep my Google Reader busy by reading what everyone else is saying.

I've freely admitted how much I admire you as a reviewer but I cringed when I read the first paragraph of your Jersey Boys review in The Australian. If musicals are "just not your bag", why review them? Surely you're going to be watching music theatre shows with a bias that prevents you from being really objective about the piece?

The fact that you gave Jersey Boys a favourable review doesn't change the fact that you opened the article by stating that you don't like musicals. Therefore, your review is tainted with your disdain for the form, and no amount of glitzy costumes and showy numbers is going to change that.

I've always found it a little frustrating that musical theatre is kind of poo-pooed among the 'legit' theatre and artistic communities in Australia. I constantly get into conversations with friends and colleagues who only "do" fringe/indie/mainstage theatre where I find myself defending music theatre as a valid art form, worthy of more than just providing "a great night out" for middle-aged bogans.

I can't help but think there's an underlying classism in your review and what seems to be your attitude towards musicals. Of course - yes - commercial musicals like Jersey Boys are, for the most part, targeted at the suburban middle classes (at least, those who can afford the steep admission price), looking for pure, unashamed, uncomplicated entertainment. But to mention the fact that your osteo is from Taylor's Lakes - and loves musicals but cannot afford to go - automatically creates a divide between she and you, the cultured, inner-urban, artistic type, who finds music theatre boring and kind of vacuous, and drags her feet to review the opening night of a show lots of people would die to see.

I'm aware you qualified your statement by saying you felt guilty about being so unexcited at the prospect of going. But my question is, why should you have to? Surely there are other freelance critics who tolerate - or hell, even actually LIKE- musical theatre, and would be more than willing to offer to write reviews of those shows in the country's national paper?

Please understand that I'm not asking you to qualify why you don't really like musicals - I know it's a matter of taste. I have never pretended to love the jukebox megamusical (just one element of the music theatre genre) and have not yet seen Jersey Boys either here or overseas. I just find it really interesting that critics (not just yourself) are asked to review shows whose genres they don't really value, and wonder why music theatre in this country seems to bear that misfortune. I feel it negates an otherwise positive review to say, "Hey, I don't like musicals...but if you do, this show is great!"

Once again, I want to stress that this comment comes from a place of admiration and respect, and curiosity rather than criticism. I really like music theatre, and it excites me. I would love to read a review by someone who felt the same.

- Avi

Alison Croggon said...

Erm - Avi, I'm sorry to have made you cringe; but did you read the entire 400 words, or just stop at the first paragraph? You've misunderstood me pretty badly. I clearly had a great time at Jersey Boys. Where did I say that the musical was not a "valid artform"? (I actually called it an artform - the "quintessentially American artform", as I recall. Which it is.). Where was my review of the show negative, or ignorant of the musical form? I'm not especially a musical nut, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate excellent stagecraft and performance when I see it, nor that I can't enjoy a show that does the full showbiz number.

Aside from having a little fun at my own expense (and hopefully amusing one or two readers, rather than as is my wont enraging them)... there is a serious subtext to my playing about. Yes, I wasn't especially looking forward to it. Yes, I was coming from a place of privilege, and that little conversation made me realise that I was wrong to do so. Do you think that there isn't a divide between a reviewer who gets free tickets and goes to the swisho opening nights, and the punter who just loves musicals and saves up for the ticket? Isn't it better to acknowledge that gap (most reviewers don't but that doesn't mean that it's not operating), and to be reminded that there's a lot of point to what I said were the naive pleasures of seeing a show? If you read a sneer in that, you're quite mistaken: if anything, I'm being self-critical there. That thing of naive pleasure is at the core of all my reviewing, especially when I'm most serious. Still, it needs a little shot in the arm now and again. Not every theatre goer sees as many shows as a critic, and even with the best of intentions it's too easy to get jaded.

Just as a side note: the indie people I know who heard I was going to Jersey Boys were all enthusiastic. So I'm not sure that the dichotomy is as sharp as you think. And as a writer I am certainly not an art snob: I write poetry for sure, but I am also a pretty successful genre writer in the daggiest of literary forms, Big Fat Fantasy Books. I know that popular doesn't necessarily mean stupid.

And if you read me regularly, you'll know I've never pretended to be an "objective" critic. I don't think there's any such thing. Every critic comes from his or her own values, otherwise what is the point?

Born Dancin' said...

This is a fascinating exchange. I have to agree with both sides, in a way. I do think there's a slightly dismissive tone to the review - a "hey, great show if you like that kind of thing" - but that's leavened by the ironic or at least self-deprecating aspect of the piece.

At the same time, I don't think you need to be a fan of a form to review it; in fact, I sometimes think that I hate theatre, musicals, ballet, all the rest. I think this can be a constructive approach - I like to go into a show expecting the worst, and being pleasantly surprised.

I think it's easier to argue that a critic should more importantly be *well-versed* in a form in order to review an instance of it... although that's another thing I'm in two minds about.

And in closing, may I remark that I absolutely loved Jersey Boys, which was a sterling example of musical theatre and of theatre more generally - some of the jokes in there were sharper than most stuff you see in straight comic plays, and the various narrative threads were were finely woven.

Avi, I think you'll love it - although it's perhaps more Scorsese than Sondheim (JOE PESCI IS A CHARACTER IN THE SHOW).

Alison Croggon said...

Hi BD - I'm a bit sorry the review comes across as dimissive - the perils of leading with a persona in the space available, I guess... the comedy of my having my snobby expectations blown up doesn't come across enough, obviously. (Mental note: polish my style). But I just read it again, and I just can't see how describing a show as "showbiz genius" or "brilliantly realised" &c adds up to dismissive! As our mate Eliot said (in a properly sepulchral voice): between the intention and the reality falls...the shadow...

Born Dancin' said...

Don't get me wrong - the review isn't at all dismissive of Jersey Boys. Quite the opposite, obviously.

I just think Avi makes a very reasonable point about the way that blockbuster musicals are reviewed in Oz more generally - as if there's less to say about the art of the musical than other forms. Didn't mean to single out this review as some kind of exception.

I'm as guilty of this as anyone else. And until a couple of years ago you would have had to drag me kicking and screaming to see a musical, until I saw a bunch of great ones, learnt a little more of the history and scope and rules of the game, and thought 'hey, I like music and I like dancing - maybe I *do* like musicals!'

I also think that if I don't like a particular form of art and other people do, then it's me that's lacking something. That doesn't invalidate my reaction but I'm more interested in finding out why I don't enjoy something that has other people raving. That needn't get in the way of actual criticism - I was pleased to have Andrew Bolt attack me for slamming a musical last year. Pretty sure I got why people loved the show, but I deeply disagreed with them.

Still don't get Sondheim though.

Alison Croggon said...

Well...yes and no. There's exactly the same amount of space for a musical as for King Lear. (More, actually; I had to do a double barrel review of the RSC's Lear and The Seagull...) And re tone: whether my approach was off-beam or not, it would be weird to approach Jersey Boys as if it were Sarah Kane...

A blockbuster musical gets enormous coverage compared to your average show - there's the gossip column fodder/celebrity aspect as well as crits - so it's kind of hard to see them being hard done by in the mainstream media, really. And that's fed by the nature of the artform. It's Broadway, after all - that means the Event and the Spectacle as much as everything else. There's a longer conversation here to have about values - the musical is the commercial artform par excellence, and it would be equally wrong to ignore how that can end up being a problem in the artistic equation. Michael Billington, bless him, has a lot to say about that, and he's not just being an old fogey. (I'll confess here to a rather deep fondness for Sondheim, who really is a fine artist.)

The only artform I really don't get, pace Woody Allen, is hardcore mime. It's probably a deep personal failing, but even Marcel Marceau just baffled me. That doesn't mean, as you say, that it's not interesting then to approach writing about such things.

Anonymous said...

I think this all comes down to the preconceptions that a person has when reading a review such as this.

If you come to the review with a "people are out to dismiss musicals" mindest, then I can see why such a person would find this article dismissive. You said, Alison, that you can't see how describing it as "showbiz genius" adds up to dismissive - but if you were reading it from this mindset, I would guess that the sentiment behind such remarks could be misconstrued. People who don't find musicals a valid artform would make arguments such as "it's purely commercial, and for entertainment only", and even though you did not mean this, "it's Entertainment with a capital E" is very similar to those arguments, is it not? Someone with such a mindset could read every praise that you give this musical as "it's great...for a musical". I think this idea is reinforced because you mention at the start that you're not a fan of the form, then go on to never actually use the word "I" in a sentence when you're praising it (and in this mindset, comments such as these are amplified).

If you have an "I love musicals" mindset, then the extra "...for a musical" wouldn't be added subconsciously as you read it, I would think. Such a mindset would think that you are heaping far higher praise than usual on Jersey Boys because you mentioned you normally don't like musicals.

But far be it from me to tell you how to be a critic!

I can't help but wonder, though, if you had written this article but replaced "musical" with "Shakespeare", "Beckett", or "country music", whether there'd be the same uproar?

As for hardcore mime - have you seen Paris Je T'Aime (a collection of short films about Paris)? There's a great mime short film in that!

Avi said...

Just the kind of exchange I hoped to trigger. Thanks to you both for contributing - really interesting discussion. I hope it continues.

I totally agree with BD that your Jersey Boys review wasn't dismissive in itself - as you acknowledged, it was more the tone of the piece that I took issue with. It was a really positive review and I'm glad you gave it the praise it clearly deserves.

I don't agree, though, that the fact that commercial musicals get all the shmancy opening night / celeb gossip / pop-star appearance hoopla means that it deserves any less attention from critics whose job it is to judge its substance as well as its spectacle. Terry Teachout, Ben Brantley, Charles Isherwood and many more make their livings from critiquing Broadway shows - from Little Mermaid to the Light in the PIazza - as though they were worthy of the same analysis and attention as the great works of (straight) theatre of the last century. I think in general Australia still views music theatre SOLELY as Event and Spectacle - even though all three of us have acknowledged it can be much more than that.

But hey - all is forgiven - it's great to know you love Sondheim.

Born Dancin - we've got some work to do...

Avi said...

Sorry, epistimysics, you beat me to it - very valid points you make.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Avi and EP - yes, it sure has sparked an interesting discussion. I think, on reflection, that the killer line is "my osteo would love it", which might suggest that I didn't... not that I intended that, but yes, it could be taken that way. The other issue is a crude segue from the pseudo-Ms TN persona to a more conventional, let's-get-down-to-business critical voice. That's the missing "I", meaning, I'm a Serious Critic now...again with the unintended ambiguity (I don't know how interesting all this is for anyone else, but it's kind of interesting for me... One of the most interesting and difficult aspects of writing is ambiguity - you want it where you want it, and emphatically not where you don't, for just such reasons. On the other hand, there's no way of controlling how one is read, and frankly, neither should there be, writers' dreams notwithstanding - reading is always a dance between the writing and the reader, and the action occurs, like theatre, where the two perceptions meet. Admittedly, sometimes the results are confounding but that's human beings for you.)

No, I don't think that the celeb stuff means musicals deserve less attention Avi: I'm just pointing out that they do get attention. And many musicals simply don't merit the same attention as "great" works, which makes them no different from any number of other contemporary works. All the same, don't you think there's something troubling in the US dominance of the commercial musical? Commercial theatre used to be (and still is in some places) a more diverse ecology than it is now.

No, haven't caught up with Paris Je T'Aime. Mime? Aaargh...

Joseph Gomez said...

Y'all (yes I am from Texas) are fascinating to read. I posted a blog linking to your exchange here.

simbo said...

Well, throughout the 80s and early 90s the Britsh dominated the commercial musical (well, technically Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh did) to considerable US chagrin - and even now, the brits have an ability to stick an oar in occasionally (Billy Elliot, for example)

But it is true that the commercial non-musical is an endangered species... whether it's to do with most of the more commercial overseas hits going straight to the state theatre companies (partially so) or to the decline in straight commercial genres like light comedy, farce and thrillers is open for further debate...

Alison Croggon said...

When I started going to the theatre as a clueless young thing, in the mid-to-late 80s, a fair proportion of what we now call independent theatre - ie, new Australian work - was driven by Hocking and Wood, a commercial compamy, which co-produced independent shows. Which is just about impossible to imagine now... And certainly part of the reason for that is, indeed, because the state companies began to program commercial works to keep their coffers balanced; and no commercial operator could compete with the subsidised companies in that field.