Asta Muzzled Again; Crix Bark

“Nick & Nora” may soon be visited by uninvited guests.

The buzz on Broadway last week was that several critics were unhappy about the latest postponement of the $4.3 million tuner’s opening. They raised the possibility of ignoring the new opening date and reviewing the show as is, which made the show’s producers frantic.

The new opening – Dec. 8 – is two months (at full ticket prices, $60 top) after the show began previews Oct. 8. It was to open Nov. 10. Producers announced recently that the addition of new songs and script rewrites would necessitate a delay until Dec. 2.

But the Dec. 2 opening, says “N&N” press agent Jeffrey Richards, was faulted by critics and cast members for coinciding with Thanksgiving weekend. Richards cited Newsday chief critic Linda Winer and WCBS-TV’s Dennis Cunningham as the “most vociferous” in their opposition to the holiday weekend press performances.

Not true, says Winer. “I’m an orphan – I would have gone on Thanksgiving night if I had to.” She wasn’t disturbed about the timing, she says, but about the delay.

Cunningham also denies being “vociferous,” saying he told Richards he would be out of town and unable to review the show during the Thanksgiving weekend. When he offered to attend a performance on Wednesday, Nov. 27, and hold his review until after the Dec. 2 opening, the offer was rejected, he says. He adds that he then told Richards “I’ll just see it when I can see it,” intending to review the Dec. 4 performance.

Grace period

Previews, by Broadway tradition, constitute a grace period during which producers and creative staffs get to fine-tune their shows prior to official preems and critical evaluation. As recently as the 1970s, advertising stated the show was in previews, and tickets were discounted – practices long since dropped.

This would not be the first time critics have taken matters into their own hands. In 1983, The New York Times, the Daily News and the Associated Press, acting in concert, chose to review the Doug Henning musical “Merlin” two weeks before its much-postponed opening. Other reviewers followed suit, citing full ticket prices and an advertising blitz as proof that the show had, in the words of a Times editor, “gone public.”

Although there’s been no critical groundswell of the force that prompted the press to band together and storm “Merlin,” some reviewers aren’t ruling out that possibility.

“I think it’s disgraceful to charge $60 for the privilege of seeing artists trying to finish their work,” Winer says. She also knocks newspaper ads for “N&N” that don’t identify the performances as previews.

Audiences can tell

“We don’t disguise the fact that we are in previews,” says Richards, adding that theater audiences are “savvy and sophisticated enough” to understand the difference between previews and post-opening performances.

The producing community loudly decried the preview-busting of “Merlin,” as it did in 1979 after pre-opening reviews of the much-delayed “Sarava” went to press. Both “Sarava” and “Merlin” were panned by critics and disappeared soon after.

Most producers also argue that previews typically cost more to run than shows after opening, and that discounting tickets puts the show at a financial disadvantage. “N&N” has been playing to capacity houses, and has a strong advance well beyond the New Year.

By Dec. 8, the tuner will have been in previews nine weeks, one week more than the breaking point for “Merlin.” “N&N” has been heavily advertised and widely discussed, and even assuming New York audiences are savvy enough to know the difference between pre-and post-opening performances, the same can’t necessarily be said for holiday tourists.

Winer says she would consider taking part in a preview-busting movement for “N&N.” Others seem to have a wait-and-see attitude. Frank Rich, chief drama critic for The New York Times, said Nov. 7 he had no plans for a pre-opening review.

The type of press consensus that busted “Merlin’s” previews has not coalesced, in part, Rich acknowledges, because competition among entertainment journalists has grown fiercer in recent years.

“The next time might not be a concerted effort,” says Rich. “Someone might just break out to scoop everyone else. There are a lot of piranhas out there. Can the gentlemen’s club hold up indefinitely?”

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