Gossip and rumor – they’re the Scylla and Charybdis of the Broadway tryout, as treacherous as temperamental stars, second-act problems and tightwad producers can be on the way to opening night. OK, so gossip goes with the territory, and has since the heyday of Winchell and Wilson and Sullivan. Of course, there were scores of shows coming and going in a given season back then, and no one mistook the columnists’ zingers for anything other than the ox-goring and ax-grinding they were. The actual reviews of those shows were generally written by others.
When both roles – gossip monger and reviewer – are published under the same byline, the result is considerably more insidious. Yet just that unholy situation is on the increase these days. Take for example the following passages, which appeared recently in a season preview in a New Jersey newspaper – which is to say a paper whose readers constitute a prime part of Broadway’s target audience:
“Tommy Tune might as well start looking for his next gig.” And, later on: “Nobody has a good word for ‘Busker Alley,’ in which Tune plays a street performer. The producers, having nervously changed titles – the show was briefly called ‘Stage Door Charley,’ and then ‘Buskers’ – have decided to get to the core of the problem, hiring writer Peter Stone to fix up the story and persuading Tune to take over as director from his protege, Jeff Calhoun. But since everything – from Tune’s minimal chemistry with leading lady Darcie Roberts, to the songs by Richard and Robert Sherman – has been raked over the coals, it would seem that only divine intervention can keep ‘Busker Alley’ from bombing.”
Fair game in a gossip column, those comments were written by Robert Feldberg, the paper’s longtime first-string drama critic. Does it matter that he qualified his comments by saying he was just reporting the “buzz on Broadway”? Probably not to the readers of the Bergen Record; with that first sentence, they were effectively advised to write off a major entry in the coming season. And probably not to producers Fran and Barry Weissler, who will soon be sending reviewers’ tickets to someone who’s already done an awfully good job of torpedoing a show he hasn’t seen.
Most reviewers double as news and feature writers, and in truth we can only pretend we’re coming to opening night free of some advance impression of a show. Nevertheless, the “good, lowdown fun” Feldberg indulged in by passing along the latest gossip strains any notion of objectivity. It certainly gives anyone perusing his upcoming review of “Busker Alley” ample reason to wonder whether it isn’t tainted goods.