Pundit departure has theater watchers wary

In the Gotham legit world, critical mass keeps getting lighter.

A string of departures in the Broadway critics corps, several of them spurred by the attrition of print media in the struggling economy, has left old-school observers questioning the longevity of theater criticism as a journalistic institution.

With the power of print reviews already lessened by the rising prominence of the chorus of Internet voices, legit scribes find themselves in the same boat as film critics, also prey to the fall of print media.

Will theater suffer? The critics certainly think so. But others in the legit community are similarly concerned, fearing media coverage of theater will become increasingly marginalized and business will be hurt in the long run.

They worry, too, that lowest-common-denominator product will take over, because worthy alternatives will wither without discerning critics to point the way.

Sans those critics to take them to task, producers may be further encouraged to dumb down new offerings in their efforts to craft large-scale hits. That worst-case scenario could rep another nail in the coffin for commercial productions of risk-taking new fare on Broadway, where untested work often survives only when anointed by the press.

The exodus over the last couple of months includes Jacques le Sourd, who was let go from the Hudson Valley’s Journal News; Michael Sommers, who took a buyout at the New Jersey Star-Ledger; Eric Grode, who lost his gig at the New York Sun when that paper folded; Jeremy McCarter, who ankled New York magazine to become a cultural critic at Newsweek; and Clive Barnes, a major figure in performing-arts journalism who died after 30 years as theater and dance critic at the New York Post.

When the dust cleared, the New York Drama Critics Circle, the group of journos that hands out stage kudos every spring, had suddenly been reduced to 18 from 22. (While losing that quintet, they added one Village Voice scribe.)

“Pretty soon we’re going to be an alumni organization,” cracks Linda Winer, the NYDCC member who is the longtime critic at Long Island-based paper Newsday.

For many Broadway shows — particularly large-scale musical versions of a familiar property — reviews are becoming less vital.

“I’ve watched the importance of quotes diminish over the last 20 years,” says Nancy Coyne, topper of Broadway ad agency Serino Coyne.

Newspapers still hold sway over older audiences. But for a younger target demo (think recent shows with teen appeal including “Spring Awakening,” “13″ and “Legally Blonde”), the opinions of traditional critics are less important.

As coverage migrates to cyberspace and the Internet’s voices-of-the-masses forums attract more Web-savvy theatergoers, it’s the online critics whose profiles are rising.

However, Broadway still skews toward the older end of the spectrum — and that goes double for straight plays.

The spring sked is packed with a number of nonmusical offerings, including new works “33 Variations,” “Impressionism,” and “You’re Welcome America. A Final Night With George W Bush.”A large percentage of audience members for those plays will certainly have an awareness of the critical response. These projects, however, are star-driven: “Variations” stars Jane Fonda, Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen topline “Impressionism,” and “Bush” showcases Will Ferrell. For these, the profile of a big-name thesp in the cast can equal or surpass the effects of reviews.

Take the current revival of “All My Sons,” which earned mixed press, including a particularly unimpressed notice in the New York Times. Despite that lukewarm reception, the play has consistently been the top-selling straight play on Broadway — thanks to a supporting turn by paparazzi magnet Katie Holmes, whose ubiquity in celeb rags (walking Suri around New York on the way to rehearsal; emerging from the stage door after a perf) has bestowed an immeasurable boost to “Sons.”

It’s also worth noting that for a majority of play fans, the publications that have winnowed down their legit critics serve as a secondary chorus to the voice-of-God evaluations in the New York Times, whose critics have long been the 800-pound gorillas on the scene.

And as many in the industry point out, reviews are only the first step in building word of mouth, generally considered a show’s real selling point (and for which the advent of Internet forums has been a boon).

“Initially, critical reception is very helpful,” says Jeffrey Richards, a press agent who in recent years has turned to producing with plays including “August: Osage County,” “Speed-the-Plow” and the upcoming “Reasons to Be Pretty.” “But ultimately it’s word of mouth that will determine the success of the production.”

Still, for many shows strong reviews are crucial to getting the ball rolling.

Several industry watchers expect a consolidation of critical power as the ranks thin and more publications (such as the Star-Ledger and the Journal News) consider picking up the reviews from wire services Associated Press and Bloomberg News.

Many legiters envision a future in which Michael Kuchwara, the AP legit critic, rises to greater prominence by virtue of the fact that his copy is picked up by an increasingly wide array of outlets.

Meanwhile, New York Drama Critics Circle prexy and Time Out critic Adam Feldman foresees a boost in stature for some online scribes. “As the media landscape changes, the Circle changes with it,” he says. (The org traditionally has been open only to print and major wire service reviewers.) Traditionalists fret that paradigms are shifting for good — and legit discourse will be worse off.

Some worry that publications are giving up the power of a singular voice associated with a particular newspaper or magazine. “It does concern me, because a critic has a personal perspective that can engage the consumer, who consequently begins to appreciate that critic’s particular point of view,” Richards says.

Others journos worry that theater will be increasingly ghettoized as coverage shifts to the Web. As Winer points out, those who visit theater blogs already know they’re interested in theater — they’d have to be in order to have sought out the sites in the first place. On the other hand, a newspaper reader could, while flipping through the day’s edition, stumble across legit coverage that might unexpectedly grab attention.

“The newspaper is a mosaic,” she says. “You browse. What we’re giving up is the possibility of reaching a mass audience.”

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