Critics’ vision bounces between effusive and elusive

While one season may falter, the legit trend looks good for the long haul

It’s a Broadway ritual: As soon as the Tonys end and the summer tourist season starts, some legit pundit feels compelled to publish an essay on the Death of the American Play or the Total Demise of Broadway or the Musical Has Lost Its Voice.

Crix lamented the recently
concluded Broadway season, but there are plenty of high notes upon closer scrutiny:

n The decade produced tuner
hits “Billy Elliot,” “Hairspray,” “The Producers,” “Spamalot”
and “Wicked.”

n First works may falter but talent emerges. Consider
David Yazbeck, Adam Guettel.

n Timing is everything:
“Spider-Man” wasn’t ready,
while “Minsky’s” and
“Scottsboro Boys” regrouped.

But critics have been writing these obituaries so often and for so long that it begs the question: Why are they writing about an art form that, in their opinion, has been dead for at least 40 years? Don’t they have something better to do with their time and talent? Like, maybe, write a review of “Glee”?

It’s odd when critics complain about the dearth of original musicals but deliver orgasms in print for songbook tuners like “American Idiot,” “Come Fly Away” and “Million Dollar Quartet,” as well as the second-rate “Finian’s Rainbow.” That’s not a C+ season on Broadway. That’s an f-ing legit orgy.

Maybe it wasn’t a great season for musicals. But looking back at the past 10 years, the output has been impressive — certainly better than what Broadway produced in the 1980s and 1990s when AIDS continued to ravage the industry. From 2000 onward, there were professional, well-oiled vehicles like “Billy Elliot,” “Hairspray,” “The Producers,” “Spamalot” and “Wicked,” as well as more daring and, in some cases, groundbreaking works like “Caroline, or Change,” “The Light in the Piazza,” “Next to Normal,” “Passing Strange,” “Spelling Bee” and “Spring Awakening.” With their novel books and pastiche scores, “Avenue Q” and “Urinetown” existed somewhere between the two camps but nonetheless continue to be well worth seeing.

Sometimes talent takes time. It runs on its own clock. (Remember when Stephen Sondheim was called a first-rate lyricist, a second-rate composer?) David Yazbek’s score for “The Full Monty” from 2000 did not impress, but his music and lyrics five years later for “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” marked a big step forward. Can’t wait to see what his next one, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” brings in the 2010-11 Broadway season.

Critics didn’t support a great talent like Adam Guettel in his initial Broadway offering, then raved about the revivals of Arthur Miller’s first play, “The Man Who Had All the Luck,” or Sondheim’s first tuner, “Saturday Night” — works that are, at best, mere curiosities.

Critics often make the mistake of writing about a season as if it were a horse race. With movies and television, there’s at least some logic to this approach because there are hundreds of projects to choose from. But on Broadway, there are always only a handful of shows in any one category. So what if the six or eight new musicals that managed to open sucked? It doesn’t say much about the overall quality of the art form other than to reveal that “Spider-Man” didn’t get its financing together, a star chose to do a musical revival instead of a radically retooled new “Minsky’s” and the producers of “The Scottsboro Boys” decided to wait for an appropriate theater rather than open prematurely to make some arbitrary Tony cutoff.

Of course, as Mrs. Cole Porter once famously observed, her composer husband was never up to his standard, according to critics. “Can-Can” wasn’t up to “Kiss Me, Kate,” which wasn’t up to “Panama Hattie,” which wasn’t up to “Anything Goes.”

And pity poor Sondheim, who consistently got trashed by Walter Kerr when the maestro was cranking out his 1970s masterpieces, from “Company” to “Sweeney Todd.”

It’s hard to knock critics for not getting the future right. But 20/20 hindsight would seem to be a job requirement.

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