NEW YORK — The Broadway season drew to a close last week, as chatter continued to revolve around the strange fate of “Gypsy,” the Sam Mendes-helmed revival of the landmark musical that outran its outrageously bad word of mouth and seems poised to become a hit.
It certainly will if the New York Times has anything to say about it.
And it is saying a lot.
The show received a love letter review from Ben Brantley in the May 1 Times, in which he said star Bernadette Peters had pulled off “the coup of many a Broadway season.” Frank Rich’s Arts & Leisure column May 4 focused on the show (but not the production).
Then on May 5, legit reporter Jesse McKinley wrote a festive article on the front page of the arts section, describing the show’s triumph over adversity, in which he referred to the critical response as “almost unanimous.”
Problem was, it wasn’t, quite.
The Times was indeed joined in its enthusiasm by critics for the Post, the Associated Press, USA Today, Gannett Newspapers, New York magazine and the New Yorker (as well as Peter Marks, ex-Times, now at the Washington Post).
But there were negative notices for the show — and/or Peters — in Newsday, the Daily News, the Wall Street Journal, Newhouse Newspapers, the Chicago Tribune, the Village Voice and Variety.
(It was actually “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” — and its leading lady, Vanessa Redgrave — that garnered across-the-board raves.)
Oddest of all, Michael Riedel, the New York Post columnist who had persistently bashed the show in his twice-weekly column, and whose reporting was obliquely referred to in many reviews (both positive and negative), seemed to do a bit of backtracking in his column on the day after the show’s opening.
He wrote, “The miracle has happened: Bernadette Peters finally managed to tap into her inner Mama Rose” on the night the Times critic was in attendance. (Riedel was not there to witness this, however.)
Arthur Laurents, author of the show’s book and director of its two prior Broadway revivals, opined at the opening-night festivities that the show’s negative pre-opening buzz may have worked in its favor.
“The vitriol spread in the columns, and there was a backlash,” he says. “It helped us.”
Indeed, more than one review gave significant space to describing the brouhaha that preceded the opening.
Brantley devoted no fewer than four paragraphs of his review to nasty gossip “on the Web and in the tabloids,” as he put it, which included tales of backstage bickering, miscasting, Peters’ missing perfs with a cold and the show’s awards snubs.
“Without my swinging away at it every day, this show would have opened and closed,” Riedel says.
So what does the buzz mean in the end?
“It depends on what you finally deliver,” says “Gypsy” producer Ron Kastner. As for droppings from the early-bird gossips, he says, “They always shoot up. They don’t shoot down.”
Would “Gypsy” have gotten less bad buzz if Peters’ first go at the role of Mamma Rose had been delivered out of town?
Laurents doesn’t think so. “Because of the Internet, it doesn’t make any difference anymore,” he says.
And producer Robert Fox says an out-of-town engagement would have been “very expensive.”
In addition, “If you have Bernadette for a year, you want her here,” he says.
But is she really here?
Peters canceled four of eight performances during opening week. It was reported that she was suffering from a cold. Luckily she recovered in time for the critics’ previews, but that was cold comfort to disgruntled ticket buyers.
Peters then missed four more performances the following week — she was out the day that celebratory New York Times piece ran, as well as the two following days.
A press release said she was “battling a respiratory infection that has re-occurred.” She was expected to return May 8.
But given that some of the pre-opening buzz had discussed Peters’ vocal health and her ability to sing the role eight times a week, the absences could be ominous.
A ticket buyer at a performance Peters canceled reported long lines and much bitterness at the box office.
That can’t be very good news for the producers.
The show was capitalized at $8.2 million. “But it came in for $7.5 million,” Fox says.
Still, it is a complicated production, with a large cast and the attendant running costs. Even without refunds being given out when Peters misses shows, it will be a long haul to profitability.
And most big musical revivals have not fared well in recent seasons.
Last season, “Into the Woods” and “Oklahoma!” proved unprofitable. This season, “Flower Drum Song” quickly shuttered, with “La Boheme” and “Man of La Mancha” on a B.O. rollercoaster ride week-to-week.
As for “Gypsy,” its numbers are respectable, if not record-breaking: The pre-opening advance was just under $6 million, and ticket sales over its post-opening weekend almost topped $1 million.
Previews may have been hell, but now the really tough part begins for “Gypsy.”