There’s a new place for New York theater reviews.
Those aren’t words you expect to hear these days, not as traditional media outlets scale back their theater coverage and more and more critics lose their full-time posts. But now a group of longtime reviewers — all veterans of city papers — has banded together to create New York Stage Review, a website that’s pushing back against criticism’s demise.
Launching March 20, just in time to catch the spring wave of big Broadway openings that began last week with “Escape to Margaritaville” and continues this week with “Frozen” and “Angels in America,” New York Stage Review comes online with some 20 pieces of criticism about recent spring openings. Reviews of new shows will post as opening night curtains come down — the same time reviews post at traditional media outlets.
“We want to keep our voice, and we feel that we need to keep encouraging good, interesting theater,” said Steven Suskin, the critic and musical theater historian (“Second Act Trouble,” “The Sound of Broadway Music”) who’s written reviews for Variety and HuffPost.
New York Stage Review is the brainchild of Suskin and Jesse Oxfeld, the former theater critic at The New York Observer, who had the digital publishing experience (at companies like Vox and Tablet Magazine) to oversee development of the site. “We really wanted it to be a well-designed, professional, serious site that takes a group of people who are professional writers and critics and stands out from amateur or enthusiast sites,” Oxfeld said.
There’s no funding for New York Stage Review — at least not yet. The critics on board the project are ponying up for the site’s development costs (in the low four figures) with the intent of figuring out a financial model once it’s up and running. Ad-supported, of course, is one possibility, as is the idea of filing for nonprofit status.
Along with Suskin and Oxfeld, the site’s roster of writers at launch also includes Elysa Gardner, who was the theater critic at USA Today for 16 years; Michael Sommers, formerly of New Jersey’s Star-Ledger; and David Finkle, who’s written on the arts for publications including the Village Voice. Over the years, all of them have found themselves out of a regular criticism job as the media landscape has changed.
“It’s been a remarkable, and a remarkably fast, shift,” noted Adam Feldman, the theater and dance editor at Time Out New York, who is also the president of the New York Drama Critics Circle. “Arts coverage, and especially opinionated arts coverage, looks like an easy cut if you’re a media outlet making budget adjustments under difficult circumstances. So unfortunately a lot of really valuable voices are being lost, and in some cases, decades of experience and perspective.”
“I think the enormous reduction in the number of critics makes it incredibly hard to sell shows, especially plays.”
The people who make theater can feel that loss, too. Andre Bishop, Lincoln Center Theater’s artistic director, has voiced support for New York Stage Review, as have playwright Doug Wright and busy stage and film producer Scott Rudin (“Hello, Dolly!,” “The Book of Mormon”).
“There’s a profound need for it,” said Rudin. “I think the enormous reduction in the number of critics makes it incredibly hard to sell shows, especially plays, where you really need them.”
For most productions, New York Stage Review will have more than one critic weigh in. That’s taken from the playbook of The New York Times, back when the paper ran both a first-night critic’s take and then a second-opinion, Sunday review by another critic — a tradition that began when Walter Kerr jumped to the Times after the New York Herald Tribune shuttered.
Each review on the new site will also have a star rating — the better to highlight the shows that score five stars. “It just seems right for expressing enthusiasm,” Suskin said.
Look for the first new reviews to post when incipient Disney blockbuster “Frozen” opens March 22.