In Moss Hart's famous 1948 comedy "Light Up the Sky," a group of paranoid producers labor out of town trying to fix a flawed but embryonic Broadway show before it moves to New York. The tryout is taking place in Boston -- but for all that the principals notice about the outside world, it might as well be taking place on the moon.
Hart was writing from his own experience. Throughout Broadway's roughly 100-year history, the out-of-town tryout has been a cherished tradition. Even though pre-Broadway runs usually sell tickets close to Broadway prices, it has been axiomatic for years that major New York critics give shows a free pass until their official Broadway openings. Conventional wisdom has held that big shows need and deserve time to get their acts together.
But that safe zone is eroding fast. Some say it has disappeared altogether.
Consider the experience of "Movin' Out," the Twyla Tharp dance-oriented musical based on the songs of Billy Joel that's currently in out-of-town previews at the Shubert Theatre in Chicago.
The New York Post sent its theater reporter, Michael Riedel, to cover the Chicago opening July 19 (the show began previews for paying audiences June 25; New York previews begin Sept. 30). And while Riedel did not formally review the show, he let his readers know that he thought the piece was in trouble. "Any reader with half a brain," said Riedel, "could tell what I thought."
Broadway.com, one of the many new Web sites covering theater news and gossip, provided pungent excerpts of the reviews by Chicago critics for its national audience of theater fans. Of course, in this age of the Internet, interested parties now can pick the reviews up from the publications' Web sites.
And, New York's Newsday, which is a Tribune Company newspaper and has access to material by Chicago Tribune reporters and critics, pubished theater critic Michael Phillips' Chicago Tribune review last week. Since that broke the standard practice of New York-area papers not reviewing out-of-town tryouts, there have been howls of protest from New York producers. Phillips' overall reaction (like many other local critics) was that the musical, especially the first act, had problems.
"I thought it was despicable for Newsday to pick up that review," said Barry Weissler, a Broadway producer with no direct connection to "Movin' Out." "A show is in such a vulnerable situation when it opens out of town. That was a low blow."
"It's a bad precedent," said James L. Nederlander Jr., one of the producers of "Movin' Out." "It was not cool."
Cheryl Kushner, entertainment editor for Newsday, sees the situation differently. "There's a lot of interest in Billy Joel here in New York," she said. "We ran the review because it was news."
Riedel, who argues that the idea of an anonymous out-of-town tryout now is "dead and gone," says that the protests would never have come if the review in question had been more positive.
"During the tryouts, shows try to create as much hype and positive buzz as possible," Riedel said, arguing that it's only fair and reasonable for journalists to provide an outside assessment of the veracity of that buzz.
"They sell tickets in New York ahead of time," Riedel said. "To ask those of us who cover New York theater to sit on our hands over a $10-million musical until opening night in New York is absurd."
In actuality, there are many other examples of New York newspapers covering out-of-town shows. The New York Times reviewed "Sunset Boulevard" in Los Angeles. And even though "Hollywood Arms" at the Goodman Theatre was widely assumed to be a pre-Broadway engagement, no one had any problem with New York critics filing reviews.
Still, some see this issue as a matter of mainstream journalistic ethics -- which require reporting the news without regard to so-called "gentlemen's agreements -- bumping up against the notion that artists deserve and require some nurturing.
"For genuine, creative theater to come in to New York, it has to be developed out of town," said Michael Janeway, director of the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University.
"I think it's perfectly legitimate for New York theater people to say that there is a tradition that should be respected."
"They're only looking for a sense of fair play," said Robert Simonsen, a New York-based reporter for Playbill On-Line. "There seems to me more and more interest in the theater press in filing a juicy story about a show out of town. There's a lot of piling on. They should give these shows a chance to grow."
Following the Newsday publication of the Tribune review, the show's local representatives put out the word that if the practice continues, Chicago will lose its growing reputation as a major tryout town for Broadway shows.
The producer Nederlander said that was not true. "I'd come back to Chicago in a second," he said. "We came to Chicago to work on the show and we are not going to stop until we leave. We got some reviews in the middle of that process and much of it was constructive criticism. It's water under the bridge. We're all moving on."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun