Shrek Attack

What’s the point of not letting critics in during the first 3/4 of a show’s run?

So what's the buzz on Shrek: the Musical? I'm asking because the show hasn't been reviewed yet; it's in preview at the 5th Avenue. Or should I say still in preview; they began selling tickets back on August 14th, and it doesn't open till September 10th, at which point it'll only be in Seattle for a week and a half before packing up to head to Broadway. Critics are invited for opening but not before, one of those "gentlemen's agreements" accepted by those of us who work in theater but which seems ridiculous and arbitrary to those outside of it.While this seems an awfully long time for a show to go without a print review, it's pretty typical for New York, where for years theaters have been stretching the preview period for their shows. There are still occasional dust-ups when various New York papers get disgruntled with this arrangement and send their reviewers off to buy an early ticket, resulting in producers complaining, journalists justifying, and readers—well, generally oblivious. (I hate to say it, but a lot of my readers didn't seem to notice the difference between a preview written before I'd seen a show, and a review written afterward.)So why not send a critic to a preview, even if she has to buy her own ticket? The entire Seattle run of Shrek, just like Hairspray, The Wedding Singer, and Young Frankenstein before it, is basically an "out-of-town tryout," a calculated attempt to get the show looking good before the New York theater critics get hold of it. (No disrespect meant to my fellow writers, but New York audiences don't really care what any of us think about this show.) The producers are going to be monkeying with the songs, script, and everything else even after it leaves here. So why shouldn't critics see the show early? With maybe a proviso saying "We know this is a preview, but this is pretty much what you can expect to see come opening night?"Personally, I think it's a bad idea. First, it increases the underlying antagonism that already exists between critics and artists. Then there's a good chance your criticism will be inaccurate by the time opening night rolls around. "Act One drags"—then two days later they take three songs out of it. "Act Two's romantic resolution is unconvincing"—then the scene order's changed and suddenly it works. But most important, there is almost always a qualitative difference between a preview and an opening. I don't know if it's the actors or the audiences or the extra pressure on everyone involved to do their best, but anyone who's done more than a couple of plays knows that there's an extra sprinkling of art that's held in reserve for opening night.But it's certainly true that something's a bit rotten about the way Shrek's producers are conducting themselves. They've shown some reticence to publicize that these are indeed previews and that the show's still unfinished. During the show's first previews, several actors were on hand to run a Shrek flag up to the top of the Space Needle. That's a pretty big photo op for a show that hasn't even opened. It's also worth noting that tickets to these previews are only $6–$10 less than for the show after opening night—they're charging $25 to $80 for the previews, $31 to $90 after September 10. That's just the producers being greedy. No other word for it.But while critics are quarantined from writing about the show, the same hasn't been true of bloggers—though a quick search reveals only a dozen or so blogs that contain "reviews" of the show. Several of these are hosted on sites set up by "secondary sellers" (the polite word for scalpers), and, wouldn't you know it, they're all positive. As for independent bloggers, there isn't much of what you might call informed critical writing. Here's a typical one, from "After dinner we headed over to the theater on 5th to see Shrek. The rest of the guys didn't seem to like it but I loved it. Basically it was the movie with songs so there really wasn't a chance I wouldn't like it. I can't wait to get the soundtrack on my iPod." The writer's not claiming to be a professional critic, which is good; this isn't the sort of analysis that'll make a hit or close a show.But then again, do newspaper reviews actually save or doom a show like this anymore? Perhaps the most depressing revelation about the situation with Shrek is that the producers clearly don't think they need theater critics. Most of their reviews will be published about the time that the trucks will be parking behind the theater to load up the sets. A well-funded ad campaign and brand recognition is how you make a Broadway-bound musical a hit, not by waiting for reviews from the Seattle papers.

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