What about ‘If/Then’? Why reviewing previews isn’t in The Post’s purview


Idina Menzel in a rehearsal for “If/Then.” (Matthew Murphy)

For almost three weeks now, Washington’s 1,700-seat National Theater has been staging “If/Then,” one of the most highly anticipated shows of the season — a brand-new musical starring Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp, who helped catapult “Rent” into a Tony-winning Broadway hit.

The show is much buzzed about and Broadway-bound next spring, sparking online chatter about Menzel and whether this follow-up to the Pulitzer-winning musical “Next to Normal” by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey might also earn such plaudits. Given the heat of the project, tickets going for more than $200 in the 180-year-old theater on Pennsylvania Avenue and the rarity of a major tryout in Washington, people are asking: What’s it actually like? Is it any good?

Where’s the review?

“Why no review of ‘If/Then’?” a reader e-mailed the Post. “Everyone’s comparing notes on ‘If/Then.’ I can’t,” read the headline on a blog post Monday by Post theater critic Peter Marks, explaining that critics aren’t invited in until a show’s been on its feet a bit. (The formal opening, set by the producer, is Sunday; a review will run on The Post’s Web site Monday and in Tuesday’s print edition.)

Call it the shock of the old. The friction illustrates a Washington disconnect between longstanding theatrical (and newspaper) traditions about letting a show find its way in front of audiences before the review comes down and a social media metabolism that’s all about sharing Right Now.

It also shows how Washington audiences have been separated from the conventions of the Broadway tryout, a staple here for most of the 20th century. Since the 1980s, the Shubert Organization, running the National from its remote headquarters in New York, generally left the theater underprogrammed. With “If/Then,” the National’s new management seems serious about stepping up the historic theater’s activity and restoring some of its clout.

Yet even factoring for rust on D.C.’s bygone role as a tryout town, tensions sometimes arise about how long producers can keep a show in “previews” before opening the door for critics.

“There are competing influences,” notes Chris Jones, theater critic for the Chicago Tribune. “It’s the interest of producers to delay local press as long as possible when they have major project in very early stage of development. And the local critic has a moral duty to tell people whether the show’s any good or not.”

Producers asking the public to “take it on blind faith” can be a problem, says Seattle Times critic Misha Berson, “if you’re going to put it in front of people and charge not-insubstantial ticket prices.”

Chicago is probably the leading tryout town in the United States; Jones says the city sees three or four shows destined for New York each season. Before working for the Tribune, he reviewed for Variety.

“With all due modesty, no one’s seen more out-of-town tryouts than me,” Jones says. “Egos can be tense. A lot is riding on it. Producers don’t know what they have, creative teams may not be on the same page. All kinds of stuff comes down.”

Chicago is where the 2011 “Addams Family” musical starring Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth first began to look like a ruin as a new director came on and the score was overhauled. “It’s show business,” Jones says.

That said, he’s in no rush to judge.

“Ultimately, this is an old-fashioned gentlemen’s agreement,” Jones says of the preview period and waiting to review. “You want to have respect for the fact that these shows do need a bit of time before an audience. That is part of the process.”

Is it ready yet?

“Previews,” says “If/Then” producer David Stone, “are the best time for the creative team to judge, in front of an audience, what’s working and what’s not. And we are able to make changes based on that.”

The new musical, with music by Kitt and book and lyrics by Yorkey, began performances Nov. 5. (The “What if?” plot follows Menzel’s character through two divergent realities.) On top of eight shows a week, there have been five-hour rehearsal days, except on matinee days. Sections of songs have been cut, new choreography has been added, dialogue has been clarified, and director Michael Grief has rethought some staging. Stone, who also produced “Wicked” (which tried out in San Francisco), says someone who saw the first preview and then saw the show Sunday, when it formally opens, “would notice the differences.”

Like the pre-Broadway revival of “West Side Story” five years ago at the National, “If/Then” is playing for five weeks, with the first three weeks as previews. “You can’t judge fast enough and work fast enough in less than three weeks,” Stone says.

“You need that time,” says Eric Schaeffer, artistic director of Arlington’s Tony-winning Signature Theatre. “The baby doesn’t just come out and start walking automatically.”

Schaeffer directed the 2011 Kennedy Center revival of “Follies” that transferred to New York two years ago, and the 2006 revival of “Mame” that didn’t. “Mame” opened to critics mere days after the first performance, and Marks’s notice in The Post was decidedly reserved. Revisiting the show four weeks later, the musical and its star, Christine Baranski, looked changed.

“ ‘Mame,’ A Whole Month Better,” went the July 1 headline. “Her Mame is more girlish and motherly than a month ago, when the actress appeared preoccupied with getting her high kicks right and negotiating the steps of an unwieldy staircase that is rolled on and off the stage all evening.”

“Confoundingly,” Marks added, “it can be very difficult to gauge when precisely a show is cooked through.”

That may help explain why preview periods can vary substantially with both commercial and nonprofit projects. Locally based nonprofit troupes tend to have their own assembly line processes, and even within a given company, different shows get different time frames to pull themselves together.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s upcoming “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” will run for about a week and a half before opening to the press. At Signature, next month’s revival of “Gypsy” is slated for four performances before letting critics in. But Schaeffer will schedule two or three weeks of previews before opening the premiere musical “Beaches” next spring.

“I wish we could do more,” he says from New York, where he’s holding auditions for the 2015 revival of “Gigi” that will try out at the Kennedy Center.

Keeping bad news at bay

On big Broadway musicals, the variables informing how long to preview include everything from technical difficulties — see the serial crash-landings as “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” tried to untangle itself on Broadway — to basic rewrites and even recasting. “Spider-Man” remains the poster child for abusing the “preview” concept: Producers postponed an opening date so long that critics finally came anyway, reviewing in February 2011 a show that had been playing since late November 2010. (An opening night was finally designated — after a temporary closing, rewrites and firings — in June 2011.)

That’s extreme, though Berson — author of the 2011 book “Something’s Coming, Something Good: ‘West Side Story’ and the American Imagination” — worries that producers increasingly try to keep the potential bad news of reviews at bay until the last minute. That’s a gamble, of course, for shows without the star power and buzz that “If/Then” is demonstrating, but also a potential problem for the critic.

“If you’re writing about something that’s almost past, you’re not doing a service to your reader,” Berson says. “It’s like waiting until a week after the election to report the returns.”

Stone and Schaeffer both say that immediate social media reports are no substitute for reviews, which have traditionally (though not infallibly) helped creators get a sense of what kind of show they have on their hands.

“In social media, it could be someone who’s seen 100 shows, or it could be someone who’s seen two,” Stone says. “With professional critics, you know their broad experience, and how they’re forming opinions.”

In Chicago, Jones says that no more than halfway through the run, the paper will come in to review, even if it means buying a ticket. It hasn’t come to that, though Jones reports there was a little push and shove with Broadway’s current “Big Fish” last spring.

“You can’t treat Chicago like it’s a rehearsal,” Jones says. On the other hand, he doesn’t dispute that time in front of audiences is necessary for creators to work things out.

“In the very early stages of a multimillion-dollar musical, that’s not unreasonable,” Jones says. “And people who buy tickets in the early weeks understand that.”

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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