Peter Marks: Theater Is Mostly Local, So Critics' Words Still Matter

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


In the theater, a bad review can not only still stink up the joint. Most of the time, the odor also still creeps into the box office.

Deep-pocketed movie studios have far greater resources for battling lousy notices than do stage productions and nonprofit subscription companies (the model for most of Washington theater). An exception has grown with the rise of corporate Broadway, where a DreamWorks, for example, can rev up the marketing machine behind a tepidly reviewed, tourist-driven show like "Shrek the Musical," and that support surely helps extend the life of a clunky production.

But most theater, like most politics, is local, and the relationship between the local press and a given production with a small ad budget is often far more evident. Drama criticism retains some outsize influence: Because theater tickets are more costly than movie admission, playgoers tend to be older and more attentive to newspapers, and theatergoing in general is more of a niche pursuit. But the impact remains case-by-case: Think of the decades-long run of "Shear Madness." No amount of critical dismissal has dislodged it from its Kennedy Center perch, or turned back the charter busloads.

-- Peter Marks

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