If you didn’t catch the recent drama surrounding new musical theatre number An Officer and a Gentleman, here’s what you missed.
A reviewer (Deborah Jones, The Australian) saw the show and reviewed it in the negative (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/empathy-goes-awol-as-cliches-rain/story-e6frg8n6-1226361508407#). The writer of the show (Douglas Day Stewart, writer of the film An Officer and a Gentleman; co-writer of its musical namesake) didn’t appreciate the negative review and so gave the reviewer a negative review (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/response-to-review-of-an-officer-and-a-gentleman-the-musical/story-e6frg8n6-1226362419570). Another musical theatre writer (James Millar, The Hatpin et al) gave Day Stewart a negative review for his negative review of Jones’ negative review (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/suck-it-up-buddy-she-just-didnt-like-it/story-e6frg8n6-1226363840960). Two negatives equalled a positive, and then it all became negative again.
While audiences make shows possible and profitable, reviewers often make shows seem pointless or perfunctory. Often, but not always. Sometimes, reviewers help edit and shape future performances and seasons of performances into even better possibilities and profitabilities.
I like to think that theatre creatives – writers, actors, technicians, producers – are caught in a dance with both audiences and critics. One of those dance partners though is far more likely to let you know if you step on their toes – even if they do have a crush on you.
As a reviewer, Jones is perfectly allowed to have a dislike for a show. Millar even concedes a wry, though painful, appreciation for Jones’ frankness about the first season of his own show. He admitted that her external point of view and critique helped edit his show into a better piece after he no longer had any perspective to self-edit.
Editing always has its place. Sometimes the role of the editor is to reshape a voice; sometimes it is to delete a voice entirely. And sometimes, just sometimes, it is the editor’s job to shut up.
No matter how good a writer you are, say, even if you are an Academy-Award nominee (cough… Douglas Day Stewart), or how much money you have earned from your work, someone will always hate you. Maybe not you personally, but your work. As a creative person it’s often difficult to distinguish between where your work ends and your sense of self begins though.
This is, perhaps, where Day Stewart has come unstuck. Having never seen An Officer and a Gentleman, as a movie or musical, I cannot hazard a realistic review of either. But, from my perceptions, the film seems to be a fairly well liked, heart-warming tale. It appeals to the emotions of those who hate their jobs and long for something more, or for those who believe that they are worth more than the life they are currently imprisoned within. Day Stewart, ipso facto, is used to being liked. He is not used to the taciturn tongue of an Australian reviewer who perhaps lacks the romantic reverence to which he is accustomed.
Did Jones over step her mark? I don’t think so. Her review, while cold, was not cruel. It was clear, concise and cynical. It left room for some warmth towards elements of the production, but showed no mercy for that which did not deserve it. Day Stewart is not a budding secondary school student upon whom encouragement must be bestowed regardless of his work’s quality. No, he is a grown man and must be treated with the same adult expectations of everyone else in theatre. That his work must strive for excellence. Perfection. Transcendence. Immortality.
Every role within theatre needs clear boundaries. The writer has their job, to write. The actors have their job, to act. And yes, the reviewers have their job – to review.
To inhibit any one of these roles is to upset the delicate dance of the theatre. And that would make theatre less magical, shall I say musical, than it can be – when it is at its edited best.