Friday, May 2, 2008

Reaching for the stars

I was pretty excited when I checked my stat counter the other night and saw this query: Never seen a Broadway show which one should I see?

Wow, no one's ever asked me that question before! Usually, it's more along the lines of: You're going back again? You're seeing how many shows this time? Haven't you already seen everything by now? The tickets cost how much?

To be fair, I also get some supportive, genuinely interested questions from people. They're excited for me and want to know what I'm seeing and who's in it. Even if they haven't heard of the actors, sometimes they've heard of the shows. South Pacific, for example, elicited lots of spontaneous breaking into song.

Unfortunately, there's no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of which Broadway show you should see. (Or maybe fortunately, because when I think about it, there really are a lot of choices, more than most people would think. And choice is good.)

It depends on whether you want to see a play or a musical, (Ok, when people say a Broadway show, I guess we can pretty much assume they mean a musical.) whether you want to laugh or cry, - or both - whether you're in the mood for a classic or something more contemporary, whether you want something more traditional or you're willing to take a chance on a more adventurous experience, whether you're looking for Disney-type entertainment or a more adult-themed show.

One thing that Steve on Broadway, Vance at Tapeworthy and Chris at Everything I Know I Learned from Musicals do so well is give a clear indication of which shows they think are worthwhile. Steve rates everything he sees from zero to four stars, Vance uses a five-star ranking and Chris has a list of musicals you should see. In fact, this week Chris posted lists of the 100 greatest musicals of all time, the 100 runners-up, and his least-favorite shows, with links to information about all of them. It's a tremendous resource and I know I'll be going back to it frequently.

As for me, until this week, I didn't even have a list on my blog of all the shows that I've seen. Well, I put up the list, but short of reading through all of them, there's no quick and easy way to tell what I liked and what I didn't like. So, in an effort to provide a clear picture, I'm assigning star ratings to everything I've seen since January 2007.

When I'd only been to a couple of shows, it was hard to look at them objectively. I loved everything. But now that 18 months of fairly regular theatergoing have gone by, it's easier to put things in perspective. I still love mostly everything, and there's nothing I regret seeing. But I have to admit, I don't love LoveMusik as much as I thought I did. Although as Chris is always telling his Boston Conservatory students, you have to know what the bad stuff looks like to truly appreciate the good stuff. (Believe me, Chris, I'm learning!)

I've only been a professional critic once in my life. When I worked for a newspaper in Connecticut many years ago, I wrote a review of The Big Chill. After a colleague of mine read it, he had two observations: He couldn't figure out whether or not I actually liked the movie, and he said I gave away all of the best lines. I still struggle with those things: Have I said forcefully and clearly enough how much I liked the show? Have I given away too much of the plot or revealed the funniest lines?

I'm trying to reserve 4 stars for my absolute best experiences, 3.5 stars for shows that I loved but thought fell short of perfection, 3 stars for fun or thought-provoking shows that I enjoyed very much and would recommend, 2.5 stars for shows that provided some laughs or a performance or two I enjoyed, but overall, I simply felt kind of "blah" about them afterward, and 2 stars for shows that didn't engage me very much at all and were largely forgettable. Anything below that is reserved for major disappointments.

Assigning stars isn't an easy thing to do, but I want to give the shows I truly adored a little extra special love. Plus, it's kind of interesting to see, after 18 months, where I rank things. I could go on and on about what went into my decisions, but it's not exactly a scientific thing - it's totally my biased opinion at this point in time.

On another day, I might have done things differently. I'll try not to go back and change the stars when no one's looking, but I can't make any promises.


Vance said...

Oh wow! Thanks for the props! I had to laugh though at the part before that when everyone is wondering... how many have you seen? Haven't you seen everything? it costs how much?

Have you been talking to my friends?


And I cracked up reading Chris' part about seeing the bad to know the good but laughed again in this post. I think I've been lucky that I've avoided a lot of the bad because I almost seem to grade everything I see something positive but it's a great point. If I DO hate something,I won't leave, must to say I've seen the horrific!

It's funny. I actually probably spend WAY too much time figuring out what grade I'm going to assign. I also feel bad sometimes because I want to change it after I've posted It's so true though that it depends on when I see the show and what my mood is at the time. I've been trying to shift from a more critical basis though into an all-round simplicity of, how much did I enjoy it and how much would I recommend it to others, but the other is just to keep a record for myself for my year end review, but I'm glad if it helps others.

Esther said...

You're welcome! And I guess those of us who live outside of New York always get those types of raised eyebrows. But I'm having a great time! :-)

Yeah, it was very hard, but I felt I really wanted to go on the record about the good, the bad and the just okay.

I struggled with In the Heights and Passing Strange. Technically, I think PS is the better show - the plot is more interesting and thought-provoking, the characters more memorable, and it's a more inventive show - but I just couldn't bring myself to give it four stars. On the other hand, three stars for ITH seemed too low. I liked it better than my other three-star shows. So I compromised by giving them the same rating!

I kind of went back and forth on Mary Poppins, too. I was caught between 3 and 3.5 stars. It's a great show to look at. I loved watching Bert walk upside down and Mary Poppins fly through the air, I loved the magical elements, Matthew Bourne's choreography, but I didn't feel terribly engaged by the characters or the story. It's fun and light and fluffy and enjoyable, but not very filling, especially when I compare it to some of my other 3.5-star shows.

Ok, I'm obsessing about this way too much!

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, I agree wholeheartedly with Chris on the point that you really must see truly bad shows to fully appreciate the truly excellent (and everything in between). I also agree with the premise that there's no bad night to be had at the theatre, even if you don't enjoy the show itself.

And I also agree with Vance that I've often reevaluated my original stance on a show. Sometimes it's because I've seen a different cast doing the same material, but other times it's because I realized upon second viewing that I simply didn't appreciate the show as much as I did the second time around or I realized the material wasn't as good the second time around. I also agree with Vance that my ratings depend a whole lot on my mood at the time (however, I was in a great mood when I saw Gone With The Wind and even enjoyed watching it because it was soooooo bad.

Finally, it's great that you've begun giving your readers a snapshot view of what you liked and what you don't - there's no one right review. Thankfully, there's a lot of room for opinions and I have nothing but respect those who have a 180 degree different opinion than mine.

Esther said...

Thanks Steve! I'm definitely getting more confident about expressing my opinions. And you're right - there's definitely a lot of room for different opinions. When I read your critics capsules, I'm often amazed at the range.

I went back and forth a bit, especially on the shows I saw last spring and summer, because they weren't as fresh in my mind. It was especially tough with some of the three and four star shows. Some of the 3 stars could have been 3 /12, and I toyed with bumping some of the 3 1/2 stars to 4 stars.

Next year, I'll start seeing shows on tour that I've seen on Broadway - including "Spring Awakening" and "The Color Purple." It'll be interesting to see whether my views change.

And I don't regret seeing anything, even "Rock 'n' Roll," which is currently my lowest-rated show. I would have rated it a little higher, maybe 2 stars, but I docked it a half-star for being pretentious. I had such high expectations, and I was so disappointed. I just expected so much more from Tom Stoppard.

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, I believe that when it comes to 4-star shows, you'll know the minute you're watching it. They'll be the kind of shows that leave you with the type of high that your feet are barely touching the floor as you're leaving the theatre. If there's ever any doubt, then it does not deserve to be ranked among the best of the best. Just my three-and-a-half cents!

Esther said...

Thanks for your 3.5 cents! And that's a great description of a 4-star show.

You're absolutely right, if you have to think about it, it shouldn't get 4 stars. I've tried to reserve 4 stars for the truly exhilarating, most emotional, most moving experiences. And it's not something you can intellectualize. It has to hit you in the heart or in the gut.

I try to keep in mind how I felt when I was watching "Wicked," way back in January 2007, how I loved the humor and the inspired references to "The Wizard of Oz," how "For Good" moved me to tears. In the past 18 months, through all the shows I've seen, I've never wavered, never had a second thought about it. It was memorable.

So, when I was thinking about "Spring Awakening," yeah, there are parts of the plot that are a little cliched, but then I thought about how I felt watching it, how incredibly exciting and energetic and exhilarating it was. I mean, I was crying at the end and I wanted to see it again. So I had to give it 4 stars.