Monday, August 20, 2007

Are Blogs Making The Time-Honored Preview Obsolete?

Are Blogs Making The Time-Honored Preview Obsolete?

Remember the "good old days" of theatre when bad news traveled at such a snail's pace that a stinker show could go through an out-of-town tryout and few in the Big Apple would pay any serious attention?

Time was when producers, directors, writers and the actors could work out all the kinks on the road, or at least during the all-important lead-up to the big Broadway opening night.

But no more.

Now, thanks to the blogsphere, the buzz (or its antithesis) begins almost as instantly as one audience member begins acting as scribe, letting friends and readers far and wide know exactly what he or she thought. Essentially, shows can run, but they can't hide, in part due to the global proportions of blogging.

For example, last week, I posted my SOB Preview of Young Frankenstein. It's the first time I've ever blogged about a show that had not yet opened -- including during its trial run in a city far, far away from the bright lights and glare of the Great White Way. Yet, simply because I could, I did. And my regular readers, along with those googling "Young Frankenstein Seattle Review," could easily find out my take on the unfinished product. Indeed, my statcounter has shown that this has been one of my top-viewed postings of late.

Already, according to a cursory search on Technorati, there are well over 100 individual reviews of the same show. This, despite the fact that it hasn't even opened yet in Seattle, let alone New York.

The net effect? It's further threatening the relevance of mainstream news media outlets all the more, as Seattle Times theatre critic Misha Berson all but acknowledges in her thought-provoking piece on why she's not able to weigh-in on the show. No matter that the Internet is already full of reviews -- both good and bad -- by amateurs like myself. It reduces venerable news sources to being also-rans.

I suspect that the other effect is far greater. Could it force productions to significantly pare back previews or scuttle them altogether? Ironically, in the aforementioned good old days, the typical number of previews prior to opening night was miniscule or non-existent.

Can you believe that the original production of Oklahoma! never had a single Broadway preview prior to its 1943 opening night? Contrast that with the most recent production -- which was imported from the British stage in 2002 -- that had 25 previews. That's up substantially from the 1979 production, which had a mere nine previews.

Consider that the original 1975 production of A Chorus Line, which transferred directly from the Public Theatre, had no previews. Yet the current production, known for being staged ostensibly the same as the first one, had 18 previews.

If you're thinking that a transfer mitigates the need for lengthy previews, think again. This year's Tony Award winning Best Musical Spring Awakening, which transferred from a highly successful run at the Atlantic Theatre (albeit with further refinements), still required 28 previews.

In fact, if you were to add up all the preview nights of all 21 shows currently running on Broadway, you'd have a grand total of 566 nights of previews, or just over 26 per show. That ranges from the inexplicably low 14 previews of Mamma Mia! to the outrageously long gestation period for Xanadu, which clocked in a whopping 49 previews thanks to injuries.

Even recent runs of acclaimed plays were close to the average in terms of previews. Frost/Nixon had 23 previews on Broadway, despite its critical success in the United Kingdom with the same two principals.

The History Boys, which had the exact same cast as its heralded National Theatre and West End runs, apparently still needed its 10 previews on the Great White Way.

Or did it?

In the age of the blogosphere, are previews now living past their shelf date? Since bad news travels faster than ever, almost with glee if the show's particularly awful (read: The Pirate Queen), would producers at the very least be wise to reconsider their liberal use of the preview?

You tell me! Vote in my latest SOB Poll and then weigh in with your point of view below.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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At 20 August, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is happening with movies more than theater today. However, if the movie is fairly good, it helps especially for independent and low budget films.

At 20 August, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, that's pretty amazing about Oklahoma.

I guess I'd vote for useful if pared back. I'm assuming there are some technical reasons why a short preview period is valuable.

With something like Young Frankenstein, where I gather there's trimming and tightening going on, I can see how it would be useful to have an audience reaction before they get to Broadway.

I saw Frost/Nixon while it was still in previews. Like you said, Michael Sheen and Frank Langella had been doing it for awhile. It's hard to see why they'd need previews at all, except maybe to get used to a new theatre or to get some of the new supporting cast members acclimated. Maybe they changed a line that didn't work with American audiences, but I doubt it. I'm pretty sure I saw the same play people saw in London, the same play people saw after the official opening in New York.

And the whole idea of using the preview period as a time to fine-tune a show away from the glare of New York is, as you've said, outdated. I read a review of Young Frankenstein on a Broadway message board that was posted by someone who attended an invitation-only dress rehearsal the night before the first preview. So even before the first preview, you could find a review online!

Young Frankenstein has been getting a pretty good buzz, but you have to wonder what the effect would have been if the early online reviews hadn't been as good.

You're definitely right about this trend making the mainstream media less relevant. And it also means that producers have to make sure their show is at a pretty high level right out of the gate.

You have to wonder, too, how much can really get changed. I mean, are there any examples where a show was absolutely horrible on its first preview but changed so greatly by opening night that it was much improved and became a hit? So much money and time and effort is invested in theses shows, especially musicals, that by the time of the first preview, I wonder if it's even possible to make a huge, wholesale change.

At 21 August, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,

This is something I feel very conflicted about.

As much as the next reader of your blog, advance news on shows is something that we search the net for - and often the blogers give a cleaner view of the piece than the pros- or to be more precise - often state their bias from the top.


That preview period, when you are doing a new production, let alone a new play, is vital for the creative process to see if what worked in the rehearsal room does work with an audience.

Sometimes the feedback can be good and sometimes not so good. The problem becomes when you can no longer do that final work that requires the audience and fix the things that don’t work before the sharpened knifes are working as acupuncture.

Here in Australia - where most of the theatre is created by subscription and funded companies - these previews are heavily discounted but still it is rare to have more than 5 previews.

And to answer Esther - yes it can be possible - things that can be disastrous in preview can be fixed - if they are technical - eg sound, lighting, set even actors. Unfortunately often the reason they are not up to scratch is money and ironically the only way you can fix them is with money which buys you time that you didn’t have.

However if you are working with a dog - all it will be is a dog you can hear and see better and might occasionaly have a nicer bark.

Michael H

At 21 August, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Thanks to each of you for your comments. I especially appreciate the insightful feedback Michael has shared with a very helpful analogy.

Personally, my vote would be the pare back the number of previews.

Did Jersey Boys really need 38 previews in order to make sure its dog could hunt? I'd argue no, especially since it had a Left Coast tryout in San Diego before it ever reached Gotham. But I could certainly see the value in having a handful of previews rather than a protracted period of a month or so.

Finally, to Esther's question of whether shows that were reviewed during previews actually got better, it's clear from a cursory read of the Xanadu preview reviews that something must have clicked along the way -- the early reads were far from complimentary, and I dare say that the buzz was not especially good going into opening night. And then, voila! Roundly favorable reviews had many of the original naysayers licking their wounds.


At 21 August, 2007, Blogger Gil said...

I'm all for the previews. Even a show that did fantastically out of town, is a well-known well-coveted revival, and has perfect casting can always make use of a few weeks to tweak, because you can always get *more* perfect. Chicago or Seattle may have loved it, but maybe in New York it's different. Maybe the New Yorkers or the tourists react differently. Maybe the new space means some subtle yet unexpected changes. Maybe there's a song that seemed to work but until it's in front of the New York audiences, you finally realize it's worth a rewrite. Plays and musicals are living things, and even the best writers find themselves wishing they could go back and make those minor changes Some do during the show's run. So if a month of time lets them get ready for the "big" reviewers, let `em have it.

Although, to be fair, 4 weeks of previews really ends up being 3 nowadays. Up to a full week before, the reviewers already begin to pour in...

At 21 August, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...


Thanks for your comments - I understand the underlying benefit for previews, but I'm coming to the conclusion that a month of previews is simply too long.

BTW, your last two posts made for very fun reads!


At 21 August, 2007, Blogger LizG said...

Great post, Steve! Blog reviews have certainly created a new direct connection between audience members (read: "paying" audience members) and show creators. As a producer and director, albeit working nowhere near Broadway levels but in community productions, I'm more likely to listen to my audience's reaction than to a paid critic who has papers to sell or an image to uphold.

I see the length of preview runs as an early means to recoup some of the outlay of cash and calm nervous investors. Better to hit Broadway with three weeks of box office receipts than three days of receipts. If the show falters, at least you'll have something in the bank to further fine tune the production.

The technical component is also important. With a show like Young Frankenstein, I can only imagine the cue sheets (oh, how I wish I could flip through that prompt book...). I heard a comment from a crew member to Susan Stroman, at the Saturday matinee I attended, that "at least the sound was better". You'd think this component would have been set before the show even reached an audience. many details...

I agree with Michael H about the necessity of a long preview for new shows, especially musicals. I read another review last week from someone who has seen YF three days after I saw it, and already a song had been cut from the show (Alone). Did our collective reviews contribute to this? Do producers, directors, actors actually scour theatre blogs, looking for feedback? Who knows?

For me, the more time can be spent fine tuning a show, while selling tickets, the better, especially if your target is Broadway. The feedback provided by bloggers on previews, I feel, is a bonus for creators and potential audience members.



At 22 August, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

MaxieM, I appreciate your pespective. You've given me a different way of looking at the process. Thank you.

At 24 August, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks! Yes Andrea Martin is great. I spaced and forgot she was in Hedwig too. Good times ;)


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