In an odd rant in the Huffington Post today Alec Baldwin blames tabloid journalism, the New York Times and the internet for changing Broadway for the worse. Baldwin’s latest play, “Orphans”, is closing early, very early and he explains why he thinks that happened. Needless to say, he does not blame the play itself, which he assures us received standing ovations every night. Instead, he mixes a strange cocktail of paparazzi style negative press over the firing of his planned co star (Shia LeBeouf) and incompetence from the Times’ Ben Brantley to explain the show’s failure. Setting aside the fact that such ruminations from artists jilted by critics are usually best shared privately, not on the pages of the very tabloid style websites he criticizes, does Baldwin have a point?
The crux of his first argument is that the negative publicity surrounding the firing of LeBeouf (which some claim was Baldwin’s own doing) dug a hole for the production which it could not climb out of. In a rare insight to the true economic machinations of Broadway he explains how the confusion and bad attention cut into important ticket sales by booking agents who sell package tours which include Broadway shows. He does not address the possibility that LeBeouf might just be a flat out better draw than his replacement Ben Foster.
The second argument Baldwin makes basically boils down to “Ben Brantley sucks”. Brantley, the New York Times chief theater critic since 1996, did not care for Orphans. When the word “limp” appears in the first sentence of a review, good things are not going to follow. I’m not a Brantley fan, I have often found his adoration for all things English off putting and wrongheaded, but Baldwin’s attack just comes off as whiny. He seems to want some kind of fairness from critics, which is just impossible. Critics, by their very nature, apply subjective taste to art. Baldwin objects to this, suggesting that critics must base their judgement on whether the play succeeds in what its trying to do, not whether what it is trying to do is worthwhile. Its an old, sad excuse for a bad review.
My take away from Baldwin’s post mortem on Orphans and the state of Broadway is that he really wants it both ways. The rise of dramas on Broadway stages over the past few years has been driven by the audience’s desire to sit in a room with movie stars. With few exceptions the recipe is the same, limited runs of a legit show that movie stars can do between their real or reel work. Given that fact, its disingenuous to claim that the same “star factor” that got the show produced in the first place, also doomed it to ignominy at the hands of the tabloids, the twitter-sphere or the Times.
Ultimately Baldwin is buying into a very old myth about art. People like to believe that the best work always wins out, that the stars of the theatrical firmament are fixed and need only be discovered in their brightness and glory. This is, of course, is nonsense. The complicated calculus that makes a play, or actor, or director a star is not, and never has been based on any objective standard of excellence. Timing, connections, and luck are not just qualities that reveal a great play, they are qualities that create a great play. Baldwin has often been the beneficiary of such factors, maybe this time he wasn’t. But as a theater producer who toils downtown, without the shimmer of movie stars and million dollar budgets, my reaction to Baldwin is a simple one. Suck it up Alec, you belong to this world you are complaining about, and you don’t get any sympathy from me.