When a movie critic says something my dad doesn’t agree with, Dad will grunt. “Those critics see too many movies! They have no idea what the average person likes.” Of course, if a critic says something Dad agrees with, he’ll cite it favorably. “Did you see they gave Zorba the Greek four stars? That’s a classic.” Welcome to the world of the critic, where favorable reviews are greeted as the sage musings of a discerning viewer and negative reviews are dismissed as useless hackwork.
Even before I became a critic myself, I defended critics against Dad’s dismissals. My defense rested on two grounds:
Just because I don’t like the same things you like, that doesn’t make me a snob. What would make me a snob would be writing stuff like this:
“The true guiding spirit of [The Avengers] is Loki, who promises to set the human race free from freedom and who can be counted on for a big show wherever he goes. In Germany he compels a crowd to kneel before him in mute, terrified awe, and The Avengers, which recently opened there to huge box office returns, expects a similarly submissive audience here at home. The price of entertainment is obedience.”
“As Loki says to a crowd of earthlings, ‘It is the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation.’ We do, Master, we do.”
The first quotation is from A.O. Scott’s New York Times review, and the second is the conclusion of Anthony Lane’s New Yorker review. In a perfecta of culture-capital condescension, neither the Times nor the New Yorker could resist suggesting that the movie is a contradiction of its own anti-authoritarian message, dismissing the ability of the mass audience to decide for themselves what they like or don’t like. I still admire Scott and, especially, Lane as writers—but wow, guys, that is some seriously smug assholery.
Last week I attended, and reviewed, The Addams Family musical. On Broadway, the production has been one of the most striking recent examples of a divergence between critical and popular opinion: it was roundly panned by critics, but it’s kept the seats full since its opening and continues to be one of the highest-grossing shows on the Great White Way. The show was rewritten for a touring production (the one that I saw), but reviews have been only slightly better. Predictably, I hated it too: I called it a “sad-sack,” “by-the-numbers” show.
The audience sure enjoyed it, though. They laughed at every gag, the woman next to me interjecting comments like, “Oh, jeez!” and “That’s funny!” and “Whoa!” A woman in a box seat occasionally laughed so loudly, in fact, that everyone else got a bonus laugh: one at the punchline, and one at her.
Those audience members were not me, and I don’t like the things they like—but that doesn’t mean they don’t know what they like. They probably aren’t aware of every local production of, say, No Exit, and they probably don’t really need to be.
The woman next to me, I’m guessing, was looking for a little nostalgic name-brand entertainment that provided her with some unchallenging laughs. Unlike me, she was not particularly concerned with the musical’s fidelity to Charles Addams’s dry wit. She probably knew and liked the TV show, and wanted a play that was kind of like a sitcom. She got it. And if she read my review, I can guess what she might have said: “That guy sees too many plays!”
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In The Addams Family musical, the famously morbid tribe must welcome into their Gothic mansion a family who are distressingly lively and bright. But there’s a larger problem that they’re not allowed, except for one sly aside about word-of-mouth, to realize: they’re in a Broadway musical, a genre as antithetical to unhappy endings as country music is to flag-burning. A successful Addams Family musical would steer into that skid, would deploy the contrarian Addamses to tear down the walls of a genre that’s desperately in need of renovation. Instead, the characters inhabit this by-the-numbers show like the brand they are, answering to their names but not their natures.
I’m not the first one to pan this particular production: upon its 2010 Broadway debut, with Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth in the starring roles, the critics pounced. (New York Times: “A tepid goulash.”) Audiences haven’t given a damn, though, and The Addams Family is currently the Great White Way’s third highest-grossing show on any given week. Proving once again that producers care what critics think a lot more than audiences do, the show was signficantly retooled for the touring production now playing at the Ordway. A song about sex with a squid was cut, and the plot’s central conflict was changed.
I haven’t seen the Broadway version, but I was surprised to learn about the specific nature of the changes to the plot—because if you asked me what to do with the show, I’d push it right back in the Broadway direction. More uncomfortable encounters and less contrived conflict between Gomez and Morticia. The new central conflict has Gomez (Douglas Sills) torn by his promise to his daughter Wednesday (Cortney Wolfson) to keep her engagment secret from his wife (Sara Gettelfinger).
The fact that Wednesday’s old enough to get married (albeit young) while her brother Pugsley (Patrick D. Kennedy) apparently stays the same age is typical of this show’s sloppiness. Rather than precise observation of eccentric but coherent characters, the Addams Family musical shoehorns the characters into what’s basically the plot of La Cage Aux Folles. Seeing Lane in the Broadway production must have felt especially tragic for those who saw him in The Birdcage, Mike Nichols’s wonderful 1996 American film adaptation of La Cage. The Addams Family musical is even shameless enough to make the father (Martin Vidnovic) of Wednesday’s fiancé (Brian Justin Crum) a conservative Republican, not that the script actually does anything inventive or funny with that trait.
The musical’s book is by Marshall Brickman (a notable Woody Allen collaborator) and Rick Elice, and it’s there that lurk any vestiges of connection to Charles Addams, theNew Yorker cartoonist who created the characters. There are several lines that feel sharper than they need to be in the context of this sad-sack musical, such as Gomez’s reply to a query regarding whether the house has a little girls’ room. “We used to,” he says with regret, “but we set them all free.”
Andrew Lippa’s a capable lyricist, but his songs are nothing more than running jumps to the sustained concluding notes that tend to motivate audience members to clap, which tends to convince them that they’re actually watching a good show. Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch are credited as “original directors” with no current director listed, which might explain a lot about the flat characterizations and unimaginative blocking. Colombian choreographer Sergio Trujillo endured the gratuitous Latino caricaturing of Gomez (memo to the world: incorporating Mexican foods into made-up Spanish names is officially no longer funny) to deliver some spirited steps, especially in the celebratory tango.
The best thing about the show is the Drama-Desk-Award-winning set by McDermott and Crouch, especially the lovely setpiece depicting a yard and a tree with a rope swing overlooking New York. If you’re thinking that there’s something wrong when an Addams Family review includes the word “lovely,” my response is: exactly.
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