|Hi, I'm Broadway's Morgan James, and I apparently have no idea how the internet works.|
I had another topic in mind for this blog entry, but then I saw this story about the uproar Broadway actress Morgan James caused by tweeting her negative reaction to Shakespeare in the Park’s Into the Woods and felt compelled to write about that instead.
If you’re too lazy to read the linked article, just know that Ms. James attended last night’s first public preview and was decidedly unimpressed. She said as much via Twitter, criticizing the acting and musicians, and the rest of the Broadway community jumped down her throat for saying such negative things in a public forum. James has since deleted the offending tweets and half-heartedly apologized, but maintains she is entitled to express her opinion.
This is a subject that is close to my heart, as I am a theatre professional (or at least semi-professional with professional friends) who has a blog full of show reviews, and not all of them are complimentary. I agree that James is entitled her opinion and that no one can force her to like a particular show, but I also agree with most people that she is in the wrong for tweet her displeasure. Why? In the spirit of the show, I have listed her offenses in the form of fairy tale morals.
1) The difference between a thought and a tweet is a tweet can cause a commotion
Twitter is a social landmine. The website’s format encourages users to tweet whatever thought pops into their head immediately, and then keeps a record of that thought forever (or at least until you go back and intentionally delete it). This causes many users to forgo the mental filter they would use during face to face conversation, and the text format means you can’t claim you were misheard or pretend you didn’t say something. This has been the bane of many celebrities’ existence, and yet after countless instances of people being taken to task for ill-considered tweets James seems surprised the same thing happened to her.
Also, being limited to 140 characters makes it very difficult to back up any assertions with examples. If James had been having a face to face conversation (or just posting to something that allowed her more words to express herself), she could have provided some concrete examples of the flaws she was talking about. But without examples, it comes across as if James is just being catty, especially since most performers give negative critiques in a way that seems to imply they would have done a better job.
2) A first preview is not opening night
The entire point of having a preview period is that it gives cast and crew time to work out the production’s kinks. As a veteran of several Broadway shows, which often have three or four weeks of previews, James should have understood that what she saw last night was not meant to be the final product. By choosing to attend the first preview, James essentially agreed to see a work in progress, and should have tempered her expectations accordingly.
3) The harsher the words, the quieter you speak them (especially during previews).
Because elements of the show are still in flux during previews, being too harsh on them is generally frowned upon. There is still time for things to improve, so speaking out against the show before it is finished makes James appear immature and rude. This is why critics don’t see shows until the week before opening, and even then they hold off on publishing their judgments until after the production opens out of respect for all the hard working individuals involved. Yes, theatre professionals love to gossip about troubled musicals, but most have enough tact to engage in those types of conversations in the privacy of their own homes (or a nearby bar) rather than on the very public internet.
4) The younger the critic, the less people care
This entry could also be entitle, “Respect your elders.” Simply put, Morgan James hasn’t earned the right to publically bash her fellow artists. She may have Broadway credits, but you know what they are? Ensemble in The Addams Family (a bad show), Wonderland (a worse show), and Soloist in Godspell (a decent show). Nothing about her resume or body of work gives her any kind of industry clout or respect, especially when she is saying Tony winners and Oscar nominees don’t know how to act. You have to earn the right to speak out against your peers, and James is a long way from being able to insult the abilities of other artists.
When Stephen Sondheim decided to trash the Porgy and Bess revival before it had even started its out of town tryout, he did so with 60 years’ experience, multiple Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, and a body of acclaimed work that demonstrates he knows a thing or two about what constitutes good musical theatre. And even with all that expertise, a lot of people still felt he was out of line (although they promptly forgave him, as he’s still Stephen-freaking-Sondheim). James’ dubious career doesn’t afford her the type of leeway given to the writer of acknowledged masterpieces like Sweeney Todd, Company, and yes, Into the Woods.
Hopefully this incident has taught James (and other performers) that there is a time and a place for peer criticism, and Twitter is not it. The only acceptable public forum for such criticism is a review, which exists expressly for that purpose and has a format that allows you enough space to back up your assertions with examples. Other than that, negative critiques should be reserved for private conversation among peers, preferably after the show is opened and therefore “finished.” Otherwise, keep your damn mouth shut.