Jack Kroll, the longtime Newsweek theatre critic, reviewed "Dame Edna: The Royal Tour" a full week before its opening at the Golden Theatre Sunday night, Oct. 17, and prior to any designated critics' previews-under orders from Sarah Pettit, the magazine's relatively new senior editor in charge of its arts sections. The review appeared in the issue of the magazine dated Oct. 18, mailed for home delivery and on newsstands Oct. 11, and on the Newsweek website on the same day.
This flagrant breaking of Broadway's nearly century-old, unwritten but traditionally sacred embargo on reviews running prior to a show's opening is believed to be unprecedented on the Main Stem. Only a few other shows, most recently "Nick and Nora" in 1991, have been deliberately reviewed "early," and then only when they extended their openings well beyond the originally announced dates and continued "in previews" past anyone's patience in the audience or on the Rialto.
But such was not the case with "Dame Edna," which has added a new costume, a new sketch, and new lyrics since Kroll saw the show with purchased tickets and an unnamed friend last week. The changes, quite usual for a show in previews, required a rehearsal last Friday.
The satiric comedy revue, starring Australian actor Barry Humphries in his drag persona, actually began its New York previews a day earlier than first announced, on Sept. 15. Critics' previews were always set to begin Wed. Oct. 13, with the matinee performance and continue through two performances this Saturday. Opening night always was and remains Sun., Oct. 17. Kroll originally had booked himself for the evening performance Wed. the 13th. Reviews-his and those of other magazines and newspapers, would be in print no earlier than Mon., Oct. 18, under normal theatre etiquette. (Radio and television reviews could run the night of Oct. 17, after the show's final curtain.)
"We never changed our performance schedule like other shows," Kevin McAnarney, the producers' press agent told Back Stage. "Why would this punk editor do something that breaks every theatre tradition of honesty and service? She seems to be a young lady trying to make a mark for herself."
Kroll's change of scheduling on seeing the show and running his review was "an editor's decision," Kroll confirmed to Back Stage before going off the record and referring all further inquiries on the subject to Pettit. She had not returned calls by press time.
Roy Burnette, Newsweek's director of communications, told Back Stage that running the 35-line piece "was a good-faith gesture on our part. We wanted to do a piece on this well-known performer ahead of time since we couldn't be sure of having the space to do it later." Burnette professed not to understand the difference between a review and a news story, feature, or interview, despite being asked twice about the distinction.
Pettit joined the staff of Newsweek only this summer. Before then she was an editor at Out, and had previously worked at another gay-interest publication that reportedly went out of business. In a series of telephone conversations with McAnarney late last week, Kroll contended that Pettit had ""forced me to go see the show and review it early,'" according to McAnarney. Kroll was also quoted as having heard Pettit say, "Time beats us all the time on book reviews, why shouldn't we beat them on a theatre review?"
The older and larger newsmagazine also scooped Newsweek by reviewing (after the opening) "Contact," the current breakthrough dance-play, written by John Weidman and staged by Susan Stroman, at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theatre. Newsweek is also known to have scheduled a special issue on the digital millennium for next week. The issue would have no space for reviews of "Edna," "Contact," or any other theatre production, Kroll told McAnarney.
Oddly, Pettit's Time counterpart last week, Belinda Luscombe, was less than concerned. She told Back Stage, "I think Barry Humphries is extremely lucky to get a review in a respected magazine like Newsweek-who cares if it's a week early? I can't believe there's a fuss about it. Humphries should send a bunch of gladiolas, his signature flower, to whoever was responsible for pushing it through. I'm going to the show and I'd be damned lucky to get a review of it in here." Luscombe, who is also Australian, is a senior editor at Time, and was filling in last week for the magazine's vacationing arts editor.
The League of American Theatres and Producers expressed its concern over the early review in a telephone call to Newsweek editors, and in a follow-up letter sent this week by Cy Feuer, chairman of the league's board of directors. (League president Jed Bernstein was said to be out of the country.) Feuer's letter, while first noting the "strong news competition our industry faces," scored the magazine's decision to run a review before a Broadway show's opening.
The advance notice "disrespects a tacit agreement that has existed between the Broadway industry and the media for close to 100 years," the league's letter said. "It also does a disservice to the consumer. It is known that the preview process is used to further develop a show. Therefore, a review based on a preview performance can describe a very different product than the show when it opens."
Neither the league nor the producers of "Dame Edna" were expected to retaliate against the magazine in any way. "That would be biting the hand that feeds us," McAnarney said. In fact, Pettit herself was scheduled to see a press preview of "Dame Edna" this weekend. McAnarney said, "I haven't pushed her any further back in the theatre than she would have been before. I'm honorable, even if she isn't."
Ironically, Kroll's review was mostly a rave. Citing only one major reservation on Edna's current set, he called Humphries "the last great exponent of the British music hall," and his persona Dame Edna Everage "the world's most celebrated drag act...the patron saint of the politically incorrect."
Despite the favorable adjectives, which Kroll had flagged to him in one of their phone conversations, McAnarney deplored the "deceit" of Newsweek's pretense of reviewing a scheduled critic's preview. He also deplored the "deception" of the magazine's scheduling a two-hour photo shoot with "Dame Edna" Sept. 30, implying that the photographs were to be used in the Newsmakers section, or for some other benign purpose. One of the photos accompanied Kroll's review. A member of Newsweek's photo department is known to be a big Humphries/Edna fan, and it is believed that she campaigned with Pettit for the magazine's giving space to the show.
"This is an issue that has to involve the entire theatre community, the Shuberts, Jujamcyn, Equity, the musicians union, everyone," McAnarney said. "It sets a very bad precedent: allowing an editor, no matter what, to decide to review a show even before the press were invited."
McAnarney characterized Kroll as "only semi-apologetic" when the critic informed the press agent of the impending early review. "I can't convince her to hold it," Kroll said of Pettit late last Friday afternoon, according to McAnarney. He then called Pettit twice; she did not return his calls, but had Kroll call on her behalf, to say "It's too late. It's done."
Another major Newsweek editor whom McAnarney then called, confirmed that the review had gone to press but then added, "we never had this conversation." "People over there are scared of this woman," McAnarney concluded.
Critics reviewing even sanctioned press previews is a relatively recent phenomenon, going back at most 20 years. The legendary morning newspaper critics, Walter Kerr, Brooks Atkinson, Alexander Woolcott, and others up through Clive Barnes in his early New York days, were expected to attend an early-curtain opening night and then race back to their respective newspapers and bang out a notice for the second edition in about 45 minutes. The afternoon newspaper critics had the relative luxury of an hour and a half to form their opinions. Post-opening parties at Sardi's and elsewhere were structured around the arrival of the make-or-break reviews hot off the presses. In the early 1980s, critics such as Frank Rich of The New York Times preferred to see previews (sometimes more than one) of a show and have a few days in which to write their reviews. Thus the current system was born.