Serve No Review Before It's Time

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"Gentlemen's agreement": That's the archaic and no doubt sexist term that is nevertheless perfect for describing the unwritten contract between publications and theater producers known as the "review embargo." It's a simple deal. In exchange for free tickets to certain designated preview performances of a show, publications agree not to release their critics' notices until after the curtain has gone up on opening night. It makes for a level playing field and allows creative artists the sanity-supporting opportunity of opening a show without already knowing the critical verdict.

The embargo has stood the New York theatrical community in good stead for more than 40 years, but with the temptations of the Internet, it has begun to fray. Sometime back in the early aughts, an eager editor at Newsday started putting Linda Winer's reviews on the Web before opening night. Fortunately, that soon stopped. More recently, Back Stage's sister publication The Hollywood Reporter has posted reviews hours before the opening curtain, most recently and visibly in the case of "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," a decision that drew a public rebuke in the Los Angeles Times from the show's press agent, Rick Miramontez. Can—and should—this gentlemen's agreement still function in this 24/7 new-media age? Of course it can. What's more, it must.

Now, I am talking professional reviews here—not blogs or chat rooms or the occasional one-off from a showbiz or gossip site—written for publications that employ a recognized critic for his or her expertise in the field and that regularly cover New York theater. Ironically, the current system exists in part for the critics' benefit. Until the late 1960s, all reviewers had to attend opening night, after which they dashed up the aisle as the curtain fell and raced to their offices to write, with the hasty results appearing directly in the morning edition. It was Broadway producer-director Harold Prince who pioneered the idea of critics previews, the purpose being to provide the scribes with time for due consideration and, hopefully, generate more-thoughtful notices. Of course, it also helped actors by relieving the pressure of delivering one single make-or-break performance.

According to Miramontez, The Hollywood Reporter's decision was fueled by its Hollywood competitor, which posted a "Spider-Man" notice at 10:31 p.m. the night before the show opened. A quick perusal of that website indicates that it doesn't normally review Broadway shows, something Miramontez confirmed. The Reporter, however, regularly employs David Rooney, my estimable colleague on the New York Drama Critics' Circle, on the Broadway beat. The Reporter's decision (which was made by an editor, not by Rooney) led to other early notices, including ones from London's Financial Times and, briefly, the New York Daily News (which posted one but soon withdrew it). It also led to an early notice from Back Stage (which I will explain shortly).

So what's the big deal? It's the 21st century and instant digital gratification is the order of the day, right? The big deal, at least for Back Stage, is the actors. Publishing early demonstrates a complete disregard for them. Actors are the backbone of our theater. They have to go out and face an audience on opening night, and they deserve the opportunity to do that without their heads being cluttered with already-rendered professional judgments on their work. They also deserve the chance to enjoy their premiere after all the hard work and long hours that go into the making of a piece of theater. To deny them that in pursuit of a dubious leg up on the competition is petty and disrespectful.

Publications that honor the embargo are signaling their seriousness of purpose. Those that don't undermine the legitimacy of their critic. It's also worth pondering that if such behavior continues, the producers have an easy way to stop it: Reinstate the traditional opening night for all critics. I, for one, do not relish the prospect of writing under such conditions, and I doubt I am alone.

So why did Back Stage break the embargo on "Spider-Man"? Rooney's Reporter notice was highly negative. As Back Stage's New York reviews editor, a position separate from my job as critic, I knew I was sitting on a notice from David Sheward that was very positive. I made the decision to put it out there early for the company of "Spider-Man." Like the fairy Merryweather in Walt Disney's "Sleeping Beauty," I could not undo Maleficent's curse, but I could soften the spell. Thus, in line with my convictions on the subject, I did it for the actors.

Erik Haagensen is Back Stage's New York reviews editor and its columns editor. He is co-head theater critic for Back Stage.