Wednesday, July 6, 2011

On Reviewing Plays Before They Open

It has long been considered a breach of etiquette on the part of theatre critics to review plays before they officially open (say, while they are still in previews).  The rationale behind that is clear: while a play is in previews, it is assumed that improvements to the production might still be made prior to opening night so that it would be unfair to the play’s producers (as well as its cast, director and anyone else involved in its production), and misleading to potential theatre-goers as well, to criticize the play for shortcomings that might well be overcome by the time the play officially opens.

Reviewers occasionally have deviated from that policy, usually when it appeared that a play was being kept in previews and its opening delayed, simply because its producer had reason to believe that once the play opened, it was likely to be panned by reviewers and that the producers might be better off selling tickets to risk-taking theatre-goers willing to purchase tickets to un-reviewed “preview” performances before the news got out as to just how bad the play really was.   Just such an exception was made by several reviewers who elected to review (and pan) Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark before that play officially opened (at which time it was generally re-reviewed and panned again).

But those were exceptions.  The general rule, relatively consistently subscribed to by most reviewers, was not to review a play until it officially opened.

Bearing that in mind, I have generally refrained from reviewing any production myself until it officially opened.  Indeed, I have been reviewing plays on this blog for more than a year now (I’ve reviewed more than 75 separate productions overall) and, until last week, I always withheld my reviews until after the plays I’d seen officially had opened.

Recently, however, I’ve come to re-think that policy and I’ve come to the conclusion that, at least for me on my blog, it is outdated and actually does a disservice to the theatre-going public.  So last week I reviewed Death Takes a Holiday while it was still in previews and I’m likely to review other plays while they are still in previews in the future as well (although I imagine that I’ll continue to publish the bulk of my reviews post-opening, if only because I’m likely to see more plays after they open than before).

What has led me to this conclusion?  Several considerations:

First, it used to be the case that preview performances of a play were priced at a discount to performances after a play officially had opened.  That made sense.  Producers were providing a quid pro quo to those theatre-goers willing to view unpolished productions.  But today, most tickets to most shows cost as much for preview performances as for post-opening performances and it strikes me that if tickets to preview performances are worth as much as tickets to post-opening performances, then those preview performances also should be deemed worthy of being reviewed.

Second, it is the case that, even now, many theatre reviews appearing after a show has opened are based on what a reviewer actually saw at a preview “press performance” in the days before the show officially opened anyway.  And if it’s OK to base a review that will appear post-opening on a pre-opening performance, why not publish that review pre-opening as well?

Third, pre-opening reviews by the general public already are widely available on the internet right now.  On the New York Times theatre website, for example, one can read eight different readers’ reviews of Death Takes a Holiday today, although the Times itself has so far refrained from reviewing the show since it won’t officially open until July 21.  Similarly, one can read seven different readers’ reviews of that show on  But if it’s acceptable for readers to post reviews on those sites pre-opening, why shouldn’t it be equally acceptable for critics to do likewise?

Fourth, some plays, particularly off off Broadway productions, have such short runs (including previews) that if a critic were to wait until they officially opened to review them, his review might not be published until those plays’ overall runs were nearly half over.  And that could severely limit the amount of time available to those theatre-goers awaiting his review before determining whether or not to see the shows in question.

Finally, I believe that theatre-goers who are considering purchasing tickets to a play before it has opened will, in fact, be best served if they are able to read critical reviews of the play before they actually buy their tickets – whether the tickets they ultimately buy are for previews or for post-opening performances.  And  I’d like to help them out there.

But transparency and full disclosure on the reviewer’s part are absolutely essential.  If he is reviewing a show before it opens, or even after it opens but based on a performance he saw in previews, it is absolutely incumbent upon him that he make that clear to his readers.  And that’s just what I intend to do.

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