I used to think, yes, but now, after almost five years of toiling in that netherworld between the two, I’m not so sure anymore.
The question was brought back to the fore for me by this article HOW I INSULTED SONDHEIM (AND THE WISDOM RECEIVED THEREBY) written by songwriter Jason Robert Brown. Hat tip to Rob Weinert-Kendt for bringing it to my attention. Though I don’t believe it was Jason’s intent to raise the issue of the critic-artist relationship by writing this fascinating and incredibly personal article, he has nevertheless illuminated something so important about that very relationship that it deserves once again to be explored.
Jason tells the story of how he and his friend (name changed to protect the innocent) pursued Sondheim to show him some new work they were developing. Eventually it happened. Sondheim invited them to his latest show (not sure which production) and then they were to meet afterwards. Jason and his friend were not fans of the new show and afterwards at the restaurant they attempted to avoid the topic completely, until, of course, Sondheim himself brought it up. Here’s how Jason describes the scene:
The curtain rises, and we expect to see Sweeney Todd. We expect West Side Story. We expect Biblical greatness. There is no show on Earth that could have delivered something as magnificent as we were expecting. Two-and-a-half hours later, Franz and I file out of the theatre anxiously.
We get to the restaurant. Steve is sitting there waiting for us. There’s an appetizer already on the table. I am about to sit down with my idol, Stephen Sondheim, for dinner. I’m 23 years old. I’m totally overwhelmed.
We say nothing. I mean, small talk, yeah, sure, and pleasantries. But we don’t even mention the show. For TWENTY MINUTES. Steve is sitting across from us, becoming ever more uncomfortable and upset, and Franz and I are nattering on like the hosts of a morning talk show, oh the weather, the food, the décor, what shows are coming in this season, anything except the performance we just saw. On the night that Frank Rich came.
Finally, after an eternity, Steve mumbles, “So, uh, did you like the show?”
Here’s where you scream in terror.
Actually, however, the blood is already on the wall. It didn’t matter at that point what we said, the damage had been done. Our silence had told the story with astonishing completeness.
So the evening was a disaster. Eventually Jason drummed up the courage to reach out again to Sondheim and apologize. This is how Sondheim replied, and Jason admits that he is paraphrasing Sondheim’s response:
Nobody cares what you think. Once a creation has been put into the world, you have only one responsibility to its creator: be supportive. Support is not about showing how clever you are, how observant of some flaw, how incisive in your criticism. There are other people whose job it is to guide the creation, to make it work, to make it live; either they did their job or they didn’t. But that is not your problem.
If you come to my show and you see me afterwards, say only this: “I loved it.” It doesn’t matter if that’s what you really felt. What I need at that moment is to know that you care enough about me and the work I do to tell me that you loved it, not “in spite of its flaws”, not “even though everyone else seems to have a problem with it,” but simply, plainly, “I loved it.” If you can’t say that, don’t come backstage, don’t find me in the lobby, don’t lean over the pit to see me. Just go home, and either write me a nice email or don’t. Say all the catty, bitchy things you want to your friend, your neighbor, the Internet.
Maybe next week, maybe next year, maybe someday down the line, I’ll be ready to hear what you have to say, but that moment, that face-to-face moment after I have unveiled some part of my soul, however small, to you; that is the most vulnerable moment in any artist’s life. If I beg you, plead with you to tell me what you really thought, what you actually, honestly, totally believed, then you must tell me, “I loved it.” That moment must be respected.
First thought: yes, people should almost never “quantify” a show for the artist immediately after that show, even when pressed. Be kind, be respectful, be positive. Nothing wrong with that. There will always be time for quantification and objective analysis.
Next thought: Sondheim was an idiot to ask. I’ve seen actors come out of shows and approach actual professional critics and immediately ask, “So what did you think?” What an asinine thing to do. Those of you guilty of this sin, please stop. It puts both you and the critic and/or supportive yet intelligent friend in a very bad position. The blame goes both ways.
And now my third thought and I realize that Jason was paraphrasing here but if the response is even CLOSE to what Sondheim actually said, then Sondheim is a fucking arrogant pompous little baby. I don’t care how much of a genius he is – and he is – but the almost demagogic response “nobody cares what you think” after he was the person who pursued the response? Unbelievable. The interpretation of course is, “When I ask what you think of my work I don’t actually want to know what you think of my work, your job is to simply fall down in homage and love me. Your critical faculties be damned. Your opinion is worthless. You must simply worship your God not question him.”
Look, I get it, the faux pas of quantification after a show, it’s bad form, but Sondheim, a man who should know better, a man who should have the magnanimity to rise above the social errors of those who don’t know better, he’s simply a fucking whiny weenie. Sorry to all you Sondheiminities. This is the second time I’ve read something about Sondheim and his dismissal of criticism and it just reinforces his delusional egotistical divorce from the reality that the rest of us have to deal with. The man would be a genius toiling in a vacuum if it wasn’t for the professional critics of the world.
But back to the more important point:
Can and should critics and artists be friends?
I used to think, yes, it’s possible, if only both sides can allow themselves to be open to the possibility that they might be wrong, they aren’t perfect, their opinion isn’t the be all and end all, their work will always be flawed, performance is simply a process as is criticism, critics want their theater to be as good as it possibly can be and artists believe that critics want their theater to be as good as it possibly can be. In other words, if both parties could act as adults and allies, not adolescents and enemies.
But now, I just don’t know. It seems my sentiment was over-idealistic, naive even.
My change in opinion has also evolved from my personal experience of criticizing the critics here at the Lemon. Many of these critics have become my friends and colleagues. It simply makes it more difficult to be honest when you are criticizing your friends. I’ll continue, of course, but the job certainly doesn’t become easier the closer you get to the people you criticize.
And yet, for the sake of the art, it is crucial that professional opinions be un-colored by passion or personal bias. The job requires it. The Art needs it. It is essential.
And so, my opinion, now, is that critics and artists cannot and should not be friends. They can still maintain respect and cordiality, even admiration, but friends? Nope. It just doesn’t seem to work.
It’s a sad state of affairs. Mostly for the critic. I can’t imagine the loneliness involved, the self-imposed solitude, the wall that must be erected to maintain one’s professional integrity. Well, actually, I can, but that’s a topic for another day.
There will always be exceptions. Some artists can manage to separate the professional and the personal, as can some critics, but for the most part it’s a losing proposition.
I always thought being an artist was the loneliest of professions. I was wrong. It doesn’t compare to the loneliness of the serious critic.
Good luck, folks.
About the Author: COLIN MITCHELL: Actor/Writer/Director/Producer/Father, award-winning playwright and screenwriter, Broadway veteran, Marvel comics scribe, Van Morrison disciple, Zen-Catholic, a proud U.S. Army Brat conceived in Scotland and born in Frankfurt, Germany, currently living in Los Angeles and doing his best to piss off as many people as possible.