Casting Ethics And The Great Stupid: So William F. Buckley Was Black…I Did Not Know That!

Buckley Vidal play

“The Best of Enemies” is a stage adaptation of the film about the 1968 TV face-offs between arch-conservative pundit William F. Buckley and acerbic liberal author and wit Gore Vidal that climaxed with Buckley threatening to punch Vidal is the face. I haven’t seen it (which is now playing in London’s West End) or the film: I was lucky enough to see the original, live. Buckley was fascinating (and often hilarious); Vidal was the perfect iconoclast (I even had a correspondence with him briefly!), so I assume both play and film are at least entertaining. That’s not the issue at hand, however.

The issue is casting ethics. My position as a director and also from the ethics perspective is that a production’s obligations are to the audience and the work being presented, and everything else is subordinate at best. That does not mean that I am opposed to so-called “non-traditional casting;” indeed, I support it (and have done a lot of it as a director) when it benefits the play or musical. When funky casting accomplishes nothing but making activists happy or ticking off woke boxes at the expense of the show’s effectiveness, that’s unethical, plain and simple.

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Mailbag: Why Different Ethical Standards for Food and Theater Critics?

“Dear Mr. Marshall: Don’t you find it odd that in one post you condemn theater critics for coming to review a play uninvited, yet slam a restaurant owner who exposes the identity of a restaurant critic trying to review his establishment surreptitiously? Why are consumers served by secret food reviews, but not by secret show reviews? This is why people hate people like you.” Continue reading

The Ethics of Reviewing “Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark” During Previews

John Simon, long the toughest of American theater critics and undeniably the most erudite and eloquent writer among them, has launched a blog. His very first post is on an ethical issue: is it ever appropriate for a critic to review a Broadway show that is still in previews?

The issue has emerged because the much-anticipated and incredibly expensive Spiderman musical, Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark, has been engulfed in all kinds of intrigue since the very first preview: falling actors, injuries, malfunctioning sets and special effects, and most recently the surprise withdrawal of the show’s leading lady. A couple of critics, Jeremy Gerard of Bloomberg News and Linda Winer of Newsday could not resist paying for tickets and coming uninvited to performances, resulting in one diagnostic feature story on the production’s progress (by Winer) and one full, and not very complimentary, review by Gerard. Simon properly calls foul, describing the act of reviewing a show before its official opening as the equivalent “grabbing a dish from a restaurant kitchen before it is fully cooked, and then judging the meal by it.”

Exactly. The critics have their rationalizations ready, naturally. The musical is the most expensive in Broadway history. Is that a reason to suspend critical fairness? There is unusual interest in the show and its pre-opening travails. Should the degree of interest suspend long-standing critical standards? The usual excuse, also trotted out in this case, is that preview audiences are paying regular show prices—up to $300 a seat—to see the production right now. Isn’t this a case of “the public has a right to know” if the show is a stinker or not?

No, it isn’t. Broadway audiences know that previews are early glimpses of works in progress, and that is part of their appeal. The audiences for previews are part of the creative process, for how they react to a performance will help decide what stays and what gets cut. The prices they pay for the privilege of being Broadway guinea pigs are fair if they choose to pay them. Continue reading