Harking back to last month's post about critics and adaptations, I recently came across these notes by amNewYork's Matt Windman from a public talk between Stephen Sondheim and Frank Rich at Lincoln Center.
I was struck by Sondheim's comments about critics and musicals:
To start off the Audience Q&A period (audience members had to submit written questions before the start of the conversation to ushers), one audience member called Sondheim on a previous quote of his about theater critics reviewing musical theater: “Musicals are the only art form reviewed by ignoramuses.” “Few (critics) know anything about music at all,” Sondheim said to explain the quote.
Sondheim then asked Rich whether he ever felt out of his depth as a critic of musicals since he lacked a background in music theory. Rich simply replied, “I knew what I liked. I didn’t want to have any more information going in to see the play than the audience had.” Sondheim then revealed that when he was president of the Dramatists Guild, he asked the New York Times to send both a drama critic and music critic to musicals, but got turned down.
Okay then, full disclosure: I don't know music theory. I'm a devoted fan of musical theater, and I took enough music lessons as a kid that I can (sort of) read music and understand a little about keys and time signatures and whatnot, but I've never composed music and I'm sure there's plenty of theoretical nuance I miss in many scores.
But so what? I'm more than willing to grant that Sondheim's a friggin' genius, but doesn't Rich have a point in that he was there as a representative of a theater-savvy but non-musical-genius audience? Should critics of musical theater have a deeper grounding in music theory, as some critics of classical music or opera do? Or is this just a highfalutin' version of a playwright's claim that a critic "just doesn't get" his or her work?