It has been a refreshingly long time since the subject of Broadway previews was in the news.
To be specific, I haven’t heard much about previews since the notorious “Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark” did revisions and rewritings in public during an outlandish 182 previews — at full ticket price — from Nov. 28, 2011 until critics were officially invited before the June 14 opening.
Like that extreme example, controversies about previews tend to involve producers pushing the accepted practice period — usually around four weeks — before freezing the material and declaring the production open for review. Historic offenders included “Merlin,” which had 69 previews in 1982, “Legs Diamond,” with 72 in 1989 and “Nick & Nora,” 71 in 1991.
But look at this: The theater communities in New York and London have been riled by a preview issue that has little or nothing to do with misleading audiences about unfinished work.
This time, the unrest is coming from within the artistic community itself.
In a recent interview, British director Michael Grandage made the surprising prediction that “preview periods will end in my lifetime.” In a London series called “Theatre Lives,” the director of Disney’s much-anticipated stage production of “Frozen” does not say that he wants to abolish the long-held practice, which has been especially useful to the commercial theater since most out-of-town tryouts became too expensive.
But according to a report by London’s The Stage, a co-producer of the video series, the 2010 Tony-winning director of “Red” prophesied that, before long, the first preview will be the same as the opening night. “They already are, if you like,” he added, “because of social media. You are opening to a body of opinion before you have officially opened and it’s all valid, at some level.”
He said there was a “debate raging” in the theater about previews, but, as far as I can tell, the rage is happening in London more than in New York. At least for now.
Veteran Broadway producer Elizabeth McCann insists that the preview period is “absolutely necessary, especially for the actors and playwrights on new plays.” McCann, a longtime producer of Edward Albee’s work and upcoming producer of Paula Vogel’s new play, “Indecent,” on Broadway, says the previews “give the director, the playwright, the actors a real chance to assess and adjust their work” in front of an audience. In fact, most new shows change significantly between the first preview and opening. She considers this a “continuation of the rehearsal process.”
Here comes a little of that reported rage from London. Tim Rice, lyricist on numerous hits such as “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita,” as well as Disney movies, accuses producers of treating preview periods as “super-rehearsals.”
According to The Stage, he would like to go back to the days when a show had a single dress rehearsal that was open to the public and then officially opened. “If you now have 20 previews, you will regard 19 of them as super-rehearsals, which is fine, except you are being watched by thousands.”
Like Grandage, he points to the disruptive impact of social media on accepted ways of doing things. “Now you have people tweeting and blogging immediately, so you may as well regard your first preview as your opening night, because you are going to get reviews.”
And so the ground has shifted, at least from the social-media perspective, since the years I obsessed about a different preview issue — the need for audiences to be informed when they were buying preview tickets.
I believe firmly in the value of previews, as long as they are not exploited. They work. But I began to notice a deception during the many postponements of “Nick & Nora.” Not only were producers charging top dollar — get this, $60 — for the privilege of watching practice, but nowhere did advertising for the show tell people they were taking a chance on an unfinished production.
Over the years, I brought what still seems to me like consumer fraud to the attention of three of the city’s consumer watchdogs. They all understood and took action, though they all remain powerless to enforce a discounted price. In 1991, Mark Green, head of the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs, issued a decision that told producers they had to warn customers — in print and at the box office — when the show was a preview and had to state the opening date.
By 2002, the guidelines had begun to slip through the cracks between goodwill and bad intentions. So I brought Green’s letter to the attention of Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, and she reinforced her predecessor’s decision. By the time “Spider-Man” began abusing the trust of its audiences, Bill de Blasio was public advocate. “Theatergoers deserve to know what they are buying,” he said in a statement to Newsday. “Make no mistake, there is a difference between a finished product and a preview performance that could be stopped at any time to iron out new material.”
Although he said that the problem was widespread, the impetus for his concern was “Spider-Man,” which he believed might have been “in violation of consumer-protection laws.” Spidey had to admit he was in previews.
I’m pleased to report that, except for “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” all the upcoming Broadway shows indicate on their websites that they are in previews. None that I checked are giving preview discounts, but that’s a lost cause for another day.
Meanwhile, Grandage asked why opera can open without previews, but theater cannot. This is a provocative question, but opera productions are not expected to withstand the wear and tear and scrutiny of eight performances a week over what producers hope will be many years.
Disney Theatrical confirms that, in fact, there will be a preview period for “Frozen,” both in the Denver pre-Broadway tryout next August and here on Broadway in the spring of 2018, “just as there have been previews on all nine of our previous Broadway shows.” And if the tweeters get there before the official opening, life — at least as we know it right now — goes on.