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November 01, 2012


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I think you're missing the point. It's not saying "don't criticize ever." It's saying "hey, maybe give it a minute."

I think lots of good art leaves its creators in a weirdly vulnerable state for at least a few days, and maybe a few years. Maybe you have such a bold, unshakeable artistic vision that instant criticism is healthy. But most humans, including Sondheim, can't handle it right away. So, hey, maybe give it a minute. Later you can break it down together and build it stronger. In the meantime, make better art yourself. And then, hopefully, someone else will give it a minute.


What I find really bizarre about this story is that Sondheim ASKED. If "nobody cares what you think" then, you know, don't ask someone what he thinks. Jason says he's had his share of "putzes come up to me to share their completely unwanted opinion," and that's a different thing. That IS poor etiquette at the least, kind of a dick move at the most. Even with friends I probably won't say if I hated something unsolicited, at least not right away, while the emotional investment is high. But if someone asks me outright what I thought of a show, I assume it's because they want me to tell them.

Jason and Sondheim (no, I can't call him Steve) are two of the artists I respect most in the world, because of their work but also because of how honest and direct they always appear to be. So the thought that either of them would ever say "What do you think?" simply to be praised is troubling to me.


I think Brown's piece is more about timing. Opening Nights should be a celebration - even if the piece is not entirely successful. The moment the baby is born is not the moment to point out big ears.


I think it most troubling that JRB reports he is 'paraphrasing' Stephen Sondheim, leaving his whole story pointless and proving to me he has learned absolutely nothing about any entanglement with genius.


Every single thing you just wrote (whoever you are, who wrote this blog entry) is what I was thinking when I read Jason Robert Brown's recap of his Sondheim conversation. In fact, I came to your blog from a thread on Facebook that was discussing the original JRB blog, and here's what I wrote in that thread:

I started writing a comment last night, and then my computer froze (symbolic?!?); I,personally, totally disagree with that paragraph paraphrased from Sondheim. I, personally, don't EVER want someone to tell me they loved my work if they didn't. I don't ever want to be lied to. I don't ever want to be encouraged or coddled or warm-fuzzied EVEN if it's opening night of my magnum opus. I am a glutton for harsh criticism - seriously. This might be because my baseline emotion is "vicious self-loathing", and it often feels refreshing to have a different voice rip me to shreds instead of my own...but whatever the reason, I really get no benefit from compliments or gushing praise, and I really REALLY would not want to be hearing those things if what my friends authentically felt was that my work was a train wreck. And because of all of this, I would never be angry at someone who didn't like what I created. I'd be interested, I'd be curious, I'd want us to talk, but angry? No way. It's not rude to have an opinion. It's not rude to have artistic tastes. It's called "being engaged and thinking critically." Sheesh.

Everyone else in the thread though JRB's post was thoughtful and wise. I felt like some kind of freak. Thanks for not leaving me out there all alone. :)

Rob Weinert-Kendt

I think Sondheim's alleged comment--as noted, paraphrased from memory--is an over-the-top expression of a certain truth, and so is your intemperate response.

I didn't read "Nobody cares what you think" as a liftable dictum for all time, or even a personal dismissal by a veteran of a newbie; in context, I took it to mean what the rest of the quote spells it out to mean: that an artist doesn't want to hear bad news from his peers while he's got a show on. I do think the position Sondheim put these young fellows in was awkward at best, and one part of the problem with situations like this is that the ground rules re: feedback are perilously unclear and prone to misunderstanding. Still, I get the impression from the story that Sondheim really wanted to share "Passion" with them, and that his hurt at their "meh" reaction came from a sincerely vulnerable place.

So should JRB extrapolate a lesson from it for all of us? Maybe not, but I can't blame an artist for saying, essentially: Critics will have their say; my collaborators in workshopping and making the work have had their say; but now that my ass is hanging in the wind onstage, I need my peers/colleagues to just show up and have my back.

Finally, I should be clear, for all my defense, I don't fully endorse this lesson, and I certainly could never taken it to heart (though I might be a lot happier if I could). I think I would have done something pretty similar in JRB's position (especially if the show had been "Passion," at which I dozed prodigiously).


Fair enough. Chris Shinn has expressed a similar desire about feedback. It's up to every artist, for sure. So maybe the fault lies more with JRB (who, again, I have much respect for as an artist) who is definitely extrapolating this lesson as a deep truth about artists. That I reject. It's up to the artist to set the terms of feedback and response, whether it's a workshop, a reading or, yes, drinks and dinner after a show. That Sondheim didn't set those terms is on him. That JRB seems to set the terms for all artists is on him.

Also, for the record, despite what others have said, there is *no* reference to this being an opening night performance at all or that Sondheim is only talking about a post-opening night thing. It appears to be a dictum for the length of the run of a show. Which can be a long time. Just sayin'.

Andrew R. Heinze

Of course it's bad form to offer an artist an unsolicited critique, but in this anecdote that's not what happened. SS INVITED two young men to dinner and virtually COMPELLED them to talk about his show. There was no way out for them short of sustained lying. Had he run into them after the show and asked in passing what they thought, then they could simply have given a diplomatic "Loved It," and moved on. But in this situation, where they were captive for as long as dinner lasted, they did the only thing they could: try to talk about something else, anything else, so as not to offend! Rule One: if you invite someone to dinner after your show and insist they tell you what they think of it, be prepared to listen. Or don't ask. Just let everyone have a good time celebrating you!

If this anecdote is an accurate portrait of what happened, I find it almost astounding that SS would corral a couple of youths like a Dickensian schoolmaster, demand his one right answer, and then, when it wasn't forthcoming, punish the boys for their recalcitrance. I would have imagined the opposite: SS perceiving the irony of the situation and enjoying the earnest honesty of his young fans -- maybe learning something from them, maybe not, but enjoying the joie de vivre implicit in their candor. That would be more in the spirit of Art, wouldn't it?


Yes, you've completely missed the point here. This is not about the state of artistic criticism, or about how everyone is best when they're lying all the time. It's about a very specific truth which is that there's a fine line between honesty and diplomacy, and one has to walk that line very carefully when you work in this business. It may not be your ideal, but it is very practical advice, even when you're dealing with someone who you would think might be impervious to these kinds of feelings. You clearly know this, or else you wouldn't be publishing this blog anonymously. Right?


The thing is, this story has changed over several years (it has been written of in the Sondheim Review, and elsewhere). JRB claims now that this was NOT Passion that he saw, yet it was a *new* show in 1993, and apprently was not a preview but was "frozen" as of opening. Which adds up to...nothing. I don't know of any show that fits that criteria.

Regardless, I'm a relatively young theatre fan who worships Sondheim. I love Passion, but regardless of whether that was the show, or not, if I was someone hoping to get my own shows seen, and an artists I worshipped "treated" me (JRB's words) to a ticket and then dinner after, I would use the opportunity to try to ask about the creative process. "Why did you..." etc. Not to simply remain silent about the show for 20 minutes and then say that it wasn't good (which is what JRB implies he did). It's not remotely the same as being a paying ticket holder going to the theatre and expressing his disappointment with the show.

Vincent Blackshadow

Your comment, 99:
"Also, for the record, despite what others have said, there is *no* reference to this being an opening night performance at all or that Sondheim is only talking about a post-opening night thing."

What JRB wrote:
"The night comes, Franz and I take our seats, and we notice that sitting right behind us is Frank Rich, the chief theatre critic for The New York Times.... We chose to go on the very same night that the Times came to review the show. The most important night in the life of any show in New York City."

What you wrote, 99:
"It appears to be a dictum for the length of the run of a show."

What JRB paraphrased from Sondheim:
"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..."

Vincent Blackshadow

While I'm at it, I want to add this too:

Your comment, 99:
"...despite what others have said, there is *no* reference to this being an opening night performance at all..."

Your article, directly above, entitled "An American Horror Story":
"We're talking about the opening night of a Broadway show."

Shame, shame on you.


My shame is my own careless writing? I see. And your quote from the article above proves my point. So, you know, thanks.

Vincent Blackshadow

I didn't expect you to react well to my criticism so soon after you published this piece. Yes, part of your shame is your careless writing and apparent inability or unwillingness to bother using a spellchecker ("sad things ab0ut us playwrights") or to proofread your post ("I do not want this to be [a] portrait of how theatre artists..")("called Sondheim to talk about it [and] was given this").

You did ask to be shamed. Of course, you meant shamed on your own terms, not on terms of good writing.

So if you want more substantial criticism, your piece is jejune and willfully dishonest. Your claims "...is definitely extrapolating this lesson as a deep truth about artists.", and "That JRB seems to set the terms for all artists is on him." have scant evidence. Twice JRB says this is a lesson for "us". I took that to mean that if an established star in your field invites you to see his new show and meet with him personally afterward, the operative word - if you did not care for what you saw - is "tact". But you seem to have taken it to mean that JRB is lecturing all artists to be subservient to all established people in their field, and that he is endorsing all of Sondheim's (second-hand) rant against criticism. Fine. Overreacting is a juvenile characteristic, but no doubt you do not believe you overreacted.

Willfully dishonest? "We're building a community of mutual sycophancy, daisy chains of artistic blowjobs and calling that support." Nobody is building that. It is already in place. It was in place before you were born. JRB's article is a poor example, very mild in comparison to the decades of prior history and nothing for someone to go thermonuclear about.

I have no idea how you think the quote in my previous comment made your point, but just so my point is perfectly clear, without irony or sarcasm, and not a joke: you are a sloppy writer, a sloppy reader, and a sloppy thinker who is as allergic to criticism as anyone else in the theatre. You fit right in.

You're welcome.

Simon Crowe

You're slightly overreacting. Sondheim didn't indicate he was inviting a serious discussion of the work with a 23 year old stranger and it was pretty forward to offer one given the situation. In my small theater community I almost always know someone involved with a show. When I speak to them after a show I'm congratulating the effort as much as anything else because that's what I'd want if the roles were reversed. If the situation arises we may discuss the show in more depth at a later time, and in that moment I have no problem voicing an opinion. If I really don't feel I can respect the effort then I simply don't hang around afterwards. I think the vulnerability that an actor/writer/director feels after a performance should be respected, but by the same token we artists shouldn't make that vulnerability a fetish.

Adam Szymkowicz

I think constructive criticism is incredibly important. But there is a time and a place for it. And I think the details of this story are less important than the conversation about how to live as an artist in this community. How and when are we honest with our friends about their work? How do we support artists we believe in when we dislike one of their pieces. When is it best to say something and when is it best not to say anything?


I'm in general agreement with the sentiment of Rob's comment, though I personally don't think it's right to be outright dishonest (I will not say "I loved it!" if I wanted to slit my wrists 5 minutes into the show). I think JRB acted appropriately given the situation -- though a well-timed "Congrats!" might've lessened the blow a bit (you can't just pretend the show didn't happen!).

But in all honesty: if you were meeting your idol for the first time, would you dare to give him/her criticism? I certainly wouldn't. There's a time and a place for everything, as Adam states above, and perhaps after a little bit of time and rapport-building, JRB could and should have offered his thoughts.

Eric Pfeffinger

Interesting; I'm of two minds about the anecdote and the ensuing cavalcade of how-to-live-your-life directives. On one hand, had I been in Jason Robert Brown's place, I can guarantee that I would not have offered criticisms, constructive or otherwise, in response to Sondheim's invitation. Instead I personally would have found concrete things I could speak positively about without lying. (We've all been in similar situations dozens of times -- one gets good at this.) I'm not saying this is admirable or otherwise, just that it's what I would have done.

On the other hand, just because that's what I would have done, I'm hesitant to generalize that into a categorical imperative that everyone must do. The fact that Sondheim invited an evaluative response and then (apparently?) perceptibly felt stung by it (indeed, felt stung by having to ask for it in the first place) seems like a scenario straight out of a comedy-of-humiliation sitcom: the powerful and successful icon asks the wide-eyed admirer a question and then punishes him for answering. It's potentially a very funny scene, but the most culpable and foolish one in the scenario isn't the JRB figure.

Basically, it seems like sometimes dissembling is advisable and sometimes it's unnecessary; probably depends on the audience. I would expect anyone in Sondheim's position to react to the situation, even if JRB were being genuinely inappropriate and tone-deaf, with benign amusement rather than wounded pride. Theater gains nothing from all of us acting like china teacups.

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