A ‘Wicked’ Challenge and Other Tough Questions for Ben Brantley

I’m 15 years old and here is my question: When was the moment you fully trusted yourself and your opinions as a critic? ELLA BRITTON, Br...


I’m 15 years old and here is my question: When was the moment you fully trusted yourself and your opinions as a critic? ELLA BRITTON, Brooklyn

I don’t think I would have been hired at The Times if I hadn’t had that confidence from the beginning. Such self-trust is among the most essential traits in a critic’s toolbox. I came from a family that insisted we be able to explain and justify our opinions, and that sort of mental discipline has served me well. And because I loved theater so much from early childhood, and spent so much time thinking about it, writing about it with conviction came naturally to me.

How have you kept any openness to what you see, and kept a love for the theater, when you’ve had to go — per contract — so often? BILL IRWIN, New York

I’m lucky. Watching plays has never felt like a chore for me. Partly this is because I’m aware that the chemistry of a play is so different with each performance, that each night is in a way a new proposition in which things could potentially go very right or very wrong. I’ve never stopped feeling that excitement. When I fell in love with the theater, it was for keeps.

Can you point to a specific play or production that your forceful aesthetic advocacy brought into existence? PATRICK WHITE, Albany, N.Y.

I’ve always felt my role was responsive and interpretive, not instructive, and I kept a deliberate distance from the artists I reviewed. Of course, there have been small productions that have gone on to larger and longer lives because of Times reviews. And it has been one of the great pleasures of my tenure to try to make a case for — to translate — the work of theater artists who might initially seem off-putting or obscure. (I love writing about such experimental pioneers as the Wooster Group, Richard Maxwell, Suzan-Lori Parks and Jackie Sibblies Drury.) But I doubt any playwright or director has conceived a project with my aesthetic in mind.

How does one stay open to new approaches when your sense of what is good may have solidified after seeing so many shows? SAANYA and DHRUV JAIN, Washington, D.C.

I think it’s precisely because you see so many shows that you’re receptive to being jolted by what’s truly new. When a playwright or director comes along working in an original vocabulary, your ears start to tingle. You’re hearing something different, something that doesn’t sound like any of the customary variations on a theme that make up at least 90 percent of your theatergoing life. And because truly original work is unsettling, you focus on it more intently.

Why do you think people don’t care about American theater heritage? GAIL ANN COHEN, St. Petersburg, Fla.

I was fascinated by the cultures of earlier generations when I was growing up. Surely, these types still exist. And they have such a pool of visuals to draw from now — the memory of YouTube stretches way back. It’s true, though, that people tend to want to stay in their own grooves of time these days. In the meantime, you have institutions like the Mint Theater Company in New York, which is devoted to overlooked plays of other times. So there are a few torchbearers around.

Over your New York Times career, what was the biggest innovation in a single Broadway show? JOHN McCAWLEY, Horsham, Pa.

I suppose the short answer is “Hamilton.” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s portrait in song of an ambition-driven founding father stretched the sense of what a mainstream musical could be in its language (both musical and spoken), tempo, soliloquizing and casting. And yet, it still appeals on the level of a classic Broadway musical. It’s satisfying in that deeply emotional way.

Are you now willing to admit that your initial appraisal of “Wicked” was way off target? ELLIOTT KAHN, Pueblo, Colo.

I can only write about my personal experience of a show. And while there were elements of “Wicked” I admired, particularly its star performances, I was clearly not its target audience. Nor, it would seem, was it beloved by many other daily reviewers when it opened. I am delighted “Wicked” found such an enthusiastic audience, especially among young people.

Is “Wicked” analogous to Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” which inspired not just revulsion but riots in Paris in 1913, yet is now perceived as a watershed in modern music? Nah.

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Newsrust: A ‘Wicked’ Challenge and Other Tough Questions for Ben Brantley
A ‘Wicked’ Challenge and Other Tough Questions for Ben Brantley
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