It was certainly an unexpected announcement that Orphans, starring Alec Baldwin, would be closing on Broadway on May 19, several weeks before its originally scheduled closing on June 30. Baldwin took the opportunity to provide some explanation for the closing in one of his columns for The Huffington Post. It’s curious to see exactly what Baldwin — who has never been shy about saying his piece (for good or for bad) — blames for the play’s early closing.
Baldwin compares the experience on Orphans to what he calls his last role in a “legit” Broadway play, A Streetcar Named Desire in 1992. Baldwin points out that during that production any bad publicity having to do with arguments or fights was swept under the rug by the producers. He writes, “Bad press about films or shows of any kind can negatively affect your chances. The opportunity to influence an audience through any kind of well-conceived or well-timed ad campaign is lost. First impressions do count. If ‘trouble’ is that first impression, it’s difficult to swim out of that riptide.”
He compares that to the media storm surrounding Shia LaBeouf being fired from Orphans. He points out, “But the tabloid culture that dominates the media today, with its jettisoning of nearly all journalistic tenets, rushes to paint the most sensational and, at times, least fact-based presentation of a story. Whatever information that is the most damning/salacious/judgmental is posted as quickly as possible and replaced by the next ‘event’ even more quickly.” He later concludes, “Tabloid journalism, and its viral impact through the Internet in particular, has changed Broadway since 1992.”
He also points blame directly at The New York Times and its current chief theater critic, Ben Brantley, whose review of Orphans was very negative. Baldwin claims that he doesn’t know anyone in the industry who follows Brantley’s work, revealing, “Beyond the obvious impact that a weak or scathing review in the Times has on sales, particularly with booking agents for tourists, no one I know of in the theatre reads Brantley except in the way that a doctor reads an x-ray to determine if you have cancer. Brantley doesn’t offer criticism, per se, as much as he seeks to signal to some that they are actually unwelcome on Broadway.”
In defense of the show, Baldwin writes, “Thus far we have performed 48 shows and we have had 48 consecutive standing ovations. That’s not easy with a drama,” and surmises, “Brantley spits in the face of all of those audiences, too.” Of course, to play devil’s advocate to Baldwin’s point (and I’ll do more of that in a bit), standing ovations have become rather standard at the conclusions of Broadway performances, haven’t they? Because of all this, he ultimately concludes, “I think it’s time for the Times to get rid of Brantley. I don’t know anyone, anyone at all, who will miss him or his writing.”
Baldwin’s column isn’t all venom, though. He congratulates co-star Tom Sturridge for his Tony nomination and gives great praise to LaBeouf’s replacement Ben Foster, who Baldwin notes “parachuted into New York and saved the play from closing.”
As someone who covers Broadway for Daily Actor and familiar with the economics of the business, I think Baldwin is off-base on most of his points here. First, he fails to note that most of the ugly publicity stemming from LaBeouf’s firing came from LaBeouf’s public releasing of behind-the-scenes e-mails via Twitter and Baldwin’s own — and also very public — responses to LaBeouf. To compare that to his experience in 1992 doesn’t quite hold water because I doubt the cast and crew were e-mailing each other back then and they certainly were not tweeting to the public. So yes, it was probably much easier for producers to keep a lid on problems in 1992. But had all parties kept their mouth shut and e-mails and tweets to themselves, LaBeouf’s exit would have been much more graceful. Instead, both Baldwin and LaBeouf fed that tabloid machine with their public spat (and like other media outlets we covered it extensively on Daily Actor). Though I completely agreed with Baldwin’s remarks about LaBeouf’s acting ability, he added as much gasoline to the fire as LaBeouf. In fact, who’s to say that the controversy hurt the show at all? Isn’t it possible that many people found out about Orphans because of the tabloid drama and bought their ticket to see how the cast and crew pulled it off?
As for Brantley, though his review is too heavily focused on the previously-mentioned backstage drama to my liking (as opposed to the on-stage drama, which he obviously should focus on), he is hardly the only critic to give Orphans a negative review. The Associated Press, Backstage, New York, Bloomberg, Time Out, AM New York, and the Financial Times also gave the play mixed to negative reviews. While The New York Times is likely the most influential review, it’s hardly the only one (and what about word of mouth? Again, perhaps those standing ovations aren’t as genuine as Baldwin thinks). Plenty of productions Brantley and other influential critics have panned were able to shake off the bad press and succeeded because audiences liked them. Orphans clearly isn’t one of them — total weekly attendance dropped from 8,065 (94% capacity) during its first week of previews to 5,960 (70% capacity) the week before the early closing was announced according to the figures on BroadwayLeague.com.
Furthermore, I am sure it is fair to guess that the three stars of Orphans, who are all not primarily stage actors, commanded salaries that were larger than the typical Broadway actor’s. Daniel Sullivan, who directed the show, also likely didn’t come cheap either. If so, those salaries drive up costs for the production, which ultimately needed to make $440,000 per week to cover its expenses according to Bloomberg. The bigger the costs, the more tickets have to be sold at each performance — and Orphans obviously wasn’t going to cover its weekly costs for long. To use another example of a play starring a “name” actor currently on Broadway, Tom Hanks‘ huge salary hasn’t turned Lucky Guy into a flop — Hanks has even extended his run because the show has been selling out night after night — all despite a lukewarm review by Brantley. In contrast, Orphans wasn’t projected to continue selling enough tickets to cover its costs. It’s possible that the production might have been more successful with a less-expensive actor than Baldwin (Bloomberg reports Baldwin’s weekly salary was $50,000 — much less than Hanks’, but still large). As pointed out above, a 70% full house isn’t going to cover that kind of salary.
Finally, I also think it’s very silly of Baldwin to state that everyone he knows thinks Brantley needs to go (“I don’t know anyone, anyone at all, who will miss him or his writing”). Can’t Baldwin just say that he dislikes Brantley’s reviews without resorting to using unnamed masses to back up his opinion? It’s a very ineffective way to try to prop up an argument. After all, if everyone disliked Brantley’s reviews, why would they still be considered influential? Indeed, why would he even still be published? And finally, if his reviews are so universally disliked, why would they be to blame for the early closing of Orphans?
In the end, Orphans and Alec Baldwin have kept on giving… and least as far as headlines are concerned.