behind the scenes

The Hunter Becomes the Hunted

I was this magazine’s theater reviewer. Now I’ve co-written a Broadway musical. Those jobs have one big thing in common.

Alex Brightman, in foreground, as Beetlejuice in Beetlejuice: The Musical. Photo: Matthew Murphy 2018
Alex Brightman, in foreground, as Beetlejuice in Beetlejuice: The Musical. Photo: Matthew Murphy 2018

What’s it like to make things for a living?

Everyone wants to know, because who doesn’t want to make things? But everyone especially wants to know what it’s like to make things for a living if you’re someone who used to break things for a living — in either the good way or the bad way. Especially the bad way.

I once made my living as a theater critic. At this magazine, actually. Now I’m attempting to make a living as a “creative,” which is lousy corporate English but sounds less grandiose than “creator.” (What if, when I worked for New York, I’d been a “critical”? Would I have sounded less grandiose? Or more radioactive?)

What people really want to know is: What’s it like to transition from cannon to fodder? What’s it like having that elaborate, intimidating face tattoo of criticdom lasered off and hitting the street legit, straight-edge, selling hard, and waiting for a karmic boomerang to catch you square in the teeth?

All right, then: What it’s like is terrifying. Primally. Like being afraid of the dark.

And also: familiar. What’s been surprising, for me, is feeling the same fear I always felt as a critic, as a writer, as a human being. Fear, unchecked, defines everything up there under the melting-hot lights and out there in the pensive gloom where judgment waits. Fear is the common enemy that unites critic and practitioner, performer and audience. That and money, but money is boring — just fear quantified, really — so let’s stick with fear.

A note on the time line: I didn’t run away from criticism to join the circus. I was already half-a-book writer on Beetlejuice (with TV comedy writer Anthony King) before I became the theater critic for New York Magazine. That’s how agonizingly, Afghanistanically long developing a Broadway musical can take. (Which is absurd and a subject for another essay.) While I was still at Entertainment Weekly, I’d co-written a small Off Broadway show (Gutenberg! The Musical!) with Anthony. Though it’s often overlooked in the mostly performative forever war between makers and haters that social media has made algorithmic, there’s a rich tradition of writers’ working both sides of the proscenium. And on both sides, you find fear.

Fear is a critic’s métier; at least it was this critic’s, back when this creative was a critic. Not instilling fear. I can’t say I enjoyed the look in the eyes of press representatives outside the theater handing me my tickets the way you hand a loaded pistol to an addled child: Why am I doing this? I didn’t enjoy the cortisol-injected calls the next morning probing for hints: Did you like it? It’s strange, and more than a little disconcerting, to have people care more about your opinion than you do. Luckily, I didn’t review for the Times, so my opinion really didn’t matter, not in dollars and cents and Tonys, but the stakes still seemed too high. A value had been placed on my caprices and cortical misfires, and that value was nonzero. This seemed like a bank error in no one’s favor.

Which brings us to the fear I felt. Most nights on the aisle, it was all I had to work with. When the lights come up on a new show, what you feel — apart from regret over the dollar slice of pizza you inhaled on the way to the theater — is the following:

There go the lights. Here comes the dark.

Aaaaand … Oh, God.

What am I looking at?

Am I missing something?

I just missed something while I was thinking, Am I missing something?

Am I getting it?

I’m getting it. This could work. Maybe this will work.

Wait, I’m not getting it.

Is there nothing to get but I’m too cowardly to say so?

Oh, God, the act’s ending and I still don’t — wait, no, it’s not.

Did they mean to do that? I have to assume they did. Don’t I?

When will this end? Because I need time. And coffee. And another dollar slice. To decide what it was.

Oh, that bit was wonderful!

Oh, but that bit was … well, I don’t know what that was.

Now that, I know I hate. It bothers me. Maybe in a good way?

I can’t read the notes I just wrote. Did I write part of them on the armrest? No one saw. “He had performed his mistakes in the dark, so he was still a man.” Relief. Retreat.

What can I say? What in God’s name do I have to say — that isn’t a news crawl of my thoughts and feelings? That isn’t a summary? That isn’t a dodge or a blurb or a cheap shot? That hasn’t been said 6 billion times before?

There. I wrote something. I made a case. I think it worked. I think maybe … it worked!?

Criticism is a craft built for one. In the end, you’re in a little bathysphere all by yourself, pressurized for your discomfort, and you can use up your oxygen very quickly if you’re not careful. People imagine critics dispatching shows, actors, and whole careers while lounging in a bubble bath with a quill. I never owned a quill. I never had a tub suitable for lounging, and I never once filed a review I was entirely comfortable with. I never stopped being afraid, and, to an extent, I was grateful for that fear. It kept me aware. It linked me to what was happening onstage: the high-wire act of being intelligible, being original, being interesting.

Which brings me back to Beetlejuice.

Beetlejuice is, to an extent, a story of fear. (To an extent, I emphasize. It’s also got a giant Sandworm.) Most of the characters are terrified of the possibility that they live in a world (or a netherworld) that lacks meaning, that threatens to fling them apart, isolating them in a private oblivion indistinguishable from death. (That, plus Sandworms.) Ultimately they find meaning in each other because they’re what’s there.

Well, that’s any group of creatives sitting around a table. Being part of Beetlejuice (and, contractually mandated poster-font-size aside, I am a very small part of Beetlejuice) means fighting and folding and fulminating and resenting and benefiting from and ultimately submitting to the collective jet stream. (Happily and luckily, for the most part, given the currents that make up this jet stream: Anthony King, the funniest guy I’ve ever known; Eddie Perfect, musical-comedian par excellence; puppet-master Michael Curry; and the visionary Alex Timbers holding the Tim Burton–ness of it all together.) The process of dragging a story out of a reluctant and chaotic universe is no fun at all for “creatives.” It involves countless meetings, phone calls, workshops, the ruthless torture of actors and each other, and occasionally, raised voices/threatening mime. (The “book” of a musical comprises the story and dialogue and all that lovely connective gristle.) It’s all very blank-page terrifying, but to paraphrase a famous French bumper sticker, “Help Is Other People.” And the only way to conquer the fear of What is this? is to have company. In the worst-possible scenario, you can at least take some fellow “creatives” down with you, and that’s cozy. Best-case scenario, you make something wonderful, something wholly new and insistent on itself, something that forced its way to the surface despite all the failures and freak-outs along the way.

To be working with people who care significantly less about your opinion than you do and, more often than not, are absolutely right to overrun your weak position from a stronger one — this is a change. Sometimes a blessed relief. Sometimes a collapsing Centralia crater of sulfurous and consuming self-doubt.

But mostly nice.

Here’s the thing: No matter where I’ve found myself sitting, I’ve never not felt the bravery of theater. It’s what got me onstage in eighth grade when everything in life scared me shitless and I needed some torch to light against the murk. It’s what’s kept me in theaters, on and off in various capacities, for my whole ridiculous, furtive, shambolic life. I felt that bravery when I was alone on the aisle, and I feel it now, huddled in the dark with my betters, my fellow creatives, and an unsuspecting audience, watching performers so inspired you suspect them of demonic possession. All of us united by fear — and its opposite.

So, no, I don’t think of myself as a rehabilitated critic. I think of myself as terrified and interested and humbled and exhilarated in roughly equal proportions. What was true for Critic Me holds true for Creative Me: When the lights go down, there’s that moment when we’re all afraid of the dark together. And we all have an interest in illuminating that moment, meeting it with bravery. And perhaps a Sandworm. We all have an interest in Maybe this will work.

Beetlejuice begins previews on March 28 at the Winter Garden Theatre for an April 25 opening. Buy tickets here.

*This article appears in the March 18, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

When a Theater Reviewer Becomes the One Being Reviewed