Let me start by saying that “King Kong” is not a good musical; I accept that (and so should you). That being said, the way theater critics have been treating it reveals a fundamental divide between the type of theater that critics consider good art and the type of theater that audiences actually want to see. Several critics have called “King Kong” an empty spectacle, but for many audience members — families, tourists, etc. — spectacle is exactly what they are looking for, it is why they go to the theater in the first place.
The last occupant of the Broadway Theatre (where “King Kong” is playing) was “Miss Saigon” another musical beloved for its use of spectacle. In this show, in lieu of a sparkly helicopter, they have a 20 foot tall, 2,000-pound gorilla puppet. As far as spectacle goes, this musical is reaching new heights quite literally. “Wicked” has the proscenium dragon, “Hello Dolly” had the train, “King and I” had the boat, and don’t even get me started on “Phantom of the Opera.” Spectacle on Broadway is nothing new, in fact, it is an almost standard part of the genre of musical theater.
So why is everyone so critical of the use of spectacle in “King Kong”? Perhaps it is because other than the incredibly impressive, massive, emotive, and mobile puppet, the musical is quite flawed. Hiding under its title character is a sloppy book, forgettable songs, confused design, and frantic choreography. Critics have been inconsistent when it comes to spectacle, but they often are quite negative about it. Just last season, many lamented that spectacle, adaptations, and jukebox musicals were heralding the death of the art form, arguing that Broadway is just churning out whatever tourists will pay to see.
“King Kong” has unexpectedly become a catalyst for a debate on the nature and purpose of theater criticism. In particular, some very harsh reviews of the show caused controversy online, with many saying that critics were being unnecessarily mean, delighting in punny insults. Yes, it is the job of theater critics to be, well, critical, but that does not mean that we have to take pleasure in being cruel.
Admittedly, I have written quite a few scathing reviews (last season’s “Children of a Lesser God,” “Escape to Margaritaville” and “The Parisian Woman” come to mind) but I did not take sadistic joy in pointing out the errors of the productions. For these three shows, in particular, I took issue with them for specific reasons: offensive, outdated, and ableist content, bad writing, bad acting. For each review, however, I tried to think about what audiences want. After writing my reviews, I always hope that my reviews can generally reflect what audiences would think.
Critics are often seen as the gatekeepers of Broadway, but in a world where a great deal of audiences are tourists, critics do not represent the desires of the masses. By no stretch is “King Kong” a good musical from a critical, artistic perspective, however, it does appeal to the public. It is fun, thrilling, entertaining, and has more spectacle than ever before. It not only uses spectacle, but it pulls it off better than almost any musical ever has. Critics may hate it, but most likely audiences will enjoy it.
After all, remember that most critics gave bad reviews to “Wicked.” Spectacle is not the enemy; it may be opposed to the high art that many critics want, but it is exactly what many audience members are looking for. If a tourist or a family member asked me what to go see on Broadway, I would not recommend a stirring drama like “The Ferryman” or “The Waverly Gallery.” Although they are both great pieces, I know this is not what they are looking for; they want a big musical. It may not be high art, but yes, I would recommend they go see “King Kong” if they want a fun night at the theater.
So, critics (myself included) should be cautious, should be wary, and yes, should certainly be critical, but they should not consider mocking megamusicals to be an Olympic sport. There is no trophy for the wittiest insult. You will not win a Pulitzer for denigrating the shallowness of a high-budget production. Instead, critics should try to not only promote the kind of art they want on Broadway, but should take the audience into account, and think about what the public wants to see.
To be clear: I agree, Broadway needs more than just spectacle, we need thoughtful revivals, provoking new plays, genre-bending musical pieces, and inventive productions, but amidst all of that there is more than enough room for a giant gorilla puppet.