Walter Kerr was the Ben Brantley of the ’60s and ’70s.
What’s interesting about Kerr is that prior to his Pulitizer Prize-winning career as a critic for the NY Times, he was a book writer for Broadway musicals, and contributed to six shows on the Great White Way. (What is also interesting to me is that he was one of Sondheim’s toughest critics and I often wonder if he’d change his tune if he’d been able to see any of the recent revivals.)
Kerr was pretty knowledgeable about what it took for a musical to work, and he said so in a very simple way on January 28, 1968, in his review of the original Off-Broadway production of Your Own Thing:.
Do you remember those little light bulbs that used to pop into place over the heads of comic strip characters whenever one of them got a bright idea? All a good musical really needs is one such light bulb, for starters. The wattage doesn’t matter, where it comes from doesn’t matter, the only thing that matters is the quick sharp click that lights the place up and lets us see things in sudden color.”
Kerr so poetically puts into words something that I think about all the time.
Yes, the play is the thing.
But without the right idea, the play is nothing.
How many pitches for shows have you heard that you just knew weren’t going to work? They don’t feel musical. The stakes don’t feel high enough. They are too complicated, or not complicated enough.
When deciding what project you are going to spend the next several years of your life on, make sure the concept passes Kerr’s test.
The idea alone has to light up a room, so that the show can light up the stage.
Special thanks to my office historian, Jen, for putting this article on my desk.