Thirty-seven years ago, as a sophomore at Cornell University in Upstate New York, Gordon Davidson had to give a speech, arguing either side of the proposition, “Nothing that matters exists west of the Hudson River.”
Davidson had no trouble mounting a strong argument in favor of that proposition. After all, the Hudson runs along the western border of New York City, and Davidson had lived his entire life on the eastern side of that border, convinced--with considerable justification--that New York and, by extension, the entire Boston-New York-Washington corridor was the epicenter of American civilization.
Much has changed since 1951. Davidson has long lived in Los Angeles, where he is artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, and--not surprisingly--he thinks theater and other culture west of the Hudson have been grievously undervalued by the national media based in New York.
Davidson makes no claim that Los Angeles--or Chicago or San Francisco or Seattle--is the new Athens (or even the new New York) of America. New York is still the undisputed cultural capital of the country. But Davidson argues (and many others agree) that high-quality theater, art and music have become increasingly available outside New York over the last two or three decades.
In fact, two years ago, the New York-based cultural magazine the New Criterion published a special issue examining whether “New York’s status as a cultural capital may actually be undergoing a significant shift.” In that issue, composer Hugo Weisgall argued, “The adventuresome (opera) companies are all outside of New York,” and Alan Rich--former music critic for Newsweek, now music critic at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner--said the Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland symphony orchestras all “at the moment . . . play rings around the New York Philharmonic.”
But there is little recognition in the national media of this spread of artistic quality. The major national media are still headquartered in New York--Time and Newsweek, ABC, CBS and NBC, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, virtually all the important cultural, intellectual and special-interest magazines, and nearly every major book publisher. Result: New York still dominates the media’s cultural agenda; with few exceptions--and despite recent improvements--the decentralization of American culture has not been matched by a decentralization of American cultural coverage.
Indeed, Rich himself quit Newsweek last year after the magazine decided it did not have enough space to run his review of the premiere of a new and important opera, “Nixon in China,” in a new and important opera house, Houston’s.
Rich regarded that premiere as “the major musical event of 1987,” and he viewed his editors’ decision to ignore it as “the last straw,” final proof of their “diminished interest” in high culture in general and in cultural news from outside New York in particular.
Newsweek editors deny this charge, but Executive Editor Stephen Smith does concede that the magazine has had, in recent years, “less theater coverage in the magazine, period, than there used to be.
“That, I think, reflects the hard times that Broadway is going through, by and large,” he says. “Regional theater is a very difficult story for a national publication to cover.”
But that very statement reveals the New York bias of the New York-based national media.
Broadway is still, by far, the primary showcase for and popularizer of commercial theater in this country; even a playwright like David Henry Hwang, Los Angeles born and raised, felt he had to find a Broadway producer to open “M. Butterfly” in New York early this year because of the “greater visibility” there. But unlike “M. Butterfly"--which won a Tony award--most major Broadway productions these days are not original plays, as had previously been the case for decades. By any standard--critical reviews, box-office receipts, Tony awards--"the best plays of the year, consistently, for the last five or more years, have come either from regional theater or from far off Broadway (or London),” says theater critic Mel Gussow of the New York Times. “They don’t originate on Broadway and not very often do they originate in New York anymore.”
As the Christian Science Monitor pointed out last year, “During the past 25 years, America has witnessed an unprecedented explosion in the performing arts . . . nearly 300 resident theaters have sprung up across the country.”
But except for theaters in cities an hour’s flight from New York--Washington, Boston, Cambridge, New Haven--the national media pays little attention to those 300 new theaters. Newsweek, for example, has published reviews of regional theater outside the East Coast only three times in the last three years. Time has done so 10 times. In that same period, Time reviewed 72 Broadway plays and published reviews of plays from other East Coast theaters 16 times.
“The Boston-Washington corridor does get more attention,” says William A. Henry III, Time’s theater critic. “One reason is that (theater there) . . . is probably better.”
Much regional theater is “really only so-so . . . mediocre . . . cheesy-looking . . . not wildly imaginative,” he says.
But Henry, who probably does more regional theater criticism than any other major national critic, also concedes that, living in New Jersey and working in New York, it’s easier for him to review plays on the East Coast than elsewhere in the nation.
More important, he says, “There’s a greater feeling . . . of urgency about almost anything that happens here than anything of comparable value that would happen elsewhere. . . . Broadway is news per se.”
For the first 30 years of the Pulitzer Prizes, there was a written requirement that only plays performed in New York would be eligible for a Pulitzer. Even after that restriction was formally lifted in 1948, board members continued to observe it until 1981, when a resolution was passed saying that plays produced elsewhere should be considered.
The Pulitzer Board also began selecting at least one juror each year from outside New York, and a modest amount of money was appropriated so that at least one juror could travel to see a few plays elsewhere.
Since 1981, two plays--"Crimes of the Heart” and “ ‘Night, Mother"--have won Pulitzers after having their premieres outside New York. But both premieres were east of the Mississippi and both had Broadway engagements lined up before they won their Pulitzers. To this day, no play has won a Pulitzer Prize unless it has either appeared in New York or been scheduled to appear in New York.
Case in point: August Wilson’s “Fences” opened in New Haven in 1986, and was subsequently produced in such cities as Seattle, Chicago and San Francisco. It won no Pulitzer. In 1987, “Fences” came to Broadway. Bingo. It won a Pulitzer.
One major reason Broadway remains the major focus of media coverage of the theater is that the New York Times continues to focus on Broadway, and it is the New York Times--in theater coverage as in most other coverage--that helps set the agenda for other media in this country.
In cultural coverage, in fact, the New York Times is really the only national news organ that even purports to thoroughly cover the entire country--although the Wall Street Journal is widely praised for doing a good, if limited, job. Since Oct. 1., the Journal has covered art in Ft. Worth and Seattle, music in San Francisco and Nashville, theater in Minneapolis, architecture in Chicago and book publishing in Lincoln, Neb. But the Journal has only one page, five days a week, for “Leisure and Arts”; its scope remains restricted by both its space and its priorities.
The other national newspaper, USA Today, is far more interested in popular culture than high culture; the news magazines have little space for cultural coverage; the networks, except for “CBS Sunday Morning,” virtually ignore culture.
That leaves the New York Times--which, even its detractors acknowledge--does a better job covering culture than does any other national general-interest news organization.
Frank Rich, the New York Times first-string theater critic, readily concedes, “The Broadway system has broken down,” and in recognition of that change, he and Gussow, the paper’s other staff theater critic, do review some plays at regional theaters. But most of those are on the East Coast.
Rich and Gussow review plays in New York and Washington, in Boston and Cambridge and New Haven, and they go to Louisville and London and. . . .
But they seldom review plays in the West or Southwest, and neither has ever reviewed a single play in California for the New York Times--a circumstance that enrages many in the California theater community and puzzles many in the theater community nationwide.
“I don’t know how you ignore the variety and intensity of the work being done in Los Angeles, San Francisco,” says Peter Zeisler, director of the Theater Communications Group, a New York-based organization of more than 300 nonprofit theaters throughout the United States (50 of which are in New York).
Rich says he hasn’t reviewed plays in California for the New York Times--although he has reviewed plays in Chicago and, this year, in Seattle--because the plays he’s generally most interested in reviewing in California are Broadway-bound. Many producers of new plays in regional theaters don’t want reviews in the New York Times (or other national media), for fear that a negative review might discourage financial backers from mounting a Broadway production. Thus, these producers often discourage critics for national publications from reviewing their productions, and the critics usually honor those requests--much as they refrain from reviewing other Broadway-bound plays that open as out-of-town tryouts in Eastern cities.
With such plays off-limits--and given his time-consuming, primary obligation to cover theater in New York--Rich says, “There has never been a conglomeration of new plays running at the same time, at a time when I can do it, to justify a trip out there in terms of expense and so on.”
But Arthur Gelb, managing editor of the New York Times, said he was surprised to learn that Rich had never reviewed a play in California in his eight years as the paper’s chief theater critic.
“If he wants to go to the West Coast, it’s inconceivable to me that he would be turned down,” Gelb said. “He’s not supposed to think about budgetary constraints.”
Other New York Times critics don’t seem to feel such constraints. The paper reviews concerts, dance, opera and museum openings in non-Eastern cities more often than it does theater. Despite Rich’s concerns about reviewing a play in a distant city, Paul Goldberger, the New York Times architecture critic, has traveled to San Francisco, San Diego, Houston, Dallas, Denver, San Antonio and elsewhere at various times to review buildings.
Many knowledgeable theater observers, in California and elsewhere, say that with Los Angeles, La Jolla, San Diego and San Francisco to choose among, a national critic could swing through the state for several days once or twice a year, either to review several worthwhile plays or to write about the state of the theater here, a subject that would certainly seem to merit at least some attention from a national newspaper, whether the plays were Broadway-bound or not.
The New York Times is still primarily a New York newspaper, with more than two-thirds of its weekday circulation in New York and New Jersey. But the paper has long had a national impact and has long seen itself as the country’s paper of record and its leading daily journal of culture.
The paper’s national scope is growing now that it publishes a special national edition, available virtually everywhere in the country, and just three weeks ago, it published a story on regional American opera. The national edition, which now sells more than 40,000 copies in California, was expanded in San Francisco and Los Angeles this year to include a section on “The Living Arts.” The section features a regular column called “Points West” and, on occasion, western arts stories displayed more prominently than those same stories are displayed in the New York edition.
Increased theater coverage in California seems likely--especially now that a new culture editor Marvin Siegel has taken over at the paper, with (it is said) both a greater interest in and a greater charter for national theater coverage.
“The West Coast is very important to us,” Gelb says. “Whether a theater critic or a culture editor likes it or not, he’s going to have to look to the West, culturally speaking.”
What took Eastern editors and critics so long to look west?
The answer, in part, may be that New Yorkers have traditionally sneered at any cultural offerings from Los Angeles, an attitude best exemplified by a longstanding riddle: “What’s the difference between Los Angeles and a bowl of yogurt?” Answer: “Yogurt has a live culture.”
For many years, such scorn was largely justified. Los Angeles had no resident opera or ballet and no theater or symphony orchestra or art museum that compared with the nation’s best. The best-known symbols of Los Angeles were not elegant theaters or graceful architecture but brown skies--and restaurants shaped like doughnuts, hats and hot dogs. The jokes and snide asides about Los Angeles--"Double Dubuque,” “40 suburbs in search of a city,” “Iowa with palms,” “the country’s largest open-air asylum,” “a big, hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup"--contributed to the image of the city as a cultural wasteland.
When Eastern journalists thought about culture in Los Angeles at all, they thought about movies and television, both of which have their creative centers here. In fact, it can be argued that the creative decisions made here in those two populist industries ultimately influence far more Americans than do any decisions in the world of art, opera, theater, dance and the other high-culture art forms headquartered in New York. To this day, says Michael Reese, Newsweek’s bureau chief in Los Angeles, 30% of his bureau’s working time is spent covering movies and television.
But high culture is prestige culture, and over the past decade or so, Los Angeles has developed a genuine high culture. It is still no match for New York’s. No sane person would claim that the quality and variety of theater now available in Los Angeles is in the same league as New York theater, for example. Los Angeles theater has improved enormously, though, and until very recently, many people in the New York media world seemed not to have noticed any change at all.
Linda Winer, formerly with the Chicago Tribune and USA Today and now theater critic for Newsday in New York, has written that New Yorkers still “prefer not to recognize signs of cognitive life on the other coast.”
Even now, she says, when a Los Angeles play opens in New York, “the tone (of most reviews) can be really very ugly.”
The critics, Winer says, almost invariably seem to suggest that “something despicable has been done . . . a major humiliation has been perpetrated on us and it came from those airheads on that coast.”
Gussow of the New York Times concedes that “any play that comes to town wearing the label, ‘Best play of the year--Los Angeles drama critics’ . . . will meet with a certain degree of skepticism (in New York).”
John Simon, theater critic for New York magazine, best demonstrated this attitude a few years ago when--in a review of a play that had opened in New York after a successful run in Los Angeles--he wrote, “Two sure-fire ways of spotting a theatrical stinker are (1) actors wearing clown makeup, and (2) critical and audience adulation in Los Angeles.”
In an effort to avoid such a hostile response, some producers bringing Los Angeles plays to New York eliminate, minimize or obscure the origins of the play in the New York program and/or press releases on the New York production.
When the New York Times reviewed British playwright Simon Gray’s “The Common Pursuit” in New York in 1985, the play’s world premiere in London and its American premiere in New Haven were both noted, but no mention was made of its 10-week run in Los Angeles, even though what Gray himself had called the “radically rewritten” Los Angeles version of the play--not the London or New Haven versions--was the one that had ultimately been deemed suitable for Broadway.
Even more upsetting to many in the Los Angeles arts community, the New York Times didn’t send either of its staff drama critics to the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, even though the festival included several world-class theatrical events and drew more than 1,000 journalists from a dozen foreign countries.
The New York Times did cover the Olympic Arts Festival (and did review some non-theatrical events) with other staffers, but Gussow says he was out of the country at the time of the festival and Rich says he was “stuck in New York” at the time. “The drama component of the festival became less interesting (when) the major American theater event (Robert Wilson’s “CIVIL warS”) was canceled,” Rich said.
Many in the Los Angeles theater community are still disgruntled that Rich didn’t attend such an international festival. Though much of this reaction is clearly a matter of wounded parochial pride and vested self-interest, many outside Los Angeles share that view.
“If a paper thinks an event is important, it sends its critic,” Newsday’s Winer says.
Jack Kroll, senior editor and theater critic at Newsweek, agrees.
The New York Times’ decision not to send Rich or Gussow to the festival was “amazing . . . incredible,” he says. “Don’t they characterize themselves as . . . a national newspaper and . . . the newspaper of record?”
Kroll says that when he was in Los Angeles for the 10-week festival, he could see that it would “change cultural life forever in Los Angeles.”
Many national publications have made precisely that point since the festival. In fact, the combination of the festival, the opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art and the expansion of the County Art Museum have won the city’s cultural life new respect from many East Coast media.
The New York Times Magazine itself said, “Los Angeles has come of age as one of the great cities of the world.” The Atlantic Monthly published a long story with the same theme--"Los Angeles Comes of Age.” Travel & Leisure called Los Angeles “a cultural pearl of the Pacific.” Town and Country published a story on Los Angeles art collectors.
But Los Angeles is not alone in its quest for recognition from the Eastern media. There is still a widespread perception in the East that the very concept of Western culture is an oxymoron. Indeed, there is a sense that any city but New York is “out-of-town"--useful, perhaps, for tryouts but not a Real City. Thus, a ballet company might introduce a new production or new dancer in a city other than New York, but when that same production or dancer subsequently appears in New York, the promoters will send out press releases announcing the New York appearance as a “world premiere” or “American debut,” as if a performance anywhere but New York didn’t really happen . . . or didn’t really matter.
Molly Ivins, now a columnist for the Dallas Times Herald, says that when she worked for the New York Times a few years ago and was assigned to Denver, all her friends in New York said, “Oh, God, darling, what are you going to do in Denver? You’re going to die of intellectual suffocation.”
The Eastern media’s preference for New York culture over culture from “out there” is probably at least as much a product of geographic proximity as it is of general snobbery. But that doesn’t ease the disappointment of many “out there.”
Jane Nicholl Sahlins, executive director of the International Theater Festival of Chicago, wonders why the major New York-based publications ignore her highly regarded festival. Officials of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco complain that their most interesting presentations--not to mention the resignation of their controversial founder/director, William Ball--have been ignored by these same publications. Theater and music critics elsewhere say work in Houston, Dallas, Seattle, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Cleveland and other cities continues to suffer from the indifference and inattention of media decision-makers (and taste makers) who live and work in New York.
Nor has Los Angeles, for all its recent acclaim, won its battle for full respectability.
Just last month, in a review of the movie “Alien Nation,” a New York Times critic took a typically East Coast potshot at Los Angeles:
“‘Alien Nation’,” wrote Janet Maslin, ". . . presents a race of extraterrestrials that has already arrived and been absorbed into the population of Los Angeles. How, you may wonder, can anyone tell?”
Janet Lundblad of The Times editorial library assisted with the research for this article.