I'm always on the lookout for a laugh. Recently I got a good chuckle out of an online ad that Stages St. Louis hastily threw together for its production of Promises, Promises. They took a flier with their flier by including a two-word blurb from my review in the RFT. I am quoted as having endorsed the musical as "Sheer Bliss!" Exclamation point aside, the quote refers to my praise for the first ten minutes of Act Two — ten minutes out of a show that lasted a hundred and sixty minutes. I have to assume that the good folks at Stages were in such a rush to get this ad assembled, as soon as they came upon the phrase "sheer bliss" at the end of my first paragraph, they stopped reading.
Had they taken the time to peruse the review in its entirety, they would have come across such adjectives as "dreary," "distracting" and "bland" and phrases like "an opportunity almost completely missed." Though these descriptions more accurately summarize the review's thrust, they might not have been helpful on a flyer whose intent was to make the show sound appealing. Most of us would agree that "sheer bliss" is more laudatory than "cheerless and mirthless."
Although I find Stages' initiative in tampering with the intent of my review to be both amusing and imaginative, some folks don't see it that way. Two years ago, in an overhaul of consumer protection laws, the European Union (which includes Great Britain) passed a statute against contextomy, the practice of actively misleading theatergoers by reprinting quotes out of context. Theater owners and producers who are found guilty of this egregious breach of trust can be fined up to five thousand pounds or face a maximum of two years in prison.
Had this law been on the books in America a few decades ago, surely Broadway impresario (and former St. Louisan) David Merrick would have been headed to the clinker many times. Merrick was fascinated by quotes. Before he left St. Louis to begin producing in New York, he told a friend here that he would be delighted if every review of a Merrick offering included the word "ribald." Obviously, that didn't happen. In a celebrated prank, after the seven major newspaper critics were dismissive of Merrick's musical Subways Are For Sleeping, he sought out ordinary New Yorkers who shared the same names as those mainstream reviewers, invited them to the show and then composed an ad with their admiring quotes.
After Merrick tired of the theater, he briefly produced films. His first effort, The Great Gatsby in 1974, was so oversold that even Merrick, the master of hype, decried the publicity campaign as "ridiculous" and "nauseating." Years later I had occasion to talk with Frank Yablans, who was president of Paramount Pictures when Gatsby was released, about the film's super-sell. "But you must understand," Yablans said. "The free-enterprise system is based on a misrepresentation of product. When was the last time you bought a product that was as good as the ad?" Perhaps we Americans actually enjoy being gullible more than do those humorless Brits.
Is anyone really persuaded to purchase theater tickets on the strength of a few short quotes, accurate or not? It is my conviction that only one thing sells theater tickets: word of mouth. If you hear through the proverbial grapevine that a play is terrific — and then you see an ad that confirms what you've been hearing — all to the good. But it's a rare theater company in this town (the Rep and Stages aside) that has enough money to pay for that kind of quote-driven advertising. I find it encouraging that more and more productions are running three weeks rather than two, which gives additional time for word of mouth to circulate. I would be further encouraged if arts commissions and foundations, rather than merely underwriting productions that too few people hear about, would distribute grants to develop advertising campaigns. If we could explore new ways in which to get more people into area theaters — that would be my idea of sheer bliss.