Thoughts on the Officer debate

An interesting article in The Australian was brought to my attention yesterday by a colleague, and after a speedy search on twitter and various other social media platforms, I realised it had snagged the interest of many last night. I’m still not sure if this is a good or a bad thing, but it’s definitely something – twitter was aflame, my interest was piqued and here we are…

A performance was given, a review was published, and a rebuttal was made all in the space of a weekend: and high drama ensued.

For those who aren’t up to speed on the article(s) I am talking about, take a look at this post which was published yesterday on AussieTheatre: An Officer and a Gentleman writer rebukes review to enlighten yourselves.

I have been trying to figure out a way to best articulate some of my thoughts on the issue, and I decided to ‘type it out’, for want of a better term. Ok. Go.

Firstly, I find it incredibly interesting that the writer of An Officer and a Gentleman Douglas Day Stewart, a man of over 40 years experience in the industry, took to attacking a reviewer writing for the newspaper The Australian (Deborah Jones) personally after her not-so-favourable critique of the brand new musical was published several hours earlier.

Interesting insofar as it was not her work, nor her writing style, nor the language which she used to convey her thoughts to review the piece of art he and his colleagues have developed which came under scrutiny, but rather her social standing and her ability to ‘feel’.

“It was an “execution” by someone clearly unable to feel human emotion, or to put it in a kinder way, by someone whose highbrow tastes do not represent you”

–  is a direct quote from Mr Day Stewart’s rebuttal, and that is one of the tamer passages.

He goes on to say that reviewers profess to ‘represent the popular taste‘ but are merely over articulate, insulated intellectuals who view themselves, and it can be surmised by the purpose of the piece, their writing, as superior to everyone else.

Ok. Hold up. Let’s first define the role of a reviewer before we go any further. I wouldn’t want to be misrepresenting anyone here now, would I?

I accept that it’s no easy task to define the role of an arts reviewer, so I am going to let some dictionary definitions as well as custom and practice assist me in creating a rounded assessment of the reviewer/theatre critic in modern society. (But please don’t think I believe this is a definitive assessment – it’s just the best I could do with the assistance of google, wikipedia, the Oxford Dictionary and my little old noggin.)

‘Reviewer’ can been defined as:

a person who is professionally engaged in the analysis and interpretation of works of art

a person who writes critical appraisals Oxford Dictionary

anyone who expresses a reasoned judgment of something

If someone argues, reasonably, for or against anything – they can be considered a critic. Take that a little further, and anyone who is  engaged to analyse pieces of art like An Officer and a Gentleman, using reasoned judgement and assessment in their work situation is not only a reviewer/critic, but also a professional, because they are employed to do so.

The fact that Douglas Day Stewart, with his 4 decades of wisdom on the matter, seems to think that reviewers (categorically, it would seem) profess to represent popular opinion, is more than slightly strange. It is statistically impossible for a single reviewer to represent “You”- the people who are reading this piece, that piece, any piece of writing which represents an opinion on any matter. One reviewer can only ever represent a percentage of the population, and I have never known a reviewer to think otherwise.

In this particular case – the case of Douglas Day Stewart v The Unashamedly Opinionated Critics of An Officer and a Gentleman (2012) – I believe the role of the reviewer to be significant, no matter what the critical response. I’m not talking about immediacy – for ticket sales, for bums on seats, for publicity and for the possibility of an Original Australian Cast Album (which would be wonderful, Frosty, it really would!) – what I am referring to is the longevity of Australian music theatre and the state of Australian Arts Industry as a whole.

Bert LaBonte’s character, Sgt Foley, hit the nail on the head with this issue throughout the musical, and there is an amusing irony present when one considers this point of view.

Sgt Foley’s duty, his job, his professional purpose, is to sort the good from the not-so-good. If, god forbid, an under-performing candidate graduated from his course and made poor decisions at war, jeopardising wartime efforts and putting his/her colleagues at risk, the blame would eventually fall to Foley. Even if the candidate was from a disadvantaged background, even if the candidate was rich and had high connections, even if there was pressure to pass them, it would be wrong of him to give them a good report if he deemed them otherwise. Not only would Foley be under scrutiny, but all other candidates who passed the course – are they also of a questionable standard?

It is a difficult analogy to make, but indulge me here a moment.

Think about it: if all Australian critics praised a work for the sake of getting it through training, supporting the industry or maintaining our position as ‘a world centre for the opening of new musicals’, what would happen when the rest of the world took notice? What would our industry look like if a work which was developed and highly praised by the Australian critics garnered interest from overseas, only for them to discover it needed a great deal of work and didn’t pass muster (pardon the pun)? To continue to parallel, not only would the Australian reviewers be held accountable (and be discredited, not to mention look rather silly) our industry as a whole would be questioned. Is everything we produce of this standard? If the reviewers didn’t provide any criticism of this show, what would they say about a lesser work? A greater work?

Of course, it is merely opinion, and there are certainly going to be differing views on the suitability of every work in any given circumstance – that’s the beauty of it. Reviews are guides. A single review is the opinion of one person, who sat in one seat in a theatre on one particular night.

I’m not saying that I agree or disagree with Deborah Jones’ assessment of the show, but as far as I’m concerned, she was correct as far as she’s concerned. That’s part of the subjectivity of art, critiquing and… well… life.

Let’s put this in perspective a moment – the show has an exceptionally talented cast, who have received wonderful reviews personally. Amanda Harrison, Ben Mingay, Alex Rathgeber and Kate Kendall are all wonderful performers in their own right, who now have a ‘world premiere’ credit on their resume. That’s a plus for our performers. The show’s director, producer, musical director and choreographer are very well respected and have done an amazing job. That’s a plus for Australian creatives. We have had another brand new musical open in Australia this month, and that means the Lyric Theatre, The Star isn’t dark at the moment. That’s a plus for Sydney. There has been an open debate about the writing and development of a major musical in a country where we have (mostly) presented carbon copies of overseas productions. That’s a plus for Australian artists and creative teams. Audiences have had the chance to witness the developmental stages of a musical in previews and the opening weekend of An Officer and a Gentleman. That’s a plus for Australia and an education in artistic creation that is rarely afforded the general public of our country.

So, when Douglas Day Stewart lashes out about one review in one publication, not only does his response seem juvenile, the comments are damaging.

If you listen to a critic like this, good luck on seeing any more new musicals come here.

Do not let a comment like this offend you, as it has the very great potential to do. You are all capable of making up your own mind about a piece of theatre, and we all know that Deborah Jones’ opinion is but one. Go see the piece yourself, and join in the debate if you want to. But never let anyone tell you how things are before you have assessed the situation first. Implying that negative commentary on a single show will stop other new works being produced in Australia is naive and completely ridiculous. Perhaps it will stop anyone who doesn’t like to hear criticism think twice about bringing their very first musical to Australia, but it won’t stop the Matthew Robinsons, the James Millars, the Eddie Perfects, the Peter Rutherfords, the Anthony Costanzos, the David Kings from creating, workshopping, tweaking and perfecting new Australian works in this country.

I like to think of them [reviewers] as that unpopular outsider from school who can now wield a cudgel of revenge against those of us who feel true emotion.

Sticks and stones. Some think people who work in the business of musicals and theatre were the camp scrawny kids who were beat up in the toilets during PE… Do you see where I’m going here? Generalisations only make people’s arguments weaker.

I do agree with some of Douglas Day Stewarts’ comments in his article when read with a slightly different construction.

New musicals aren’t like established musicals such as Annie. They need your support in the early going, or they will be gone.

This is true – they need the support of the community as well as the support of the creative team. It is the responsibility of the creative and production teams to take a step back (if just for a second) and listen to the comments of peers and colleagues, public and critics. What they choose to do with these comments is entirely up to them, but in my opinion there is no place for personal attacks in a public place on a person who was simply doing their job.

We all have our place – critics, public and colleagues alike – if there was no theatre being produced, we would all be out of work, or without an activity to divert us.

I only want the best for our industry, but in order to achieve the best, good and better must come before it.

Make sure you check out the brand new musical An Officer and a Gentleman at the Lyric Theatre, The Star – to show your support, to clarify your position or to have a good old fashioned night of fun at the theatre. The only critic you should ever trust with absolute conviction is yourself… after all, theatre is subjective…

Erin James

Erin James is's former Editor in Chief and a performer on both stage and screen. Credits include My Fair Lady, South Pacific and The King and I (Opera Australia), Love Never Dies and Cats (Really Useful Group), Blood Brothers (Enda Markey Presents), A Place To Call Home (Foxtel/Channel 7) and the feature film The Little Death (written and directed by Josh Lawson).

Erin James

11 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Officer debate

  • Well put Erin. I have to admit, I have been struggling to get my head around the whole thing as well. If Mr Day Stewart had discussed erroneous aspects of the review, it would have been one thing, but as it stands, it all sounds so petty. Hopefully this won’t cast too much of a cloud over the production. Some very talented people in this show deserve to be heard.

  • V.E.R.Y.  W.E.L.L.  S.A.I.D   Fantastic response – and totally unbiased.  Frank and open.  Good on you, Erin.  And yes, Frosty, an original cast recording would be very well received … as well as one from another brilliant show (in my personal opinion ;-)) – Doctor Zhivago – A New Musical … just sayin’ …

  • OK OK – hang on… the ANNIE reference needs addressing here: Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin (and Thomas Meehan for that matter) presented a preview of ANNIE out of town prior to it’s Broadway opening in 1977 for famed theatre critic Walter Kerr – he hammered it like you wouldn’t believe – famous story. They spent 6 weeks re-writing it. He had basically told them it was complete and utter crap – they re-wrote it almost entirely and the end result was the show we all know and love today. In actual fact Mr. Stewart new musical WRITERS need to take feedback on board.

  • The other, simple fact to remember is: the show is appealing to the masses. Do the masses read The Australian? DDS may have simply given the review way more publicity than it deserves…..

  • I have had the pleasure of seeing ‘Officer and a Gentleman’
    And do believe the review of the show was
    pretty harsh. OK it was no Jersey Boys but
    was still a very enjoyable. There are ways of
    critiquing without being so insulting,of course
    the need to defend would be strong.
    So yes DO go along and enjoy a good old
    Fashioned night out and don’t take life so seriously.
    Relax and go with it. Take the journey, feel the
    Emotion, cry, laugh and sing. Life is way too

  • Agree, people should come and check it out for themselves and form their own opinion. I liked the show and would recommend it to others as well.

  • Does this mean now, that if O&G closes early, that it will be blamed on this review and the public’s reaction to it? Or that it’s a terrible show that never should have hit the stage? The blame game….

  •  Yes, and besides it is known that the true artist is one who defends the work up and out of escenerio and also take some of these criticisms To correct the bad and go in search of new challenges.

  • I would like all critics to both analyse the production and report how it was received by the audience. Quite often critics will analyse the production but fail to provide the reader with a sense of how it was generally received by the audience. I would like to know whether the audience gave a standing ovation; whether they were engaged by the story; did the audience laugh in the right places etc.. Deborah Jones’ review is a typical critic’s biased review that does not help a reader decide whether they are likely to enjoy a theatrical experience. Clearly, other reviews indicate that “An Officer…” is an entertaining piece. Therefore, the public should go if they love the original film. Then, they can make up their own mind whether the musical does justice to the story we remember from the film.

  • I love you Erin James. xxx

  • Thank you for putting it all into perspective.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *