In seinem Buch „Look, I Made a Hat“ setzt sich Stephen Sondheim mit der Stellung des Kritikers im Kulturbetrieb auseinander – einer aus der Zunft der Kritiker, Michael Billington vom englischen „Guardian“, antwortet dem Komponisten und Texter und rechtfertigt die Existenz der Kritik folgendermaßen:
One is that art doesn’t exist in a social or economic vacuum. Many years ago, I was involved in a radio debate with the late Simon Gray who made some similar points to Sondheim. A dramatist with a new play, said Gray, was as vulnerable as a mother with a new baby. She wouldn’t like it if she took her baby to the park and people poked their noses into the pram and criticised the baby’s legs for being too short or its nose too long. Fine, I said. But, once you start charging people up to £50 a time for a glimpse of a new infant, you must expect public comment.
Secondly, I’m sure Sondheim must have been irked over the years by being told that his melodic gifts rarely match his lyrical inventiveness or by seeing a pioneering work such as Merrily We Roll Along written off while lesser musicals by other hands rake in the shekels. But I wonder how Sondheim would feel if any work on which he had laboured long and hard opened to a deafening silence. Artists often hate critics; they also need the stimulus of public comment. I met an actor friend recently who had undertaken a major role I had not been able to review. He was not angry or resentful but his disappointment was visible. And, in my experience as both a critic and occasional author, what we all crave is a reaction to our work.
Thirdly, I think Sondheim is writing about a very specific American – and New York – culture in which the dearth of newspapers gives critics a disproportionate authority. Thankfully, in Britain, we still have enough print outlets for critical power to be dispersed and artists to take a pick-n-mix approach to what they read. And although internet and showbiz chatrooms have democratised comment, as Sondheim rightly points out, I’m not sure whether the musical as a form has hugely benefited. I can think of at least two shows – Sweet Smell of Success in New York and Love Never Dies in London – that were hastily damned by bloggers even before they had formally opened.
But I’ve no wish to pick a quarrel with Sondheim, whose work I mostly revere. I just feel that his ideal of judgment by one’s peers, rather than us ill-informed hacks, is not one every artist would share. After all, who dubbed Noel Coward the Master of Blather and said that his lyrics come in two flavours: brittle and sentimental? “The brittle ones,” he went on, “are condescending, either implicitly or explicitly. The sentimental ones are florid, sometimes extending into unintentional camp.” Who was this acerbic critic? Why none other than the sainted Stephen himself.