Published in The New York Times
Saw the Wednesday matinee, upper mezz, right side, and concluded Hugh is a total stud. But I agree with ChitaRivera4ever: cut the reprise of "Not the Boy Next Door" or else the critics will bring their wrecking balls. You hear that, producers? Is anyone listening?
This isn't a real post from a Broadway message board, but it might as well be. With the fall season starting, these Internet forums are humming with gossip about the new round of shows (especially "The Boy From Oz," featuring the Broadway debut of Hugh Jackman).
Though nobody knows exactly who posts, message boards and their faithful "chatterati" have become fixtures of Broadway culture. Their significance is sometimes hard to see, however, as anonymous Walter Kerr and Winchell wannabes like "PigletH13" and "The Cosmic Anchovy" flood a site with gripes, the onstage location of Bernadette Peters's secret water bottle and dream casts of fantasy revivals (Kim Cattrall as Mame, anyone?).
"Every person in every Broadway show goes onto the chat rooms," says the "Hairspray" star Marissa Jaret Winokur, who ignored her fellow Tony winner Sutton Foster's advice to avoid them. "Everyone's scared to admit it."
If you've ever referred to Liza Minnelli by her first name, chances are you've been to All That Chat (talkinbroadway.com/forum), which began in 1997 when its founder, John Gillespie, led an exodus from a now-defunct forum on the Tony Awards site. Today, All That Chat's main Broadway forum and its West Coast, Las Vegas and British offshoots receive up to 8,000 posts by 300 to 500 people each day, along with more than half a million page hits from readers, said Michael Reynolds, who runs the main Broadway forum. One-third of the site's registered posters are students, one-third are rabid fans and one-third work in the industry, Mr. Reynolds said.
Despite monitoring and registration rules, many believe that shills who praise their own shows run rampant. "It's very amusing to watch a 17-year-old in the Midwest arguing with someone about a show," Mr. Reynolds said, "and he doesn't realize he's arguing with the star or the director of that show."
Site personalities include the notoriously hard-to-please "Danny," who competes with other posters to weigh in first on every Broadway musical. During intermission at the first preview of the musical "The Full Monty" in 2000, "Danny" ran down 49th Street to an Internet cafe, posted a review and returned in time for the second act (which he reviewed shortly after).
While All That Chat has doubled its traffic every year, competing boards are also on the rise.
BroadwayWorld.com began in May and now receives 10,000 daily visitors, said its founder, Robert Diamond. Specialty locales like Backstage.com, Sondheim.com and Musicals.net have forums, as do shows' official sites. Show People magazine began its message board (internet.showpeople.com/forum) in July.
But though message boards promote theater in general, harsh attacks by posters, news leaks and lack of accountability can infuriate those in the industry. "We were mind-boggled that every day they were announcing who was in `Little Shop,' and we hadn't even made the offers quite yet," said the casting director Bernard Telsey.
What is unclear is whether the boards affect a show's fate. Conventional wisdom says, for instance, that bad Internet buzz about the Boston tryout of the 2000 flop "Seussical`' killed the show's Broadway run. Some disagree, however, saying reviews and, of course, the shows themselves still matter far more than online opinions.
Do posts influence shows' creative teams? If so, no one involved in a production would ever admit it. "They have said things with which we agree and think that we are working on," said Richard Frankel, one of the producers of "Little Shop of Horrors," "Hairspray" and "The Producers." "But do we change things because they said them? No."
The phenomenon isn't exclusive to theater. For example, television writers consult forums at TelevisionWithoutPity.com, and test screenings are a film industry way of life.
But theater is uniquely suited to the use of Web sites as reporting mechanisms. Productions can differ from night to night. Since theaters hold a few thousand people at most, and reviews don't appear during previews, there is a lot of pent-up curiosity about, say, Bernadette Peters's performance in "Gypsy." Fan memories are sometimes the only records of live performances, which are as ephemeral as posts on All That Chat (they fall off the site after a few days).
"I wish I was above it, I wish I could believe that I don't care what they think," Ms. Winokur said. "It's like instant gratification — you instantly know what people are thinking about you. We're constantly trying to look for that kind of validation."