Thursday, March 11, 2010
I WAS just about to sign up and actually pay for the online version of Variety when I heard the news. Variety, that 105-year-old bastion of entertainment news and criticism, had just fired its chief theater critic (David Rooney, left).
Not because they were unhappy with his work. Not because they had somebody else in mind for his plum job. But because "it doesn't make economic sense to have full-time reviewers." They'll just have freelancers do the job from now on. Cheaper, you know.
[Todd McCarthy, Variety's chief film critic, was also let go. But we will leave that to other sites to analyze and lament. Roger Ebert has already weighed in, announcing his displeasure and the cancellation of his Variety subscription.]
The media reacted to Rooney's dismissal by pointing out just how important and valuable a guy he was. A Los Angeles Times blog post referred to him as "a big player in American's pre-eminent theater town." In the same article, Robyn Goodman, the Broadway producer ("In the Heights," "American Idiot"), sang Rooney's praises. "He wasn't trying to write quotes that would end up on someone's marquee or make people laugh or sound trendy," she said. He actually cared about the work.
ROONEY himself hasn't hesitated to speak out, talking about "the ongoing erosion of arts coverage" in an online Time Out article. There's no longer any doubt that "the critical voice is being undervalued," he said. And he doesn't think highly of the plan to replace seasoned, experienced critics "with random freelancers filing to a copy desk where whoever happens to be there is editing that copy with no expertise and no experience in that field." He told Playbill.com that covering theater had been "hands-down the most fulfilling experience of my professional life."
Timothy M. Gray, Variety's editor, shot out a memo to his staff about the firings, of course. Calm the troops down. Reassure them. The most appalling sentence in that memo: "Today's changes won't be noticed by readers."
If that's true (and I begin to worry that it may be), every person who thinks professional critics may know a little more than the average teenager posting in a chat room has reason to go to bed crying tonight. Even more disturbing is the fact that Variety began in 1905 in New York, covering vaudeville. I wonder what year they fired the vaudeville critic.