Jim Ryan sat in the greenroom at Act II Playhouse in Ambler, debating whether he should open the newspaper. The curtain for the eight o’clock performance of the musical Closer Than Ever would be going up in an hour. Ryan would be onstage, singing as part of the five-person cast, all professional performers with résumés that include off-Broadway and high-profile national tours. The show had opened six days before, on May 19th. But today was D-Day. Today, in the Inquirer, was the review — by theater critic Toby Zinman.
Ryan, a regular on the Philadelphia theater scene since the late ’90s, flipped open the paper. The headline alone made him wince: “5 Singers in Search of Voices and Plot.” And that was only the first shot. The direction was “clumsy”; the lighting, “shockingly corny”; the stage, “unnecessarily dingy.” “All this wouldn’t even matter so much if they had really great voices,” Zinman wrote. “But they don’t.”
And just when Ryan thought it couldn’t possibly get worse, Zinman launched a bomb — exactly what she’s been notorious for in the theater community, all through her 14 years as the critic for the City Paper and, since January, as the main critic at the Inquirer. Toby Zinman got nasty: “You could go into the University of the Arts musical theater program and with your eyes shut point out five people who can sing the socks off this cast.”
When Ryan got home that night, he shot off a biting e-mail to Zinman and the Inquirer’s arts and features editor, Sandy Clark, challenging the critic to prove her point: Go to UArts, where Zinman just so happens to teach dramatic literature, and “point out five people who can sing the socks off this cast.” Clark kindly wrote back, admitting, “We could have made a few refinements [to the review]. But the review itself is valid, and I stand by it.” Ryan never heard back from Zinman.
Wouldn’t it be great, Ryan thought, if there were a forum where theater people could respond to this woman who had so much to say about them? This woman who had recently been elevated to the most influential position in local theater? This woman whose opinion had the power to make or break careers, plays, even theater companies? Wouldn’t it be great if there were something … like … a blog?
Ryan spent a couple of late nights putting it together, and on May 26th, “We Love Toby! The Blog” opened for business. Within 48 hours, 297 people had logged on and read Ryan’s call to arms: “She’s the self-proclaimed ‘Bitch of Broad Street,’ the ‘Vacuous Vamp on Vine,’ a ‘biased biting bitch,’ ‘a boil on the beautiful ass of our community,’ a ‘big stupid head,’ the one and only Toby Zinman … who’s [sic] work this site is committed to disparaging for its constant lack of nuance, creativity, insight, intellect, and value to anyone or anything, save her own wilted self-image. … Here shall stand a monument to our collective, unrequited desire to see her choke on her own self-righteous bile.”
OH, THOSE THEATER PEOPLE. They’re so … dramatic. And this? This drama is practically as old as drama itself. Shakespeare hated them. Oscar Wilde hated them—critics, a title that when spoken aloud actually requires a hiss, whose job, as former New York Times theater critic Frank Rich once wrote, is “to report what I saw onstage honestly and pointedly, as I might in conversation with a friend.” That honesty earned Rich the nickname of “The Butcher of Broadway.” Then there was the infamous John Simon of New York magazine, renowned for his lashings, especially of how performers looked (Liza Minnelli’s “nose always en route to becoming a trunk”). Legend has it that once, when Simon was sitting in an audience, a director leapt over two rows of seats, reaching out to strangle him, yelling, “You’re a vampire! You’re a vampire!”
And here in Philadelphia, there is the Bitch of Broad Street, also known on The Blog (consumedwithrage.blogs.com/welovetoby) as “Executioner Zinman,” “Tob-icula” and “That Dreadful Zinman Creature.” Armed with but a pen (and a Ph.D. from Temple and her UArts professorship and two books and 45-plus scholarly articles), Zinman has suddenly found herself on the other end of it. The critic is being criticized, and not just at late-night cast parties with too much wine made, perhaps, with sour grapes. No, this time, it’s public… and it’s payback time. “She may have many rows of sharp pointed teeth,” writes one actress, “but I think collectively we’ve got her outnumbered.” And collectively, they agree that Toby Zinman is so unnecessarily personal, so unfairly dismissive, so categorically thumbs-up-thumbs-down that she’s chasing Philadelphians out of the theater and into their living rooms for another rerun of CSI.
“A negative review can serve a purpose,” says Benjamin Lloyd, a local actor and teacher who authored the new book The Actor’s Way. “But what role does nastiness have to play in criticism?” The bloggers point to the “many examples of her vitriol”: Of InterAct’s American Sublime, “It is a rare play that on opening night can actually put people to sleep. I, alas, was awake. … ”; The Pirate at the Prince Music Theater, in which one actor “seems to be dancing in front of a practice-room mirror, admiring himself,” and another “projects no personality whatsoever”; of Hedgerow Theatre’s In the Family Room, “I don’t know if I was more embarrassed by what was happening onstage or what was happening [in the audience],” and thus actually taking on the crowd itself. For laughing. At a comedy.
Toby Zinman hasn’t read the blog that bears her name. “I felt it would be unprofessional — it would be hard to fairly review people who had written nasty things about me (as I’m told they have),” she wrote me in an e-mail. But Jim Ryan’s adventure in cyberspace does raise an interesting question: Who, exactly, is a critic like Toby Zinman responsible to — potential theater-goers, the ones paying $30-plus per ticket, or the people putting on the show, whose livelihoods may depend on what she says?
“Critics serve the reader, not the theater community,” says former Inky fine arts editor Jeff Weinstein, so unequivocally that he might as well have punctuated it with a “duh.” Weinstein brought on Zinman last fall.
The Inquirer is “in denial,” says Seth Rozin, the artistic director of InterAct Theatre Company who’s leading a charge to get her fired. “They don’t make the equation that when they write a nasty review, especially when it crosses a line, it affects our ticket sales, it affects our funding, it affects the life of the play.” The double whammy, he says, is that Zinman is also the only Philadelphia stringer for industry mainstay Variety, and if that paper publishes any of her pans, it hurts the chances of a new work being performed anywhere else in the country, ever. “She kills it,” Rozin says. “It’s dead.”
Zinman herself has rarely engaged, publicly, in the debate. This spring, she joked on a local radio show that “critics are right up there with dentists in the popularity poll.” And back in 1996, at the City Paper, she responded in print to a critical letter from an actress, explaining, “I guess I feel my greatest responsibility is to the art form: If nobody maintains standards, if nobody is willing to say this is worthwhile, this is not, then the art form suffers.”
And so Toby Zinman does what she’s paid to do.
One evening in mid-July, she arrives long before the house lights dim at the Adrienne Theater on Sansom Street for The Children of Fatima, a new play about growing up Catholic in East Falls. She slides into the second row in the tiny 60-seat black box wearing a green skirt and a silk blouse — she always dresses up for the theater “with the expectation I’m going to have a great evening.” It’s hard to imagine that the cast members, once they step onto the stage just inches from the audience, won’t be aware of Zinman’s presence tonight, with her signature mane of shoulder-length curly white hair clipped back in front. And the notebook. On her lap. Which she starts scribbling in as soon as the lights go up.
Two days later, her review appears in the Inquirer: “a fine production.” A rave.
WHEN TOBY ZINMAN WORKED for the City Paper, her reviews may have hurt people’s feelings. But that’s about all they did. Then-managing editor David Warner hired the UArts prof in 1992 because of her theater knowledge and her writing style — both “erudite and sassy.” Lots of people in theater quickly grew to hate her. Really hate her. But they also knew that reviews in a free weekly paper had little impact on box-office numbers. Though Zinman may have been mean, she was meaningless.
But Zinman entered the Philadelphia theater scene just as it was starting to explode. Back in the early ’80s, there were five or six professional companies in town. Then artists started moving here from theater hubs like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, attracted by all the arts funding, the affordable housing, and the city’s reputation for supporting new work. By 2003, there were 75 professional companies. Now, there are more than 110. “Good plays are the force behind American theater,” says Jim O’Quinn, editor of the monthly magazine American Theatre. “We’re writing about new plays out of Philadelphia all the time.” Philadelphia has become a bona fide theater town.
Meanwhile, though, arts coverage at the dailies had started to decline. According to a study by Columbia University’s National Arts Journalism Program published last year, the amount of space devoted to the arts in the Inquirer dwindled 21 percent from 1998 to 2003. And theater was hit hard, particularly with the crisis at the Inquirer last year that led to the buyouts of two full-time critics, Doug Keating and Desmond Ryan, leaving just Howard Shapiro, who doubles as the paper’s travel editor. Then-arts editor Jeff Weinstein couldn’t replace the departing reviewers — the paper was in a hiring freeze. Certain that the theater community was freaking out, he convened a meeting at the Inquirer last December with Theater Alliance members to brainstorm solutions to the problem. Weinstein promised he’d do everything he could to ensure that every opening at every professional theater in town was covered.
AND THAT’S WHEN WEINSTEIN made the official announcement — to get around the hiring freeze, he’d decided to bring in a regular freelancer who would be dedicated to reviewing theater. He’d chosen someone whose work he’d admired for years, particularly for her black-and-white assessments of shows. Weinstein had hired Toby Zinman.
“Jesus! Head for the hills!” That was the word on the street, says a notable theater professional: “It just scared the shit out of people.” Already, the Daily News had no critic. There was one at the Philadelphia Weekly and two at the City Paper, but neither of those publications had the influence of the Inquirer, which reaches 350,000 people daily, 700,000 on Sunday, and countless more online. And now the person those readers would be depending on to tell them what theater was worth seeing was the Bitch of Broad Street.
Terry Nolen, artistic director at the Arden Theatre, didn’t exactly agree with his colleagues about the Inquirer. Was the paper still a strong enough force that its reviews could impact the box office? Nolen didn’t think so. Until May 25th. That’s when he read Toby Zinman’s review of the musical he’d directed, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. “What a pleasure to sit in a room full of laughing people watching a stage full of talented people,” Zinman wrote. Well, that’s a surprise, Nolen thought. He directed the show “very cleverly.” The courtesans were “sensational.” The costumes, “sensational.” Zinman’s final assessment: “What a great evening.”
The next day, ticket sales bounced. A lot. Typically, a theater with a healthy base of loyal subscribers — who pay a reduced rate for tickets — can assume that at least two-thirds of the seats will be filled at a performance. The rest of those seats need the derrières of single-ticket buyers who pay full price. Theaters count on single-ticket sales — the cash flow often keeps a nonprofit afloat to the end of its fiscal year. Which is why the Forum review, as they say in the biz, was a “money review.”
“And, that day, I liked Toby very much,” Nolen says.
A week before the Forum review appeared, the phones started ringing at Act II Playhouse in Ambler, too — but no one was charging tickets to Visa. The calls were from longtime subscribers asking, “Is it even worth coming to see this show?” They’d read Zinman’s review of Closer Than Ever. It was the review, the one that had spurred We Love Toby! The Blog. One woman who had purchased 50 reduced-rate tickets to resell at full price for a fund-raiser called in a panic: “We’re not going to be able to sell these tickets, even if it’s for a good cause!” The good cause was to send a sick child to Ronald McDonald camp.
Act II’s producing artistic director, Steve Blumenthal, didn’t know what to do. This was the final show of the season. He counted on it to extend for at least a week beyond the scheduled run, just as season-ending musicals had for the past five years, earning the theater an additional $20,000 or so for the year.
“We understand that a critic serves the public,” says Blumenthal. “They can’t be asked to act as PR firms for theaters. We’d been critiqued before by [Zinman’s predecessors] Cliff Ridley, Desmond Ryan, Doug Keating. But this was personalized.”
The following week, Act II took out an ad in the Inquirer: “Inquirer Critic Toby Zinman Hates It. You’ll Love It! Money-Back Guarantee.” Even though the show still sold poorly for the rest of its run — and it didn’t extend — not a single person asked for his money back. In fact, several people approached Act II staff members at the end of the night and asked, confused, “What show did Toby Zinman see?”
FOR INTERACT’S SETH ROZIN, the way Zinman wields her power is “unacceptable.” He’s written to new Inquirer owner Brian Tierney, informing him that InterAct has decided to stop advertising in the paper for “as long as Ms. Zinman serves as the Inquirer’s primary critic,” noting that “many of my colleagues are considering the same pullout for the same reason.” If Rozin can rally the troops, he says it could amount to up to $300,000 stripped from the Inquirer’s yearly revenues. Inquirer editor Sandy Clark says that would have no effect on who writes reviews.
Benjamin Lloyd has devised a less threatening plan of attack: start a local website akin to amazon.com, where theater-goers can post their own reviews with even, “God forbid,” Lloyd says, a one-to-five-star rating system. And in the meantime, there’s always The Blog, where the results of its first poll — “Who would make a better reviewer than Toby Zinman?” — were tallied midsummer. “The Starbucks clerk at Broad and Pine? A four-year-old with a melted crayon? The average Pomeranian? The ingrown hair on my left butt cheek?” The hair triumphed at 31 percent, and with that, the bloggers proved that while Toby Zinman can be nasty, they have sharp claws as well. Maybe even sharper.
Even so, as one pro-critic on the blog points out, “The artist’s feelings about how he or she was received by a critic are unimportant to the reader of a review.” And, bottom line, if a reader had been wondering if it was worth the hike to Ambler to see Closer Than Ever at Act II Playhouse, that reader wouldn’t give a flying fig that the theater was struggling to make its fiscal year, that the cast was trying real, real hard, that a poor child’s trip to Ronald McDonald camp was at stake. That reader would want to know, honestly and pointedly, that the singing was not very good.
But, in deference to the theater community, did the critic need to further emphasize that point by being unnecessarily nasty? You could go into the University of the Arts musical theater program and with your eyes shut point out five people who can sing the socks off this cast.
“Nobody quotes moderate, well-reasoned critics,” says local award-winning playwright Michael Hollinger. “The critics everyone remembers throughout the ages … are those who came out with a bon mot and managed to slice and dice a piece of work in just a few words. There’s something undoubtedly sexy about that, and I think it’s unfortunate, because I think the art form is better served by the more reasoned, if less flamboyant, review.”
But are Zinman’s reviews fun to read?
“Absolutely,” says Jen Childs, artistic director of 1812 Productions, “when they’re not about you!”
IF THERE’S ONE THING Toby Zinman and the theater community agree on, it is that statement: Criticism is fun when it’s not about you.
I know this firsthand.
At first, Zinman was flattered that I wanted to interview her. There were plans for dinner, for a show downtown. And then, she canceled. She called to explain.
“I’ve done my homework,” she said, launching into a de facto review of both this magazine and me. She’d read the magazine’s article in June about the allegations against Bill Cosby. (“What you did to him was atrocious.”) She’d read the personal essay I wrote in May about my difficult transition into motherhood. (“I was appalled. … I thought to myself, ‘If she’s willing to say all of that stuff about herself and her family, what is she going to do to me?’”)
“You also wrote about body piercing,” she said, referring to a piece I did for another magazine in 1994. “I don’t want to have anything to do with that.”
“But, Toby, you don’t have anything to do with that.”
“I do not want you to write about me,” she said, again.
And that was that.
Ironically, not a single other person I spoke to declined to be interviewed. And most of those people had far more to lose — their jobs, their theaters, their reputations. One would think the critic — in the position she has, with the support of her editors, with her national stature — had the least at stake. All she risked was being criticized herself.
Weeks later, Zinman did respond to a list of questions e-mailed to her. In that format, of course, there’s no dialogue. Just one voice.
Her role? “I don’t see myself as providing consumer advice (i.e., buy this ticket, don’t buy that ticket) but rather saying enough about a show so that somebody can decide if they want to see it for their own reasons,” she wrote.
The blog? A “vendetta.”
And her nickname, the Bitch of Broad Street? “It was a JOKE (which I was making about myself),” Toby Zinman wrote. “I try not to take myself too seriously.”