Tuesday, October 11, 2005

New York Producer Casts Spell on Chicago Critics

David Stone, producer of the surprise Broadway smash, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, apparently thinks he's the new David Merrick. Merrick, the legendary producer of such diverse megahits as Hello Dolly, Gypsy and Marat/Sade, was, as a person, a throughly unpleasant bit of business who cherished his feuds and had few principles. Perhaps his most infamous stunt was opening night of his revival of 42nd Street, where he kept secret the news of the death of its director, Gower Champion, until the opening night curtain calls, when his announcement transformed the rapturous applause of the audience to a grim funereal pall as if with the flip of a switch. It made front pages all across the world.

Stone is not in his league. He had a security guard bar Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss from Monday's press conference for Putnam County. That was merely stupid. What happened next was incredibly puerile. He had four of the city's leading critics come up to the stage, and had them spell words, just as members of the audience apparently do in the actual show. Merrick must have been laughing from his dark circle of Hell to see how easily Stone made the critics an appendage to his PR stunt.

"Ms. Weiss was being held in detention for harassing the other students," Stone is quoted in today's Sun-Times. "We have also decided to withhold her juicebox."

I've only met Hedy Weiss once, waiting for a symposium to start, where we had a very pleasant talk about the mechanics of being a critic. However, I am also aware of her reputation of being a fierce competitor who aggressively protects her turf. Apparently at a press conference earlier this year for Wicked, Stone's megahit that's having an highly successful open-ended run at the Ford Oriental theater, Weiss was very vocal in expressing his displeasure at what she saw as an unfair leak of information exclusively to the arch-rival Tribune.

Stone said Weiss was banned for behaving "erratically and unprofessionally," but my bet is he knew she would have quickly - and loudly - blew the whistle and awakened the other critics from Stone's spell before they could be transformed from objective reporters into bit players in his marketing campaign. (The Sun-Times story reports that the Trib has lodged a complaint about the affair.)

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