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January 17, 2014

TT: What do you know?

In today's Wall Street Journal "Sightings" column I hold forth on the problems faced by the drama critic who is called upon to review stage adaptations of familiar source material. Here's an excerpt.

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MV5BNzQ5ODE4NTcxNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjkyNDQ0MDE%40._V1_SX214_.jpgAfter the film version of Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County" came out last month, it soon emerged that most of the critics who reviewed it hadn't seen the play. (Not so my esteemed colleague Joe Morgenstern, who saw it on Broadway and made good use of the experience in writing his piece.) The result was a Twitter spat in which exasperated theater people argued that it wasn't responsible to review a screen adaptation of so important a play without having seen the original version.

I haven't seen the film version yet, though I will as soon as I can. For now, though, I don't have a horse in that particular race. Instead, I'd like to approach the question from the opposite direction. What about drama critics who find themselves called on, as is often the case, to review a show adapted from a pre-existing piece of source material--a novel or, in the case of musicals, a movie--or based on a true story? How much, if anything, must they know to do the job right? It's tempting to say that it depends on how serious the show is. I'm not at all sure that my review of "Legally Blonde: The Musical" was any better because I'd seen the movie. But even in the case of a commodity musical, it's not quite as simple as that....

160px-Amadeus_Playbill.jpgFor me, Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus," a play about the rivalry between Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that was first staged in 1979 and later turned into a popular film by Milos Forman, is the ideal test case. You don't have to see the play to appreciate the movie, which was skillfully adapted by Mr. Shaffer himself. Nor is it necessary to know anything about Mozart or Salieri to enjoy either version of "Amadeus." The script tells you all you need to know (though quite a bit of the "information" in "Amadeus" is untrue, which definitely makes the reviewer's job more interesting). But a drama critic who reviews a revival of "Amadeus" must know something about Mozart's life and work in order to properly appreciate the play, which is a gripping parable of the terrible mystery of human inequality as seen in the complex relationship between Mozart and Salieri. What's more, he really ought to have seen the film, too, since nearly everybody knows it far better than the play...

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Read the whole thing here.

Paul Scofield plays Salieri in a scene from the original stage production of Amadeus:

F. Murray Abraham plays Salieri in the corresponding scene from the film version of Amadeus:

Posted January 17, 2014 12:00 AM

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