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At 7:40 on a humid Friday night in early October, Jesse Green, wearing a plaid suit coat and carrying a green laptop bag, arrived at the James Earl Jones Theater in Manhattan. The show he was there to see, “Gutenberg! The Musical!,” was starting in 20 minutes, but he was in no rush to enter the theater. As the chief theater critic for The New York Times, he knows Broadway performances usually begin about eight minutes late.
“Good evening,” Green said as he approached a press representative for the show. He retrieved a white envelope with two tickets tucked inside, one for Green and the other for his husband, Andrew Mirer.
It was the second press performance of “Gutenberg!,” a two-man comedy about aspiring musical theater writers who decide to write a show about Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press, without knowing much about him. The show reunites Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad, who co-starred as hapless missionaries in “The Book of Mormon” in 2011.
“Gutenberg!” was one of more than 100 shows that Green, who reviews almost every new Broadway production and many Off Broadway shows and regional productions, would see this year. He had attended a performance of “Merrily We Roll Along,” the starry new revival of the 1981 Stephen Sondheim musical, the previous night.
Green, who has been a theater critic for The Times since 2017, was, proudly, a theater geek in high school. After graduating from Yale with a double major in English and theater, he moved to New York City and began working as a gofer, or errand runner, for Broadway shows, working his way up to musical coordinator positions. At one point, he apprenticed for Hal Prince, who produced or directed many of the most enduring musicals in theater history, including “West Side Story,” “Sweeney Todd” and “The Phantom of the Opera.”
His time with Prince not only honed his taste, but also taught him how important it is for a show to forge a connection with an audience.
“I approach theater criticism as a form of reporting,” said Green, who has reviewed nearly 1,000 shows over his decade-long career as a critic. His reporting reflects his feelings — his connection with the show being staged in front of him.
“That’s the fun of reviewing,” he told me.
Critics generally attend one of a few press performances, which occur before a show’s official opening night. Green sees the first one he can so that he has ample time to write his review, which usually comes out on opening night. “Gutenberg!” was opening the following Thursday, Oct. 12.
At 8 p.m., he walked through a metal detector and handed his ticket to an usher. A bell chimed.
“Let’s go, guys, step right in,” a man yelled. “The show is about to start.”
An usher led Green and Mirer to aisle seats in Row F of the orchestra section. (“Press seats are almost always in the middle of the orchestra,” Green said. “But when I buy them myself, I like to sit in the front row of the mezzanine.”)
He pulled out a five-by-eight-inch red spiral notepad, slipped on a pair of dark blue glasses, and wrote the show’s name and the date at the top of the page. It would be the most legible thing he would write all evening.
“The first thing I do after a show is transcribe my notes,” Green told me. “They’re unreadable half the time, but they’re still helpful to jog my memory.”
When the show began, Mirer leaned over, signaling to his watch — 8:04. Though shows post their run time on their websites, it is not always precise; Green ensures readers have accurate information.
During the first act, which featured Gad and Rannells dancing in a kickline and performing a farcical song about biscuits, Green jotted down notes often. His expression remained inscrutable, except for an occasional smile or a chuckle.
“I’m looking for a number of things,” he told me later. “Lines that help me understand what the play wants to do and how it seems to be succeeding or failing.” He considers moments and design choices that will help readers understand what it feels like to experience the show. Occasionally, he admits, he finds himself writing “Help” or “Will this ever end?”
The first act of “Gutenberg!” provoked a continual stream of laughter from the audience and selective applause from Green — he tries not to show too much emotion during a performance. When the house lights came on for intermission, a woman seated nearby turned to her seatmate. “That’s like nothing I’ve ever seen,” she said.
Green stood up. “I don’t want anyone else’s influence,” he said. To avoid inadvertent eavesdropping, he goes for a walk during intermission, even if it’s just up the aisle.
Act 2 began at 9:15, which Green dutifully recorded in his notebook. He took fewer notes during the second act, which, he said afterward, is not always the case. He explained it this way: “As a rule, the better the show, the fewer notes I take, because I get too caught up.”
When Gad and Rannells took their bows at 10:08, most of the audience stood and applauded. But Green perched on the tipped-up edge of his seat, craning his neck to watch. Times critics do not typically stand at the end of shows, a practice Green said was not a formal policy but an unwritten code among critics.
“We know we are being watched, and we don’t want to disclose too much,” he told me. And, he added, “I still believe that standing ovations are for truly extraordinary events.”
As Green closed his notebook (he had filled four pages) and headed for the exit, he and his husband discussed the weather — rain was on the way — as well as their weekend plan to drive to a house they owned in the woods upstate, where Green would write. Not a word passed between them about the show. Even his husband is prohibited from sharing thoughts about a performance, at least until Green’s review runs.
Green planned to read the script for the show on his phone on the train to their home in Brooklyn. He never reads the script for a new show before seeing it — he wants to experience it “as the playwright intended” — but he does afterward, to dig deeper into the meaning of the work, check whether any moments were improvised and confirm quotes.
While he writes his review, he emails questions to the show’s press agents, asking how it has changed over its development, or, in the case of “Gutenberg!,” how many trucker hats the actors wore during the performance (99). He also checks facts that he is including in his review.
What is clear after spending time with Green is that he feels being a critic is part of his identity, not just his job. Even when he is not reviewing a show, he is soaking in culture: He is an admirer and voracious reader of Walt Whitman and Jane Austen, for example, and a puzzle enthusiast.
Green, it should be said, wants a show to succeed. He’s a theater geek, after all. Even if he does not enjoy a performance, he understands it may still have merit or add to a cultural conversation. But he will not hesitate to pan a show if he feels it deserves it. “If I have any value, it’s in having some consistency of taste and knowledge from many, many years of seeing plays and writing about them,” he said. “People who get used to reading my stuff may say, ‘Oh, I never agree with him,’ which is actually good. That way, when I dislike something, they know they’ll like it — and vice versa.”
When he’s reviewing, Green is thinking through big-picture questions: What does this play want? How well does it achieve that? Is it worth achieving? And, of course, he’s doing it on deadline.
“Even after a thousand reviews, staring down a deadline fills me with fear,” he said. “After all, you start with nothing but what’s in your head and a few nearly illegible scribbles in your notebook.”
But writing, he said, should be a pleasure, not a curse. “It must grow from fear to enjoyment,” he said. “It remains an amazement to me that it so often does.”