He comes out about this, if you will, in his review of The Little Mermaid in Time.
Frankly, it is quite possibly the strangest example of quasi-criticism I’ve ever read.
I also understand that when Zoglin was completely done gazing lovingly at his navel, he found lint and glitter. Not a drag queen, huh. Yeah, sure. Harrrumph.
What really bothers me, though, is not that Zoglin reveals how enamored he is with Disney’s musicals, beginning with The Lion King, which I will agree is probably the best of the lot by far, mostly due to Julie Taymor understanding something about narrative as well as what is visually arresting. Zoglin whines that
The complaints have become as predictable as the patter for the villain’s henchmen in a Disney cartoon: Disney shows are too big, too commercial, too over-marketed – not real theater so much as bloated “theme park” extravaganzas that only children and undiscriminating tourists could love (though the criticism of Disney’s last show, Mary Poppins, was somewhat different; the critics found it too heavy, not theme-parky enough.)
but I don’t recall the main criticisms of Aida, Tarzan, or that spoon-spinning enterprise Beauty and the Beast being about spectacle, per se, but about spectacle at the total expense of a well-textured narrative; of something approaching literary-mindedness; of intelligent, plot-driven lyrics; of whole characters, not easily digestible archetypes. Zoglin’s stark criticism of the critics’ criticisms reminds me of what used to go on back in the 1980s and 90s, when the defenders of The Phantom of the Opera, Starlight Express and their like used to whine about the reviews those shows received. Here’s the thing: sets don’t act, and neither do costumes. Hyper-amplified sound systems do not convey story, they just broadcast it. Libretti with short-cuts designed to keep storylines to an absolute minimum so as to get the audience back to the songs they already know (and, arguably, have paid to hear) does not make a good work of musical drama or musical comedy or theatre in any manner, shape or form. OK, nice, so Zoglin likes all the pretty pictures and he’s angrily that the critics call out crap as crap, if they think it’s crap.
What gets me is that Zoglin attacks the world’s favorite whipping boy, Ben Brantley. I mean, I’m not saying Brantley is the second coming of Aristotle, but how much must it suck to be him, hm? Zoglin first calls him “the Scar of the grump brigade” and writes about how, in reference to The Little Mermaid, Brantley “loathed the whole wretched thing”
including even the one aspect of Disney shows that usually wins a grudging cheer, its scenic design. “The whole enterprise,” the Times critic sniffed, “is soaked in that sparkly garishness that only a very young child – or possibly a tackiness-worshiping drag queen – might find pretty.”
OK, OK, so it isn’t the first time Brantley has injected a note of camp into his funeral dirge for a not-so-great production. Then Zoglin writes:
That sort of thing makes me wonder whether the critics are actually sitting in the same theater I am. In fact, the show is notably lacking in sparkles, and garish is just about the last word I would use to describe the subtle and airy visual design. A gorgeous color palette of pastel blues, oranges and pinks. Translucent, lighter-than-air panels, billowing plastic waves, scepter-like deep-sea sculptures, which manage to convey not just one undersea world but a host of neighborhoods within that world. Costumes that manage to be both lush and witty – the exaggerated, bunched-crinoline hoop skirts on the court ladies, for example, made me laugh out loud. All in all, it was one of the most ravishing things I have ever seen on a Broadway stage. For the record, I am not a drag queen.
What the hell is that? “I am not a drag queen.” First Zoglin catapults Brantley’s sensibilities far into the pejorative, then uses Brantley’s vernacular to strike a blow for…what? Metrosexuality?
After Zoglin extols the production as you know he will — it’s as if it never occurred to him to just lop off the first part of his review as being petty, self-serving, unprofessional and ultimately a bit irrelevant — he finishes his review by asking, “Or am I still trapped in a fairy tale?” No, friends, he’s definitely not a drag queen. If he were, he’d know.