Online or in print, headlines are meant to be grabbers. Just this week, I was taken aback by, and simply had to read, The Independent’s “Radioactive wild boars rampaging around Fukushima nuclear site.” Honestly – how could I resist? A great headline need not always have a pun, such as the New York Daily News’s declaration against gun violence, “God Isn’t Fixing This.” Of course the classic of the genre is the New York Post’s “Headless Body in Topless Bar.”
Though I see journalism and criticism discussed and dissected six ways to Sunday in article upon article, blog after blog (and I’m often an avid participant), headlines tend not to be a significant part of the discussion of arts journalism. The “star rating” system gets a lot more attention, as of course do the reviews themselves. But headlines can have an enormous impact on your impression of a review, or a show; like stars, headlines may, for an enormous number of readers, be all they ever learn about a show.
Good headline writing is a talent, a craft, and that holds true in old-line print media or online. The Huffington Post seems to have made its fortune on headlines that promise more than they deliver, harking back to the best of true tabloid journalism, but dammit they make you look. None of us are immune to the lure of shrewd headline.
As someone who surveys the internet daily for news stories of theatrical interest, I marvel at the headlines I see, some clever, some mundane, some inadvertently hilarious. While there are fine editors of all stripes who contribute to headlines (the general public doesn’t realize that in many cases, the writer of the article has no participation in the process), there’s no question that at smaller outlets that still generate a lot of copy, the process of headline writing can become a bit rote. In the most absurd cases, I envision a lone editor, late at night in an empty newsroom, wracking their brain for copy that will fit both the story and the allotted space. I see this editor being responsible for headlines such as “‘Fences’ features all black-cast,” which I saw online two years ago, conveying a bit of information self-evident in 2014 to anyone familiar with August Wilson’s 1987 play.
My imagined editor seems to work on a lot of theatre reviews but apparently doesn’t go to a lot of theatre, and so I muse upon headlines I suspect most of us would not want to see; endless alliteration, bad puns, inadvertently risqué or even offensive juxtapositions pouring from a sleep-deprived mind, one that may have only read the review cursorily. Consequently, here’s a selection of 25 headlines I created for a range of plays and musicals – all to accompany positive reviews, as going negative is too easy – with the hope that it will make its way to arts copy desks across the country as samples of what not to do. But I can assure you that these are very close to the reality I see daily.
- Where’s the beef? Steer yourself to prime AMERICAN BUFFALO
- Don’t paws, run to (litter) box office: CAT on TIN ROOF will have you feline HOT
- Fine end to CORIOLANUS, but you may be bummed out
- Insane fun to be had at nutty CRAZY FOR YOU
- Miller spins tight-knit yarn about SALESMAN’s DEATH
- Piercing EQUUS quiets the neigh-sayers
- No woe at MOE show, so grab FIVE GUYS and go, shmoe
- Kernel of corporal punishment makes LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE generally great
- LITTLE WHOREHOUSE turns tricks into trade, hooks audiences to happy ending
- Compelling climax in THE ICEMAN COMETH
- You’ll want to preserve JELLY’S LAST JAM
- No need to hope for charity at LEAP OF FAITH
- NIGHT time is the right time for Sondheim’s MUSIC
- Oh, my: THE LYONS is a tiger, bears seeing
- Missed I and II? You’ll still enjoy MADNESS OF GEORGE III
- MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM is tops
- M. BUTTERFLY emerges in unexpected, satisfying ways
- Start spreading the NEWSIES
- NORMAN’s CONQUESTS make him Attila the Fun
- ONE MAN, TWO GUVS: three cheers four you — five stars
- Norris’ PAIN AND THE ITCH receives critical an-ointment
- Local troupe puts impressive PRIVATES ON PARADE
- Current RAISIN IN THE SUN prunes away time’s overgrown vines
- There’s no need to fear, TOPDOG/UNDERDOG is here
- Yes VIRGINIA, Albee’s foxy WOOLF blows the house in
I will close by quoting a long-remembered headline, 100% accurate, that accompanied a glowing review for a show I worked on once upon a time: “Crawl Over Ground Glass to See This Show.” Enticing, huh? Truth can be stranger than fiction.
This is a slightly revised version of a post originally published in 2012, under the dreadful headline, “Much Read Heads Can Put Chorus In Line Or Punch ‘Em Out.” I have no idea what I was thinking. Needless to say, no one read it.