Film buffs have Rotten Tomatoes. Bookworms have Literary Hub. But where do theater lovers go to explore and rate their favorite live shows? Enter Show-Score, a just-under-one-year-old site that compiles and displays basic information, member and critic reviews, and links to ticket sales for all recent and current Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway shows. Its comprehensiveness and usefulness is astounding, but it’s the site’s numeric scoring system that makes it truly unique. Show-Score has found a way to quantify artistic quality while simultaneously honoring the diversity in the individual voices of the site’s users. In this way, Show-Score avoids the worst aspects of our culture’s need to pin a number and rank on every experience.
Tom Melcher, the site’s founder and CEO, is a veteran of 10 startups. Upon moving to New York from China in 2013, the self-confessed theater lover became frustrated with the resources available for Broadway fans like himself. “Why is it so difficult,” he wondered, “to learn about what’s currently showing and to find the best ticket prices?” If there was any doubt that Show-Score’s technological solution to these problems would work—well, the reviews are in (by the tens of thousands), and it’s a success.
Show-Score’s ratings are a composite of reviews from both critics and members. The critic scores are created by a team at Show-Score, which reads reviews from other outlets and assigns to the production a number from 0 to 100 that reflects, as faithfully as possible, the critics’ reviews. Show-Score’s members assign their own numbers. What the site learned early on is that critics and the theater-going public don’t always agree. The recently closed bluegrass musical Bright Star, for example, written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, received a high 82 member score but a low 67 critic score. That’s quite a spread, and the fact that Show-Score gave the production an 81 overall score—based on a proprietary algorithm combining both critics’ and members’ scores—demonstrates the site’s belief in the value of its members’ opinions.
While the numbers may draw users in, the stories behind them add depth to the site. Each critic score is accompanied by an excerpt from the critic’s review, and every site member supports his or her score with attributes picked from a scroll-down menu—“great acting,” “great singing,” “enchanting,” “exquisite,” “clichéd,” “quirky,” “original,” “slow,” “disappointing,” etc.—and write-in responses to two open-ended questions: “See it if…” and “Don’t see it if…” Show-Score believes there’s an audience for every show, and this review format tries to bring out the positive, even while giving voice to someone’s negative experience.
This open-heartedness adds a humanity to Show-Score that’s lacking in other number-driven rating platforms, like Rotten Tomatoes. (In a broader comparison, seen above, Show-Score contrasts itself with the much harsher Board of Education grading system.) Theater is art, and art is not easily quantifiable. Show-Score’s rating system is appropriately generous to the form.
This spring, four highly touted musicals opened on Broadway—Bright Star, American Psycho, Disaster! A Musical and Tuck Everlasting—and all flopped and closed prematurely. But Show-Score members found something to like in each of these: Bright Star’s 82 member score was the highest; the other three scored in the high 70s, within Show-Score’s “good” range. Critics were less kind: All scored in the “so-so” range. In the end, the fact that these four musicals didn’t make it through the summer might argue for the continuing relevance and authority of critic reviews, at least as they pertain to the business success of a show. But with higher scores on Show-Score—and the site’s accompanying short user reviews—perhaps more people will be inspired to go see plays and musicals. That’s something I think all theatergoers—even the most critical—can get behind.