After 13 years of drama and farce. . . EXIT THE CRITIC. . . humming the music and settling the scores.
By Frank Rich;
Frank Rich was the chief drama critic of The Times for 13 years. He is now a columnist for The Times's Op-Ed page.
My career as the chief drama critic of The New York Times began with a car crash and a death, and ended with another car crash and another death. But don't get me wrong: there was lots of life, on stage and off, along the way.
The first crash took place on a hot morning in the Berkshires in July 1980, shortly after I arrived at The Times to serve as a second-stringer to Walter Kerr. The previous night I had covered "Candida" at the Williamstown Theater Festival. Driving back to New York, I lost control of the rental car, which skidded across the country road and flipped over on its roof.
I landed on an examination table back in Manhattan, where an orthopedist inspected my fractured collarbone. As the doctor manipulated my shoulder, making me writhe in pain, he looked solemnly into my eyes.
"Tell me something," he said. "Could you get me a pair for 'Barnum' for Saturday night?"
This was my introduction to the omnipotence that strangers attach to the job of drama critic at The New York Times.
What would follow was a 13-year journey full of hairpin turns and plot twists. I would have far more than my share of wild journalistic adventures, be reviled as the Butcher of Broadway and have a front-row seat for a seismic shift in the American theater.
But back in 1980, I realize now, I was still something of an innocent. For one thing, I believed that it was nothing to bounce back from a car crash. Even so, my injury slowed me down, ejecting me from my beat as abruptly as I had landed in it that spring, when Arthur Gelb recruited me from Time magazine, where I was a film and television critic. My torso was elaborately wrapped by the doctor, and I couldn't type easily.
I was still recuperating when Arthur called me with an urgent request. Defying Broadway practice, the producer David Merrick was mysteriously canceling previews of his new musical, "42d Street." Critics would have to cover the show the old-fashioned way -- on deadline on opening night -- rather than follow the standard practice of the past decade, attending a final preview and writing at a slightly more leisurely (and thoughtful) pace. Walter Kerr, who had been ailing himself, did not want the assignment under those conditions. Neither did I. This was the most high-profile Broadway show in years. I was still a novice theater critic, little known by Times readers and unsure of myself. Throw in the added pressure of a one-hour deadline and. . . .
"Are you crazy?" Arthur shouted, all but leaping out of the phone to dismiss my objections. He was a one-of-a-kind editor who exceeded even Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's newspapermen in chutzpah and verve. "How can you not cover it?"
When the big night arrived, I was a wreck. But as I saw the huge billboard above the Winter Garden marquee on Broadway, I also felt an undeniable rush of excitement. I thought of my first visit to the Winter Garden, as a teen-ager on the outside looking in: watching Barbra Streisand from the last row of the orchestra during her final weeks in "Funny Girl," in a seat my stepfather had me fetch from an illegal broker in a dusty walk-up hovel near the old Gaiety Delicatessen on West 47th Street.
And I thought fondly of David Merrick. His shameless promotion of his productions, often at the expense of critics he baited through practical jokes and irrational public ravings, had always struck me as part of the essential romance of Broadway. As a child, I had read every article I could find about him.
Then again, once the theater became my chosen escape from a troubled home, I had read everything I could find on the subject. The stage was my obsession from age 6 -- an idiosyncratic one, to put it mildly, for a child growing up in the sleepy provincial Washington of the 1950's.
By my early teens, I had become so conspicuous a Stage Door Johnny that the manager of the National Theater, Washington's one Broadway tryout house in the pre-Kennedy Center era, took pity on me and hired me as a ticket taker, at $4 a show. (Plus all the performances I could watch free of charge.) That's where I saw Merrick and the director Gower Champion put in an elaborate new number for Carol Channing at the end of Act I of "Hello, Dolly!" And Merrick, Lauren Bacall and Abe Burrows frantically teaching Barry Nelson how not to bump into the turntable sets of "Cactus Flower," Nelson having just arrived in Washington to replace the leading man the producer had canned the night before.
If someone had told me then that someday I would not only be attending a David Merrick opening on Broadway, directed by Gower Champion no less, but sitting down front and writing about what I saw for the whole world to read in The New York Times the next morning, I would have sooner believed I'd win the Nobel Prize for my youthful stabs at poetry. For The Times was also inextricably bound up with my passion. From earliest memory, it was Al Hirschfeld's drawings of plays and the imposing full-page advertisements heralding them in the Sunday Times drama section -- and then the Brooks Atkinson reviews the morning after -- that had transported my imagination to the New York theater while I impatiently languished 200 miles away.
Now here I was, at "42d Street," and high as could be -- until the end of the opening number. Then the leaden dialogue commenced, and my heart sank: "42d Street" was no match for "Hello, Dolly!" "Oliver!" "Carnival!" or any other Merrick musical with an exclamation point in its title from my youth. Anxiously, I started taking notes so I could illustrate with examples the disappointment I felt in my gut. I had a clear idea of my job -- to report what I saw on stage honestly and pointedly, as I might in conversation with a friend -- and it never occurred to me that someone might object to what I wrote.
When the show ended, I waited through one curtain call and ran up the aisle to make my deadline at The Times, seven blocks down Broadway. I hadn't reached the street when an acquaintance in the movie business stopped me.
"Frank, I have to talk to you," he said.
"I'm on deadline," I replied, annoyed, racing toward a cab.
"But I've got big news," he said. "Gower Champion is dead."
What? I had read that Champion had been elusive during the Washington tryout of "42d Street." But dead? He was 59 and not rumored to be seriously ill.
Panic-stricken, I looked back toward the one open door leading into the theater. The sound of the ovation still thundered, but my informant had disappeared. This was big news. But I wasn't a reporter; I was a theater critic, and a fledgling one at that. Had I been handed the scoop of the century? Or was I the patsy in another fabled Merrick hoax? And how could I find out and still write my review by deadline?
As I slid into the cab beside my wife, Gail, I looked toward the theater one last desperate time and discovered a solitary couple emerging -- Arthur Gelb and his wife, Barbara, who had stayed only long enough for the second curtain call.
I leaped back out and, from the middle of Broadway, started waving my sling and shrieking at them. Arthur looked at me as if I was having a breakdown, then ran over, yanking Barbara with him. I told them my news, and Arthur said: "Gower Champion dead! That's impossible!" But they piled into the jump seats, and the driver raced down Broadway to The Times.
When, a few minutes later, we emerged from the elevator on the third floor to enter the deserted culture department, every phone seemed to beringing off the hook. Arthur picked one up to learn that Merrick had just announced Champion's abrupt death from the Winter Garden stage, saving the bulletin for the very end of the curtain calls.
Arthur dashed to the news desk as the first edition was about to close to break into the front page with a picture and caption announcing the news. (The caption carefully said that Merrick had announced Champion's death rather than that Champion was dead, lest the producer be up to no good.) I sat down to write my bittersweet mixed review for the second edition and proceeded to sweat right through my clothes. John Corry, the drama reporter, breathlessly arrived, and Arthur seated him a desk away from me to hammer out the page-one news story.
Big-time journalism! Big-time Broadway! What more could I want? I made my deadline. Once I had, I sat at the terminal alone, my shoulder suddenly throbbing again. Then I broke unexpectedly into tears, partly, perhaps, out of psychic release, now that the pressure had lifted, but also out of some sense of mourning for Champion. I had never met him, but I took the loss personally anyway, out of an inchoate sense that some of my old childhood fantasies about the theater had died with him that night.
Merrick got so much publicity from his brilliant stage management of the announcement of Champion's death -- the director had actually died early that afternoon, but the producer suppressed the news -- that it didn't matter what any review said. "42d Street" was a smash.
And I was the living proof of its undying Broadway legend, the understudy who went out a nobody and came back a star. When I returned to work for real, minus the sling, after Labor Day, Abe Rosenthal, the executive editor, told me that Walter wanted to return to Sunday reviewing and that I was the new chief drama critic.
I called my mother. She had always indulged my twin passions for newspaper writing and the theater; it was she who took me to Broadway for the first time as a child, as an unspoken consolation for the pain of her and my father's divorce. By then my fate had been sealed, and now, 20-odd years later, at age 31, I was doing exactly what she said she always knew I was born to do. "I can't believe it," I told her. "I can," she said.
THE FIRST SHOW I HAD TO REVIEW AS CHIEF CRITIC WAS AN innocuous Off Broadway play, "An Act of Kindness," about which I have forgotten everything except that it took me about eight hours to write the 800-word review, so heavily did the august responsibilities of my new job with its preposterously official-sounding title weigh on me.
But I soon loosened up. I found a method for preserving the spontaneity of theatergoing, so essential to the joy of the experience. I didn't read about new plays before seeing them (or read their scripts); I didn't listen to friends either. This allowed me to still feel that rush of anticipation and surprise when the curtain went up.
I gradually aspired to write reviews as stories evoking the play's impact rather than as merely report cards leaning on adjectives and plot. This, I felt, was a way to engage the majority of readers, who never went to the theater no matter what the reviews, and to reach those readers like my younger self, who wanted to go the theater but couldn't, for reasons of finances or geography. I also learned that if I had anything positive to say, say it first, because the artists who do valiant work in a mediocre enterprise are, in the journalistic sense, the real news -- the lead.
Just the same, I couldn't shake the sense that my calling was a bit arcane, that I had arrived at my dream job after the dream had ended. In college, friends had ridiculed my obsession with so obsolete an art form and had argued (correctly, as it turned out) that I was much more likely to find a job writing about movies than plays after graduation. As I looked around the theater in the early 1980's, I saw few critics who were remotely my contemporaries. When I had been a movie critic in the 70's, by contrast, most of my colleagues were roughly my age.
It wasn't difficult to see why. The seismic cultural events that happened in the theater in my youth now happened at the movies. No theatrical event was capable of creating the American earthquake that "Long Day's Journey Into Night," "My Fair Lady" or "Marat/Sade" had in my formative years.
Yet the talent in the American theater was still considerable, if often young and not widely known. I found a mission in championing new voices -- David Henry Hwang, Beth Henley, William Finn, Marsha Norman, Eric Bogosian, among others, early on -- even as I delighted in charting established talents like Sam Shepard, Michael Bennett, David Mamet, Lanford Wilson and Athol Fugard. Joseph Papp, in a surprising Anglophilic phase, was producing such invigorating works as the Kevin Kline-Linda Ronstadt "Pirates of Penzance" and David Hare's "Plenty," starring Kate Nelligan. In a single week, an Off Broadway theatergoer could discover two sensational new young actresses: Laurie Metcalf (in "Balm in Gilead") and Holly Hunter (in "The Miss Firecracker Contest"). Broadway's diversity could range from Michael Frayn's "Noises Off," the single funniest play I ever saw on the job, to "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," in which the angry black playwright August Wilson introduced himself to a white, middle-class audience by having the fearsome actor Charles Dutton figuratively hold it at knifepoint.
The work and hours were daunting, but I could not disagree with friends who said that I had the best job in the world. When I was virtually alone among my colleagues in liking a show -- Michael Bennett's "Dreamgirls," for instance -- it was a kick to buck the consensus. Even the occasional contretemps were fun. Displeased by both my review and other Times coverage of "42d Street," Merrick tried and failed to place a pair of agate-type ads at the bottom of the front page: "Every time I pass The New York Times building I get hit with a wave of pyromania -- David Merrick" and "Anyone having the power of pyrokinesis, please contact me -- David Merrick." When I once happened to walk past Merrick's table at Elaine's restaurant, he intercepted me, then dressed me down in a low, snide voice out of Victorian melodrama -- as his stricken dinner guests, one of them Mary Tyler Moore, looked on.
He must have sensed that I was more titillated than insulted; critics may not be, as is generally presumed, frustrated actors or playwrights, but few of us mind playing our assigned role in the timeless sideshows of the rialto.
Arthur Gelb, who had been a drama critic and reporter in the Brooks Atkinson era at The Times, inculcated me from the start in my journalistic role: to serve the paper's readers, not the theater's public relations needs. A classic conflict between The Times's view of my job and the theater's popped up early in my first full season. The Shubert Organization, perhaps emboldened by Merrick's successful ploy with "42d Street," announced that critics must cover its new import, "Amadeus," on opening night, rather than at a preview. The Shuberts' theory, one of the many old wives' tales among aged Broadway hands, was that critics would write more favorable reviews with more quotable quotes if pumped full of deadline adrenaline and subjected to the cheers of a house full of backers.
In truth, a critic quickly learns to tune out any audience response in reaching his own judgment. The old opening-night system was deplored by many critics, who often had to miss the end of a show to make a deadline and felt it unfair to review artists' work as if it were a fire or sporting event. (Covering the opening night of "A Streetcar Named Desire" in 1947, Brooks Atkinson had to miss the last scene, which meant that he reviewed the play without having heard "the kindness of strangers.") The system's collapse was inevitable in any case once opening nights on Broadway ceased to be real opening nights in the late 1960's, when New York preview performances for paying audiences began to replace the out-of-town tryout and an "opening" became an artificially designated event.
Merrick had succeeded in getting critics to cover "42d Street" on opening night because it was a bona fide event; at huge financial cost, he had canceled the final previews, leaving the press no option but to surrender to the promotional gala he wanted. The Shuberts, by contrast, were loath to waste money in pursuit of principle. They wanted critics to cover "Amadeus" at the so-called opening, which they could pack with cheerleaders, but they had no intention of canceling highly remunerative previews presold to theater parties.
Gerald Schoenfeld, the chairman of the Shubert Organization, called Arthur to plead his case. Arthur told Schoenfeld, "I promise you that Frank Rich will be at 'Amadeus' on opening night." Which I would be. What Arthur did not tell him was that I would already have filed my review, since I would buy a ticket for a preview.
As it happened, I had met Gerry Schoenfeld in childhood when the Broadway trade organization, the League of New York Theaters, hired my stepfather, a Washington lawyer, to lobby the Johnson Administration for the removal of the excise tax on theater tickets. In the 1970's in New York, I had occasionally run into Gerry, who sometimes graciously passed me into the previews of Shubert shows. Neither he nor I could ever have imagined that I would someday end up as The Times's drama critic.
But the day I went to see "Amadeus," I walked right in front of Gerry, who seemed too busy counting the house to notice anything else and failed to recognize me as I went up the stairs to my seat in the Broadhurst mezzanine.
My mission accomplished, my review filed, I went to the "Amadeus" opening. True to form, Gerry sat right behind me to exert maximum influence on my thoughts. He apparently did not find it odd that I didn't take a single note and didn't hurry up the aisle at the final curtain. But, as I would later learn from a friend at the opening-night party, he had no sooner announced to the assembled that there would be no Times review until the following morning when someone ran in waving my first-edition review in his face. He was not amused.
It didn't seem to matter to him that the review was a rave, or that "Amadeus" was a hit. A few weeks after the opening, I was walking on Fifth Avenue with my friend Wendy Wasserstein, a playwright as yet unknown to the Shuberts, for whom she would later make a ton of money with "The Heidi Chronicles" and "The Sisters Rosensweig." (With no help from me; I never reviewed plays written by her or by the few other friends I had in the theater before I became a critic.) In front of Tiffany's we ran smack into Gerry's wife, Pat, who berated me for a good 20 minutes, accusing me of betraying the friendship of our two families.
The "Amadeus" incident marked a surge in the Shuberts' paranoia about The Times, which dated back to the original Shubert brothers in 1915, who had barred the paper's critic, Alexander Woollcott, from one of its theaters. (The Times's publisher, Adolph S. Ochs, beat back the challenge by rejecting Shubert advertising, which proved to cost the Shuberts more business than it did The Times.) Arthur and I soon discovered that the Shuberts had canvassed the staff at the restaurant where we ate together during the dinner break of the eight-hour "Nicholas Nickleby" to ascertain advance word on my review. (In vain, since I was compulsive about never discussing any play before my review appeared.)
Rather more successfully, the Shuberts revived the old tradition of finding out reviews in advance through a Times mole with computer access. When Gerry Schoenfeld brazenly told Abe Rosenthal my review of the musical "Song & Dance" before the curtain went up on opening night and before Abe had read the review himself, The Times set out to find the culprit. Sherlock Holmes was not required -- an obscure editor was discovered to be a conspicuous and frequent lunchtime guest of top theatrical executives at Sardi's -- and the electronic leaks were plugged.
BROADWAY WAS NOT ALL "Amadeus" and "Dreamgirls." At a time when production costs were still low enough for first-time producers to indulge their most catastrophic theatrical whims, covering the theater was as madcap as going to the circus. It became a running gag with me and Wendy Wasserstein, who would accompany me to anything, that many of the biggest bombs on Broadway had titles beginning with the letter M. ("Macbeth" also fell into this category; every production of this play I covered, whether with Philip Anglim, Nicol Williamson or Christopher Plummer, was a fiasco.) There was "Marlowe," a rock musical in which the titular playwright joined Shakespeare and Richard Burbage to smoke dope backstage at the Globe Theater, and "Merlin," in which the on-stage animals outnumbered the audience at the Mark Hellinger Theater on a snowy matinee day, and "Marilyn," a musical biography of Marilyn Monroe that had 16 producers. (Favorite line, spoken by Marilyn: "But you're Arthur Miller. How can you be so boring?")
"Moose Murders" was a special case. It is the worst play I've ever seen on a Broadway stage. A murder mystery set in a hunting lodge in the Adirondacks, it reached its climax when a mummified quadriplegic abruptly bolted out of his wheelchair to kick an intruder, dressed in a moose costume, in the groin.
Wendy and I saw "Moose Murders" at a Wednesday matinee. Hardly had the play started when the smell of vomit wafted through the orchestra at the Eugene O'Neill Theater. Gradually, those seated in the first few rows starting taking refuge in empty seats at the back of the house, until finally we and the apparent source of the exodus, a voluminous man third-row center, were virtually the only members of the audience in the front rows. Yet I feared that if we moved back, I might be too far away to give the play a fair shake.
Finally, my sense of justice gave way. I bolted to the back of the theater, where the press agent and other staff members of the production inevitably hang out at critics' performances, to seek a solution. To my amazement, however, there was no one in the back of the house; this sinking ship had already been abandoned. I retrieved Wendy, and we moved to the back row, where we watched the unfolding horror with no less amazement than we had from close up. "Moose Murders" closed on opening night, but its gallant cast members still list the credit in their Playbill biographies, usually preceded by the word "legendary."
FOR ALL THE FRIVOLOUS BROADWAY amateur nights like "Moose Murders" or "Shogun" (in which flying scenery beaned the leading man) or "Into the Light" (the first and last musical about the Shroud of Turin), there would always be professional failures in which talented people, working under the burden of the commercial theater's costly and rushed production schedule, would stumble. The saddest "M" flop of the early 80's was "Merrily We Roll Along," the last collaboration of the director Harold Prince and the songwriter Stephen Sondheim, both heroes of my youth. The show had first-rate songs -- the overture quickened my pulse in false anticipation of a triumph -- but what surrounded them was chaos. (Most critics didn't even like the songs.)
Or was I being too harsh? As I sat down to write I couldn't square my powerful emotional response to Sondheim's music with my disapproval of the soulless acting, ugly staging and pale characters. I felt queasy. While it can be fun to write a joke-strewn pan of a venal or lunatic theatrical catastrophe, whether "Moose Murders" or "Carrie," there is no pleasure in writing about a failure in which artists commit no crime other than fallibility in pursuit of high theatrical ambitions. But neither was there any point in pulling punches for Times readers who know better. It was a no-win situation.
Haunted by "Merrily," I went back to see it again at the final Saturday matinee. I bought a ticket at the half-price booth at Duffy Square, but only lasted an act. The show was at least as depressing as I remembered it, the audience was noisy and rude and what could I or any journalist do about any of it?
THE ANTITHESIS OF THE "MERRILY" experience was to feel that unmistakable sensation that something extraordinary was happening on a stage -- best of all, something new -- and that I would have the thrill of breaking the story.
Such nights, and they were not infrequent, made the job seem hopeful despite all the larger signs that the theater was collapsing as a business in New York. Ticket prices were rising; the Morosco and Helen Hayes Theaters were razed for the Marriott Marquis Hotel; even Merrick, who suffered a stroke during the run of "42d Street," had apparently retired. But a new and daring company like Steppenwolf in Chicago or an incendiary play like "Aunt Dan and Lemon," by Wallace Shawn, or an original talent like George Wolfe would still come along (usually Off Broadway).
One show that exemplified my stubborn faith was the very next Sondheim musical, "Sunday in the Park With George." The night I reviewed it, people were walking out all around me, yet as the first act ended, with the re-creation of a Georges Seurat canvas, I felt that tickling sensation on the back of my neck that always arrives when the theater speaks to me at a level so deep that my spirit responds before my mind.
I didn't understand everything that I had seen on stage that night. When all the reviews came out and were mostly hostile, I was full of self-doubt and shaken by the loneliness of my stand, especially since I couldn't articulate my response to "Sunday" to my own satisfaction. So I went back and saw it again and again and again -- and kept being moved and kept writing about it until I felt I had made my case. One consequence of my obsession was to dramatize The Times's power, since my essays kept alive a production that many others deemed worthy of a quick death.
I particularly angered the late Richard Hummler, of the trade publication Variety, who despised The Times's extensive coverage of the show nearly as much as he did the show itself. The theater's resentment of the iconoclastic Sondheim, always apparent in the anonymous and not-so-anonymous mail I perennially received from Broadway folk attacking him, eventually even surfaced on stage at the Tony Awards: Jerry Herman, who won the Tony for "La Cage aux Folles" over "Sunday in the Park," took a swipe at his rival. And now some of the venom spilled over to me, Sondheim's champion (for this show anyway).
For the first time, I found people in the theater questioning my motives in a personal way. Though theater professionals had always heartily (and understandably) protested negative reviews -- either with seriously argued letters or sly, Merrick-esque stunts (a picket line of chorus performers materialized on 43d Street after I panned a stage version of "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers") -- the tone changed. Page Six of The New York Post called to confirm the rumors that I had liked "Sunday" so much because its director, James Lapine, was my college roommate. (In fact, I had never met Lapine, who didn't attend my college and wasn't even my age.) Another, equally scurrilous rumor had me in bed with the show's press agent.
Apparently no one in the theater could imagine that I might like "Sunday in the Park" for the reasons I stated in print. But as the season wore on, some other critics began to reverse their stands about the show. "Sunday in the Park" won the Drama Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The supposed clout of The Times and those awards notwithstanding, however, it did not become a financial success.
IT WAS NOT UNTIL 1986, after "Sunday" closed, that I officially became the Butcher of Broadway. The traditional term was revived for my benefit by the British comedian Rowan Atkinson, who told London reporters that he held me responsible for the demise of a revue he brought to New York. I happened to be in London when Atkinson made his remarks. When I went to Heathrow a few days later to fly home, I was chased into a British Airways lounge by a couple of men in trench coats who turned out to be British tabloid reporters seeking a comment. It was a hilarious, surreal adventure, and in subsequent visits, almost anything I did was front-page news in the local tabloid press. Invitations to appear on British television rained down on me, to the point where the Savoy Hotel had to screen the avalanche of calls when I was in London. Only in England, where the theater is still center stage in the nation's cultural life as well as a major export industry, could a drama critic star in a farcical escapade right out of "A Hard Day's Night."
Rowan Atkinson's battle cry was amplified by two other Brits as they passed through New York. One was David Hare, who was infuriated when I wrote that he had mutilated his own fine play "The Secret Rapture" by miscasting and misdirecting the New York production. (The play had been beautifully staged by Howard Davies in London.) Hare wrote an open letter to me that he distributed to the press, arguing that it was part of my job "to insure the survival of the theater" and "support . . . the continuance of the serious play on Broadway." I wrote back that "my responsibility" was "to be honest with The Times's readers," who were too smart to follow any critic with blind Pavlovian slavishness, but instead extrapolated according to their own tastes from a familiar critic's point of view.
The dispute made for great copy and landed me on the front page of publications ranging from The Wall Street Journal to Variety (where Hummler wrote a tendentious story with a classic headline, "Ruffled Hare Airs Rich Bitch"). Hare was seconded by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who, though I had never met him, told reporters that I had not liked the performance given by his wife, Sarah Brightman, in "The Phantom of the Opera," because I was bitter about my own pending divorce. (Webber's divorce from Brightman was yet to come.) When "60 Minutes" did a segment about me, Hare and Lloyd Webber were both heard from, with the latter delivering, in the correspondent Morley Safer's words, an "unprintable tirade" off-camera, questioning my "integrity, sexuality and sanity." Even the stroke-impaired Merrick made a cameo appearance, labeling me "a savage dog."
Merrick had come back to Broadway with "Oh, Kay!" a feeble attempt to create a musical in the style of "42d Street," his last hit, now a decade old. At the critics' preview I attended, he pulled one of his old tricks: in the seat next to Alex Witchel, the Times theater columnist whom I was dating, he planted a loud, disruptive woman who talked and bounced in her seat throughout the show. After my negative review of "Oh, Kay!" came out, Merrick circulated a protesting letter to The Times in which he claimed Alex had talked through the performance. To heighten the public relations push, he then placed an ad in which a negative quote from my review and a news item from Alex's column about an Actors Equity dispute involving "Oh, Kay!" were contained within a cupid's heart. "At last, people are holding hands in the theatre again!" read the headline.
The stunt was a replay of a famous one he had pulled on Walter and Jean Kerr three decades earlier, when he publicly accused Jean of influencing Walter's reviews by dramatically "nudging" him at the theater. (Walter's answer to the charge in The Herald Tribune -- "Surely, Mr. Merrick, someone, somewhere has liked you well enough to give you a little dig in the elbow. No? Ah, well" -- is a journalism classic.) And by Merrick standards, the treatment I got was mild. In his prime, Merrick likened Brooks Atkinson's successor, Howard Taubman, to Adolf Eichmann during a half-hour tirade on Johnny Carson's "Tonight" show, on which the producer also accused the critic of feeding poison nuts to the squirrels in Central Park and spraying pesticide at Hubert's Flea Circus. Those were the days! It's hard to imagine any theatrical producer even being booked on a network talk show now.
Merrick's ad ran for one edition in The Times and was reprinted widely. The publicity did not save "Oh, Kay!" which died ignominiously in a welter of financial disputes pitting Merrick against his own employees. The great producer's career was over. But the notion Merrick perpetrated that Alex and I were in league either to reward or punish the New York theater hardly died with "Oh, Kay!" It became a mantra of New York theater people, who were dumbfounded as Alex got scoop after scoop in her Friday Times column: no one in the business seemed to remember that she wrote a theater column for the publication 7 Days before The Times hired her. Or that she worked in the theater, both for the Shuberts and Joseph Papp, before entering journalism, and had developed countless sources throughout its infrastructure, many of whom knew more about what was going on in theatrical offices than the bosses did. The idea of an evil woman behind the throne also seemed to titillate the almost exclusively male theater establishment, and its members planted gossip items about Alex that, predictably, made the expected juvenile plays on her last name and, eventually, referred to her "Hillary headbands."
The Times's editors, who by this point routinely had husbands and wives working in tandem on beats far more important than the theater, saw the attacks for the frequently misogynist whining they were. The biggest problem for Alex and me in this controversy was our loss of privacy. If we went looking for an apartment, it was in the papers. If we ate at a restaurant, a waiter might report our most innocuous conversation to a gossip column. Even our small wedding was infiltrated by a tabloid spy.
The juvenile tone of the gossip began to dispirit me. The Shubert Alley backbiting that had seemed romantic in "All About Eve," Joseph Mankiewicz's brilliant film satire of the New York theater in its post-World War II heyday, now seemed to be a larger growth industry on Broadway than play production itself, reflecting the diminished size of the business and the spare time its managers had on their hands. As I turned 40, a world I had once seen as sophisticated no longer struck me as adult.
The constant carping also left me wondering whether my own standards were indeed too tough for the tourist arena the Broadway theater had become. Since those standards were inseparable from who I am, I couldn't have changed them even if I wanted to. But was it worth applying them to a Broadway where the apex of achievement in the 1980's was "Cats"?
Yet even in this period of intense criticism, most people in the theater were courteous in their dealings with Alex and me. Alex, as a reporter, had far more dealings than I did, since I had always tried to avoid meeting people I might review. Though the occasional ambitious actor would write me a pleading note -- Glenn Close, for instance, who wrote asking that I return to "Barnum" 11 months into its run to see how she had deepened her performance as Barnum's wife -- most people kept a polite distance. The only producer who repeatedly tried to hawk his shows to me by schmoozing was Gordon Davidson, of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles; some major showmen (like James Nederlander, the second-largest Broadway theater owner, after the Shuberts) never contacted me for any reason throughout my career at The Times. I rarely had ugly confrontations with anyone in the theater, and my mail from theater people, even at its angriest, was civilized.
In 13 years the few significant exceptions invariably involved Robert Brustein, the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University, and the few contemporary playwrights who worked at his theater (a list that dwindled rapidly as the 80's went on). The nastiest encounter I ever had was with Arthur Kopit, whose play "End of the World," to be produced later by Brustein in Cambridge, fared poorly in New York. One night after it opened I was passing under the marquee of the Music Box, where it was playing, and was buttonholed by Kopit, who, after telling me I was too stupid to appreciate his work, embarked on even more vitriolic tongue-lashings of three other plays, all praised by me, running on the same 45th Street block: "Sunday in the Park," "The Real Thing," by Tom Stoppard, and "Glengarry Glen Ross," by David Mamet. (After Sondheim, no one seemed to arouse more jealousy and anger among theatrical rivals than Mamet.)
Brustein was smoother. He offered me a teaching position at Harvard weeks after I arrived at the paper, air fare to and from my weekly seminars included. I mentioned this offer to Arthur Gelb -- I was naively mesmerized by the prospect -- and he ended the fantasy right there. Not only was the offer unethical, Arthur elaborated, but Brustein had a tortured history with the paper. In his memoir, "Making Scenes," Brustein had objected to the prominence of The Times's 1978 news story about A. Bartlett Giamatti's decision to replace him as dean of the Yale School of Drama.
I turned Brustein's offer down. But I did not fall into his ill graces until a few years later, when I praised the work of August Wilson, who had been discovered by Brustein's successor at Yale, the director Lloyd Richards, and would eventually win two Pulitzer Prizes (for "Fences" and "The Piano Lesson"). In his theater column in The New Republic, which he routinely used to deride rivals and reward associates in the theater, Brustein savaged Wilson for writing exclusively about "the black experience in a relatively literalistic style." (Brustein's American Repertory Theater was notorious among major American institutional theaters for never originating main-stage productions of plays by black Americans.) In a follow-up essay for American Theatre magazine, Brustein attacked Wilson's plays and a long list of others -- among them, "M. Butterfly," "Marvin's Room," "As Is," "The Normal Heart," "Eastern Standard," "Falsettoland," "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" -- that were conspicuous for having received favorable reviews in The Times. Many of these works were by gay writers, another sore spot for Brustein, who implied in print in 1983 that an "AIDS sympathy vote" had contributed to the Tony Award victory of "Torch Song Trilogy" over his production of " 'night, Mother."
But if Brustein was jealous of Lloyd Richards, and uncomfortable with minority playwrights, what drove him most crazy about me, it seemed, was my wife. Often he would stare conspicuously at Alex before the lights went down at a performance we both attended. Soon enough, he wrote a column titled "An Embarrassment of Riches," that attacked the intersection of our marital and professional lives. There was an odd twist to Brustein's attack, since a decade earlier he chastised The Times in his memoir for mentioning that the lead actress in one of his Yale productions was his own late wife. The Brusteins argued that calling attention to "relationships between husbands and wives who worked in the same place" was irrelevant to evaluating their work.
His article started a new wave of publicity. The power of The Times drama critic, real or imagined, now seemed the most interesting story in the theater. And there was nothing I could do about it. The Times's drama critic, whoever it was, had been the most influential in town before I was born, and would be after I'd gone. And the more publicity the drama critic got, the more powerful he seemed to become. When the Shuberts banned Woollcott 75 years earlier, they made both the paper and Woollcott more famous and powerful than they had been before. "They threw me out and now I'm basking in the fierce white light that beats upon the thrown," Woollcott said.
Like most of Woollcott's successors, I felt ambivalent about the paper's weight. If a review of mine could convince people to check out the work of an exciting new playwright, The Times's influence seemed worthwhile. If it had the opposite effect, who could take pleasure in that? Yet was the alternative to write waffling reviews, imploring readers to go to some well-meaning mediocrity for the good of the theater and those who worked in it? If I did that, I'd become the boy who cried wolf: those same readers would not believe me when I praised the really good play that came along. I was writing for the reader who did not want to waste a night or a hundred bucks on a dull evening -- and who did not want a patronizing critic to trick him into doing so. I was hardly writing for the producer who might lose a million dollars on "Merlin."
This was the way The Times wanted it, too, which is why the paper and I were well matched. Though the theater inevitably thought I was too tough, readers and some of my editors more often found me guilty of the reverse: I got far more mail from theatergoers who disliked plays I had praised than the other way around, and no wonder, given the fact that someone who loves the theater enough to be a theater critic is always going to be more charitable than the typical patron who might carefully pick out only a few plays to see each season. When looking through old reviews in retrospect I find that while I occasionally underpraised -- "Nicholas Nickleby," for instance -- my biggest whoppers of critical judgment were mostly of overpraise, from Elizabeth Taylor in "The Little Foxes" to "La Cage aux Folles." (Some other plays that I was accused of overpraising, and that few other critics liked, I still feel strongly about, like "Grown-Ups," by Jules Feiffer, "Eastern Standard," by Richard Greenberg, and "Four Baboons Adoring the Sun," by John Guare.)
The power of the job was not so vast as the Butcher of Broadway gags would have it, in any event. The huge, fast flops of my time, from "Moose Murders" to "Carrie" and "Nick and Nora," invariably received unanimously poor press from all newspaper, magazine and television critics; it would be hard to argue, as a Brustein or Hare might, that the Times review alone "closed" any of these shows. Similarly, many of the big hits, from "Amadeus" to "Angels in America," received almost uniformly favorable reviews, which makes it difficult to argue that The Times alone carried the day. Commercial entertainments with true mass appeal, whether by Neil Simon or Andrew Lloyd Webber, are review-proof: who in the standing-room-only audience at "The Phantom of the Opera" this week either knows or cares what I wrote about it? Does anyone remember that I didn't like "Brighton Beach Memoirs" or "Agnes of God"? Commercial shows that earn mixed or poor reviews can often survive if a producer is willing to do his job and promote it -- as the histories of productions like "I'm Not Rappaport" and "Blood Brothers" attest. In the post-Merrick era, sadly, such producers are in perilously short supply. The only showman left on Broadway who matches Merrick is the British producer Cameron Mackintosh, but he stages only large musicals, and infrequently at that. Merrick would not only mount several productions a season, but for every "Hello, Dolly!" there would be a drama, whether Peter Brook's "Midsummer Night's Dream" or Brian Friel's "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" And he would sell them as hard as he would a musical cash cow.
While I would not dispute some areas of The Times's influence -- especially its critics' ability to encourage extended runs (or commercial transfers) of plays in Off Broadway or out-of-town venues -- the power to control the fate of that most endangered species, the drama on Broadway, is close to nil. Serious dramas enthusiastically greeted by me and most other critics, whether "The Grapes of Wrath" or "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," by August Wilson, or Royal Shakespeare Company imports like the Trevor Nunn "All's Well That Ends Well," routinely fail on Broadway. The marketplace now only accommodates one drama per season -- one "Dancing at Lughnasa" or "Angels in America" -- unless there is a Madonna or Jessica Lange on another marquee.
But why should I even bother to argue my case? The myth will never die. As Brooks Atkinson wrote in The Times in 1953, when a musical he panned the year before ("Wish You Were Here") became a hit while well-reviewed plays flopped, "Facts will not destroy the ancient legend that critics are dictators who arbitrarily permit some plays to succeed and haughtily consign most of them to the ash-can."
Or as Atkinson put it when his power was under attack in 1947: "What the theater needs is not the suppression of opinion but a sharp and drastic deflation in the cost of tickets and a sharp and drastic improvement in the quality of plays."
Some things, it's clear, never change.
WHAT DID CHANGE IN THE late 1980's and early 1990's was the quality and texture of American playwriting, which became more diverse in style, ethnic origin and themes. As American theatrical production is now decentralized, with most new plays originating at institutional theaters Off Broadway and throughout the country rather than on Broadway, so American theatrical writing and performance reflect a far less homogenous society than they once did. A list of writers as varied as Jon Robin Baitz, Anna Deavere Smith, Craig Lucas, John Leguizamo, Paul Rudnick, Paula Vogel, Donald Margulies, Jose Rivera, Richard Greenberg and Eduardo Machado just touches the surface of this explosive new talent pool. If the directorial visions of Robert Wilson and Peter Sellars have no wider an American following in the early 90's than they did in the early 80's, the edgy, stylized African-American esthetic that the director George Wolfe brings to plays by black and white writers has caught on. Wolfe's staging and Tony Kushner's writing of "Angels in America" arguably brought more excitement to the American theater than any single work since "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" three decades earlier.
Yet, for all this creative flowering, the mood in the New York theater continued to turn sour as the millennium approached. Rising costs and ticket prices continued to erode Broadway, restricting its ability to present the American theater's large new creative bounty. The theater's old guard, which controls much of Broadway's bureaucracy and funds, resented the new generation that questioned its ways (much as it resented the taste of critics like myself who championed that new generation). Off Broadway theater companies, where most of the artistic action is, remain barred from the Tony Awards, a promotional event that increasingly seemed designed (like high ticket prices) to keep young talents and young audiences running in the opposite direction of Broadway. The Dramatists Guild, the playwrights organization that might have fought the establishment for revolutionary change, was under the thumb of Peter Stone, an old-line Broadway musical-theater book writer ("Woman of the Year," "The Will Rogers Follies") who, unlike much of the group's membership, never worked Off Broadway and was out of touch with the rising writers half his age working in nonprofit theaters.
But one reason for the growing gloom in the New York theater was beyond its control, and that, of course, was AIDS. The disease stepped out of the theater's closet in 1985 when it made its debut as a stage subject (in "As Is," by William Hoffman, and "The Normal Heart, " by Larry Kramer). Two years later, two of New York's greatest theatrical leaders, Broadway's Michael Bennett and Off Broadway's Charles Ludlam, joined the long list of casualties. The deaths would have been shocking under any circumstance, but the tragedy was heightened by the fresh memories of their recent triumphs. Bennett's extravagant staging of the gala, record-breaking performance of "A Chorus Line" in 1983 and Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company tour de force, "The Mystery of Irma Vep," in 1984, had suggested a limitless future for both men. They both died at 44.
"Sometimes you see death everywhere," went a totemic line in John Guare's brilliant theatrical summation of the 1980's in New York, "Six Degrees of Separation."
IN JUNE 1991, HOWEVER, I COULD not have been happier. A week after my 42d birthday, Alex and I were married in New York. The joy proved short-lived. On July 4, we went to a cookout at the home of Janet Maslin, my close friend and colleague who had first introduced me to Arthur Gelb (and The Times) a dozen years earlier. When we returned to my apartment at nightfall, a phone message announced that my mother and stepfather had been in a grotesque car accident on Route 95 between Baltimore and Washington, on their way home from an Independence Day lunch.
For a month, I commuted back and forth by train between New York and Baltimore, where my mother languished in a shock trauma center. The weather was fetid, the train and Baltimore itself always seemed deserted. My mother was 64 years old and had been in perfect health. There was some chance she might survive her extensive injuries. My stepfather was released from the hospital in a couple of weeks. But hard as my mother fought -- or I imagined her to fight, since she was sedated the entire time -- it was not to be. She died exactly a month after the accident.
My grief was so overwhelming that more than two years later, my memories of that summer remain a blur. For the first time in my life, the theater offered no solace, no escape. My mother too abundantly haunted the theater for me: she had always told me how she listened to the newly issued cast recording of "South Pacific" when she was pregnant with me; it was she who had given me Moss Hart's inspiring "Act One" a decade later.
But just as I hit psychic bottom, one person in the theater reached out to me, as if to bring me back within its spell.
That person was Joseph Papp. Like every critic, especially every Times critic, I had always had an up-and-down relationship with him -- and it had only been a professional relationship, largely in theater lobbies before a curtain went up. While he had never attempted to throw me out of his theater, as he had Walter Kerr, we had had our innings, the fracas over David Hare and "The Secret Rapture" included, once the New York Shakespeare Festival started to stumble in the late 1980's. The stumbling, I and others had not realized, was directly attributable to Papp's fight with cancer, the severity of which he successfully kept secret until the last year of his life.
By the time of my mother's death in August 1991, it was widely known that Papp was dying. No one had seen him in weeks. My last encounter with him, an atypical one, had been in March: he had phoned me to tell me how much he agreed with a favorable review I had written of a play he had read but not seen, Jon Robin Baitz's "Substance of Fire." When I encouraged him to go see the production at Playwrights Horizons, he gave vague excuses.
Now Papp was determined to give an extensive interview to The Times -- his last -- and, more specifically, to give it to Alex. She had worked for him in her college days, and they had hit it off. He had been a constant and reliable source for her column, even when the stories were not flattering to his own institution.
Alex's interview ran in The Times less than three weeks after my mother's death. A few mornings later, I picked up the phone in the kitchen and it was Papp's familiar voice, far stronger than I remembered it having been in March. He was calling to offer condolences. I told him how touched I was by his concern, then told him how sorry I had been to hear about his son, who had died of AIDS since our last conversation. Within moments, both of us were sobbing on the phone, knowing we were saying goodbye. "I want you to know," Joe said, "that even when I was angry at you I always knew you loved the theater." We expressed a desire to become the friends we had never been. Choosing my words delicately, I told him that he and his wife, Gail Merrifield, must come to our place for dinner when he felt well enough to do so. The conversation ended on a high note, the warmest embrace possible by phone, after which I felt more energized than I had since the accident -- if only for a few minutes, until the weight of my grief about Papp kicked in. As Merrick was the impresario who sponsored much of the exciting American theater of my youth, Papp was the far more visionary producer who played that role (reinventing American theater in the process) during my adulthood. Who was left?
AS LABOR DAY ARRIVED, I realized that for the first time in memory, I was not looking forward to a new theater season. The only way I could get back to writing, and to reconnecting with my passion for the theater, was to write an essay summing up Papp's career. Five weeks after it was published Papp died. But then the emotional weather changed for me; the theater came to my rescue with an exceptionally fine season: "Dancing at Lughnasa," "Angels in America" in London, "Jelly's Last Jam," "Falsettos," "Fires in the Mirror" and "Marvin's Room," a daffy yet devastating comedy about a woman who gives her life to caring for her terminally infirm father. My colleague and eventual successor as chief drama critic, David Richards, had written a profile of the young playwright, Scott McPherson, and invited me to join the two of them for breakfast the day after my review ran. This was unusual for me, but "Marvin's Room," more than any play I'd seen before or since, had spoken directly to me about what life had been like at my mother's side in the hospital. And I didn't have to worry about my integrity being compromised: McPherson, who was 32 and sick with AIDS, was not going to write another play.
In the incongruously cheery setting of Sarabeth's Kitchen on Amsterdam Avenue, the elfin McPherson was much like the heroine, Bessie, in his play -- funny, guileless, more concerned about others than himself. His lover, an AIDS activist named Daniel Sotomayor, was too sick to emerge from his hotel room; he died back home in Chicago two months later. McPherson talked buoyantly about his future writing plans. A year later, he, too, was dead.
THE FACT OF THE THEATER'S dwindling was inescapable, yet, paradoxically, American plays continued to rise to a level far higher than had been typical of my beat in the early 80's. However gravely ill the economic and physical health of the American theater, its art was thriving against all odds, and its young artists (Tony Kushner, typically, was only 36) promised a real future.
For me, the future increasingly seemed elsewhere. As election year arrived, and with it the prospect of both a political and generational turnover in American life, my journalistic focus widened; I found myself more interested in writing about the world itself rather than just the theater's vision of that world. A year after my mother's death, I took a leave from my beat to write columns about the Democratic and Republican conventions with my friend Maureen Dowd; the country was getting ready to elect a President only a couple of years older than I was. Though I returned to the theater for another season, I knew it would be my last. I started balancing my theater reviewing with a column about other matters for this magazine.
When The Times announced my appointment as an Op-Ed columnist, I heard from people in the theater, many of whom I had never met or communicated with before. My favorite send-off, however, turned up in a newspaper clipping from London. The Sunday Telegraph reported that David Merrick, ailing but still kicking, said through a lawyer that "Mr. Rich made many contributions to the American theater, none more great than to leave his post as theater critic."
The locution sounded suspiciously British for Merrick, but what the hell. For now at least, my career in the theater was complete; it seemed only right that the old fox who was there at the start would write my comic exit line.
There were still a few more plays to review. The very last, determined by the calendar, was "Perestroika," the second half of "Angels in America." I invited my oldest friend, Alan Brinkley, and his wife, Evangeline, to join me and Alex. My mother and Alan's had shared a hospital room in Washington on the day we were born 44 years earlier. Now Alan gave me a Playbill from that summer of 1949 as a token of the occasion.
A couple of afternoons later, I was alone in my cubicle at the paper, finishing my review of the play. The image that had most stayed in my mind from Kushner's voluminous epic was one of its last: the almost festive farewell wave to the audience of a man with AIDS who is determined to go on living.
So I wrote about the frail young man's buoyant wave, and, after I did, I realized that his goodbye was also my own; I went back and changed a couple of words in my final sentence to reinforce that double meaning. When I finished, I found myself as tearful as I had been that long-ago night when Gower Champion's death had rung down the opening-night curtain on "42d Street." But I was older now, and this was a different catharsis. Rereading my final review one last time before sending it out into the world, I suddenly saw clearly why I so strongly identified with the character on stage. Death had been transfigured for me too, into something that looked very much like hope.