Just days after the Oct. 22 release of former theatre critic Frank Rich's "Hot Seat," a compendium of his reviews and essays from The New York Times, the author nestled into what might have been an electric chair Oct. 25 for a public interview with Broadway producer Rocco Landesman.
Sparks flew, but only enough to illuminate Rich's process and approach to the powerful position of the Times' chief drama critic, which he held 1980-93.
Jujamcyn Theatres president Landesman, on stage at the 92 St. Y in New York City, suggested that Rich's negative reviews cost the producer perhaps $14 million over the years. "My name is Rocco Landesman, and I am a Frank Rich survivor," said Landesman, whose Big River was not embraced by Rich (and went on to become a hit). The amiable, politely prickly give-and-take showed obvious mutual respect between the men during the two-hour chat. Rich, who now writes a general column for the paper's Op Ed page, sat thoughtfully with hand in chin through most of the evening.
"Considering the careers you destroyed," said Landesman. "Do you ever feel bad?"
Rich replied that "as a journalist you're thinking about the reader," but he did admit to feeling "anguished" about writing negatively about people he admired, like Stephen Sondheim and his 1981 flop musical, Merrily We Roll Along. "It's extremely upsetting and it's not at all fun" to negatively review someone whose work you have loved in the past, Rich said. And, yes, Rich did have doubts about opinions and he did "wrestle" with what he wrote.
"That's reassuring," Landesman said, whose Big River , Into the Woods and Pump Boys and Dinettes , all negatively reviewed by Rich, were mentioned throughout the evening.
Landesman asked if Rich ever considered what the audience thought of the show. "No," replied Rich, to the largest laugh of the evening. He relied on his own taste, intelligence and perspective, and knew the audience would "extrapolate" on their own and follow or not follow Rich based on reactions to shared theatregoing experiences.
"There is no such thing as an average reader," Rich said, adding that it's "insane" to think you're going to agree with a critic every time.
Why did Rich leave the job? He said, "I was really getting itchy to write about other subjects," and he felt after 13 years he didn't have "fresh" things to say about those he had reviewed over and over: Harold Pinter, Marsha Norman, Peter Brook and others.
"I began to get a little less patient about mediocre shows," he admitted, although, as a kid growing up on Washington DC, he devoured mediocre shows because he learned from them and there was an "innocence" to his approach.
Was he ever influenced by the "visceral antipathy" artists expressed toward him? "I'm only human," Rich said, "but I tried to tune everything out [about artists or a play]."
As he has said in the past, Rich never went to afterglows or opening night parties, never hung out or socialized with artists, rarely did interviews with artists and didn't read preview stories.
Of the Tony Awards broadcast, Rich said the de-emphasis of plays in recent years has been "disgraceful" but he was heartened by the two-year old PBS broadcast (prior to the main CBS broadcast) that focuses on writers, directors and technical people. Rich, however, does not like host Rosie O'Donnell's "crude jokes" and populist approach.
Landesman, a producer who admitted he makes money off the marketing aspect of the Tonys, said he thought O'Donnell was a breath of fresh air.
Rich and Landesman agreed it was "alarming" that kids were not getting educated in school, and Rich said that a diet of musical spectacles does not prepare a young person for anything but musical spectacles.
Of the controversial Corpus Christi , Rich said it was another case where "the cultural object being debated" is not as interesting as the debate itself.
Rich said he's "not interested" in writing a novel or play, although he is currently writing a "novelistic" childhood memoir. He also said he couldn't imagine going back to the job of theatre critic.
Rich, once dubbed "the Butcher of Broadway" for his powerful negative reviews, revealed his knife anew with the release of "Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for The New York Times, 1980-1993," a collection of essays, reviews and followup notes published by Random House ($39.95).
The 1,000-page book includes hundreds of reviews of shows from Barnum in 1980 to Angels in America in 1993, plus selected Sunday essays and his 1994 Sunday New York Times Magazine essay, "Exit the Critic," which memorably had a caricatured cover illustration of Rich slathered with blood and wielding a cleaver.
The book also includes afterthoughts on many reviews, with Rich in a charitable mood, as with his comment following a negative notice of On Your Toes (1983): "Since I love Rodgers and Hart, I don't know why I was so sour about this revival." These "reflections" serve to ink-in a full history of American theatre in the period that gave us Cats, the blight of AIDS and the rise of the Public Theatre's George C. Wolfe.
Also in the volume are Rich's lists of favorite new plays, indelible ensemble casts, favorite new musicals, productions he felt he "most overrated" and "most underrated," and more.
Rich was born and raised in Washington, D.C., and schooled at Harvard. He lives in New York City with his wife, writer Alex Witchel.
-- By Kenneth Jones