In an unusual move, Jack Viertel, artistic director of the City Encores! series in New York, sent a scathing letter to The New York Times over a review of the Encores! revival of Big River (the Tony-winning musical adaptation of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huck Finn) posted by critic Laura Collins-Hughes—a largely positive review.
In the letter addressed to the Times’ theatre editor Scott Heller, Viertel termed the review “beyond embarrassing—shameful” because of what he termed, “myopic notions about Mark Twain, Big River itself and the place of racial and gender diversity.”
Heller drafted a reply with culture editor Danielle Mattoon, which he shared with Playbill.com. In it, the two Times editors told Viertel that his letter did a “disservice to the seriousness with which all Times critics take their responsibilities.”
Full texts of both letters, and a link to the original review, appear below.
Big River won the 1985 Tony Award as Best Musical, and was revived on Broadway in 2003. The Encores! production ran February 8–12.
Collins-Hughes declined Playbill.com’s request to comment. Playbill.com also has reached out for comment from Viertel.
Here is the text of Viertel’s letter, as posted by Times columnist Frank Rich on Facebook. Rich appeared to agree with the views expressed in the letter, observing, “He makes the point with far more eloquence than I did.”
Heller and Mattoon’s response appears below it.
According to the Internet Broadway Database, I’ve now been involved in 136 Broadway productions, though the actual number is slightly higher. I have produced 49 shows at Encores! I also spent seven years as an overnight theater critic in Los Angeles, and have written, for public consumption, about somewhere between 700 and 800 shows during that period. I have, therefore, had extensive experience with the separation of church and state when it comes to critics and producers. And I believe in it strongly. But in the case of Laura Collins-Hughes review of Big River at Encores!, the time has come to break the rules. The idea that this piece of writing appeared in the pages of the New York Times is beyond embarrassing—it’s shameful.
Let me note that it is a positive review of our production, which might suggest that I have no kick coming. But the shock of reading her stunningly polarized, politicized, narrow-minded and unfailingly myopic notions about Mark Twain, Big River itself and the place of racial and gender diversity in American letters and the American theater is something I can only picture seeing in some crackpot journal put together by college undergraduates in the late ‘60s.
Mark Twain does not go in and out of style. Whatever one thinks of the specific success or failure of Big River’s efforts to translate The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the stage, it is faithful to Twain. I’m stunned to read, for instance, that Ms. Collins-Hughes is upset about the character of Jim being the only important black character in the piece. That’s true. It’s true of Twain’s novel, but it’s worth noting that Jim is, in fact, the most important black character in all of American literature of the 19th and early 20th century. Isn’t that enough? Does his singularity make Twain’s story and Big River in particular inappropriate for production today because the roles are not distributed according to the demographic thinking of current liberal social engineering? And as to his being relegated to a relatively passive role in the proceedings at key moments, about which she also complains, isn’t that the basic point of Twain’s novel – that the slave, who has the only mature wisdom on the raft, is unable to put it to use because of America’s rules – in 1848 – about who is a human being and who is not?
Are we supposed to take everything off the shelf (and off the boards) that doesn’t confirm to 2017’s ideas of “appropriate” contemporary art? These are, in fact the very same kinds of ideas that have been used by ideologues to attack Twain’s clear-eyed and unforgiving view of the American character since the novel was written well over 100 years ago, both from the left and from the right. That’s more than 100 years of bigotry towards the novel, to which Ms. Collins-Hughes, via the pages of the Times, has now contributed her piece.
I could go paragraph by paragraph through Ms. Collins-Hughes’ review, expressing shock and dismay about her many strange and unsupportable observations, but it seems like a waste of my time and yours. Her piece is a significant humiliation for the paper, a stunningly amateurish piece of work which, to use one of her not-very-well-chosen words, contains more than a whiff of condescension to what is almost inarguably America’s greatest novel, and certainly its greatest satire. However the very idea of irony, which is the novel’s most foundational device, seems to have escaped her completely. To the degree that Ms. Collins-Hughes wishes to make the defense that she’s writing about Big River, and not Twain’s original novel, let her try. At least the show, in 1985, gave musical voice to a rich black gospel and blues tradition in a raw form previously unheard on Broadway. That’s something that the novel, of course, makes no attempt to do. Is the show to be punished for taking that step because those musical moments are not expressed by fully developed characters? The distribution of roles reflects the original novel. The unwillingness of the authors of the musical to betray Twain’s original characters and the structure of his work would be hard to fault. And if Twain, writing in his own time, is now to be discredited for not being here to revise his work to 2017’s political preferences, what am I to make of Anita Loos (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), John LaTouche (Cabin in the Sky) or Truman Capote (House of Flowers) and all of the others?
Scott, really, this is not an ordinary case of a critic missing the boat, or an angry producer whining about being panned (which we were not.) This is bigger than that. It comes down to whether the Times is willing to publish ill-informed, politically motivated nonsense based on social and cultural trendiness and consider it serious criticism. I certainly hope not.
Here is the full text of the reply, as composed by Heller and Mattoon:
Dear Rocco [Landesman] and Jack [Viertel],
Thank you for reaching out about the Laura Collins-Hughes review of Big River.
As Dean Baquet has noted, we stand behind Laura’s take on the show, while we certainly understand there’s room for disagreement.
First, a word about Laura: She is an enormously conscientious critic; while she had seen the Deaf West revival, when she got this assignment, she quickly headed off to the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library to watch the original Broadway production on videotape. She approached this version with an open mind, but also made sure to be familiar with the show’s stage history. That she knew Lear deBessonet’s earlier work as a director made her that much more well-suited to give readers an informed evaluation. To call her assessment “cringeworthy” is a disservice to the seriousness with which all Times critics take their responsibilities.
We do not hold art works to any sort of litmus test. But theater lives and breathes in the moment of its watching. Many of our critics—of theater and other genres—have found themselves seeing old works through new eyes in this cultural and political moment. Laura did not let that overwhelm her account of a "buoyant" show; she gave due credit to the “fine performances,” the “pleasingly old-school” score, the “clear” staging. But it’s incumbent upon our critics to think out loud about how a stage work might register with a 21st century audience. To do otherwise is to make theater nothing more than a scholastic enterprise.
Finally, as fans of the Encores! series, we appreciate the reminder that the program is not set up to launch shows into renewed commercial life. Our reference to the “whiff of hope” was more about how musical-theater fans approach the series as about how its creators do. It was a tribute to the passionate following you’ve generated, but, yes, we could have been more precise in making our point.
Nearly 40 people have commented on the review online, a healthy tally for a show with a brief run. Many agree with your complaint; others don’t. That’s good news to us—a sign that the New York theater and The New York Times are engaged in the big issues of the day.
Scott Heller, Theater Editor
Danielle Mattoon, Culture Editor