In an arts coverage shakeup not witnessed in the New York dailies in some time, The New York Post's theatre reporter, Ward Morehouse III, has resigned his post and has been replaced by Michael Riedel, formerly the New York Daily News' drama scribe.
"We've decided we're going to take our Broadway coverage in a new direction," said Ken Chandler, the Post's editor-in-chief (Nov. 5). "We talked to Ward about this. He's been here five years. He said he'd be happy to try something new. It was a good time to parts ways."
Within the theatre community, however, word was that Morehouse was done in by an article printed in the Post last week which reported that Beauty and the Beast star Toni Braxton was being stalked. The Disney camp vigorously denied the story had any factual basis. Chandler told Playbill On-Line the Braxton story had "nothing to do" with Morehouse's departure.
"During five years he's been with us, there have been a lot of people on Broadway that didn't like Ward for various reasons, but I never had any trouble defending him," said Chandler.
Meanwhile, Riedel's move from the News to the Post caught his employers by surprise. When asked by Playbill On-Line who would replace Riedel, a spokesman at the News' city desk said she wasn't aware he had gone. "The Post approached me, and we had several meetings about it," said Riedel. "I never had a bad day at the News. But I'd been there six years and I thought it was a time for a move." Riedel, also co-host of PBS' Theater Talk, said he had spoken with his editor Nov. 4 about his decision.
From the time of his hiring, many New York theatre professional accused Ward Morehouse -- the son of longtime New York Sun theatre writer Ward Morehouse [sic] -- of inaccuracy and fabrication. Columns have reported the advent of Broadway musicals based on the life of Princess Diana and dinosaurs a la "Jurassic Park" -- shows which never materialized (A recent, Off-Off-Broadway Princess Di musical did occur -- much hyped by the Post despite the show's relentless offstage and on stage woes.)
Furthermore, Morehouse was the first to report that the Off-Broadway play, Corpus Christi, featured a gay Jesus figure, and the theatre community widely blamed Morehouse for creating the media frenzy which surrounding that production.
According to an article in InTheater, a group a press agents sent a petition to the Post in 1994, complaining that "we have all been `burned' by [Morehouse's] chronic factual errors, misquoting, blatant distortion of facts, and complete fabrication of new items."
[That InTheater article (by freelance contributor David Barbour) could be traced as the beginning of the end for Morehouse's tenure at the Post. Titled "Wild, Wild Ward" and published in the Oct. 17, 1997 issue, the article pointed out several errors and exaggerations in Morehouse's columns. The mistakes range from simple gaffes -- Leo Tolstoy was once cited as the author of "Dr. Zhivago" rather than Boris Pasternak -- to allegations of fabrications -- that David Merrick was planning to stage a revival of 42nd Street on 42nd Street in the year 2000 -- to his reliance on quotes from unnamed sources or producers only tangentially connected to the story at hand.]
"I think that that column has been destructive to our industry, unnecessarily so," said producer James Freydberg to PBOL. "Often times, things that appeared in there were heavily quoted with what seemed like made-up quotes." Morehouse often cited "Broadway insiders," in his weekly column.
"He was writing kind of incendiary, negative stuff," said Freydberg. "And because the Post is owned by Rupert Murdoch, those stories would be picked up by Fox news and its subsidiaries, so issues which weren't true would be picked up nationally."
"For whatever reason he chose to resign, I hope it's in his best interest," said producer Mitchell Maxwell. "In a small industry, he was dedicated quote-unquote journalist. But, best intentions aside, he was irresponsible. His tone was hurtful and mean-spirited. This industry is hard enough, that someone who earned his living writing about it should have more respect for the people working in it. In all my association with Ward, he never quoted me correctly." Freydberg was particularly angered by the Braxton story. "Even if it was true, it would be outrageous to print it. That's outrageous journalism and could have risked somebody's life. How dare somebody write that."
More than two decades ago, Morehouse was a freelance contributor to Playbill Magazine. "In fact," Playbill's Editor Judy Samelson says, "Ward's stepmother, Rebecca Morehouse, did the Theatregoer's Notebook column before Harry Haun got here. The last story we have on file from him was a 1979 interview with Walter Kerr."
Phil Birsh, president and publisher of Playbill and Playbill On-Line, noted that Morehouse's tenure with the NY Post turned out to be more controversial and harmful than his freelance work. "It's sad; it did not have to end this way. He hurt a lot of people," said Birsh. "I'm glad his reign of error is over."
NY press agent Richard Kornberg has had both good and bad experiences with Morehouse, but his remarks to PBOL on the writers' resignation were mostly positive:
"The great thing about Ward is that he's passionate about theatre. He comes from a whole line of theatre people, and so by loving theatre, Ward was a great journalist in knowing what a great news story was. He'd take stories that would be in the theatre section in other papers and brought them to the front pages. By doing that, he brought new audiences to Broadway. He took theatre out of the entertainment section and made it news.
"Now, sometimes you were on the brunt of having to defend something Ward discovered.. I've had horrible experiences with Ward and wonderful experiences with Ward. But another thing about him is that many people believed he was a negative and wouldn't deal with him. They'd go, `Ward? Ugghhhh...' But when you don't deal with negative stories, they go unchecked, and ignoring Ward made it worse. With Ward, if you thought a story was ridiculous, at least he gave you your say in print to say it was ridiculous."
Continued Kornberg, "For example, with the musical Rent. Initially he was on an anti- Rent tear for some reason. He was sure the show couldn't be a hit. I proved to Ward that was incorrect. Then he became a proponent for the show, and with lots of the Jonathan Larson things -- his death, the investigations -- a number of Ward's Rent stories went from entertainment to news pages. When Ward did this, other people followed suit."
"Another example," continued Kornberg. "Ward would come to an early performance of a show. If there was negativity, he'd write that. Now, many publicists just want to hear good things, but theatre is not just one great wonderful experience. When you get the good, you get the bad... I was working on a production of Dreamgirls that did not ultimately come to New York, but it was hoped it would. We asked many, many journalists to visit when the show was in Philadelphia. We called Ward, and he was interested. `Richard,' he said, `I'll come to the Philly opening, and I'll write about the audience reaction.' How many people would go to Philadelphia just to see something to make a decision? But that was Ward."
But what about charges that Morehouse seemingly conjured certain stories out of thin air? "Well, one time Ward heard Sarah Ferguson was going into Jekyll & Hyde," recalled Kornberg. "We'd nothing about this at all and set about trying to find out all this stuff. It never happened, but it became a news story that helped sell tickets -- an international story.
"Also, when we had a dog in Jekyll & Hyde, Ward heard the dog was being fired. This became a HUGE story. But because the show was in previews, this drove the director and stage manager (it was her dog) crazy. But Ward did hear that one from somebody. And the story was true. Ward made it into this big thing -- Director Fires Dog -- but it was really just a nothing decision not to have a dog in the show. It was a minor incident Ward blew up and became major. He had that instinct."
Continued Kornberg, "He also was very diligent in finding stories and announcing them. He listened. He found. He had great contacts. So of course, it made the publicists crazy sometimes, because you want to get the New York Times first. But Ward was the person that got everything; he was the leader. He made everybody sit up and do their jobs. Michael [Riedel] was more concept pieces, but Ward got the dirt. Michael got the dirt, too, but Ward was really the man."
As for the New York Post changeover, Kornberg also points to a management change at the paper itself. "Matt Diebel, the features editor, was very pro-Ward, but he left the paper in early October. The new editor there is John Podhoretz. A couple of weeks ago I asked Clive Barnes [the Post's chief theatre critic] what would happen to Ward due to the change. Clive said, `I hope John Podhoretz has the same feeling about Ward as Matt did.' Looks like he didn't."
A spokesman for the Shubert Organization had no comment about the Morehouse news. Morehouse could not be reached at press time.
-- By Robert Simonson and David Lefkowitz