Mel Gussow, Longtime Chronicler of New York Theatre, Dies

Obituaries   Mel Gussow, Longtime Chronicler of New York Theatre, Dies
Mel Gussow, a longtime theatre critic and cultural reporter for The New York Times, whose work chronicled several decades of New York theatre, died April 29 at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, the Times reported. He was 71.
Mel Gussow
Mel Gussow Photo by Nancy Crampton

Mr. Gussow had been battling cancer.

Mel Gussow's voice was a constant in the theatre pages of the New York Times, stretching across the reigns of the first string drama critics Clive Barnes, Frank Rich, David Richardson, Vincent Canby and Ben Brantley. While he never attained the post of chief critic himself—and though some detractors charged him with possessing too sympathetic a voice for a critic—many theatre artists preferred his appraisals over those of his more highly placed colleagues. Playwright Edward Albee was just one playwright who openly praised Mr. Gussow as a sensitive and perceptive observer.

Mel Gussow and Edward Albee first met in the early stages of Albee's long career. But then, the critic was often present at the beginnings of important theatre careers. Ever assigned to cover the Off-Broadway scene, he was ideally positioned to discover rising talents, such as Sam Shepard, John Guare and Kevin Kline. At last year's memorial for Spalding Gray, he spoke of seeing the famed monologuist's first solo works at The Wooster Group's Soho space.

Mr. Gussow—a slight man with a soft voice, glasses, bushy moustache, and a retiring, wallflower air to him— was also perhaps the most published of the Times theatre critics of the past three decades. In addition to his thousands of reviews, he wrote the books "Coversations with Arthur Miller," "Coversations with Tom Stoppard," "Coversations With and About Beckett," "Conversations with Harold Pinter," "Theatre on the Edge: New Visions, New Voices" and the just-published "Michael Gambon: A Life in Acting."

His "Edward Albee: A Singular Journey" won the 2000 George Freedley Memorial Award, given annually by the Theatre Library Association to honor excellence in writing about live theatre. Gussow's volume was the first full biography of the playwright of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Three Tall Women. Other honors included the George Jean Nathan Award for dramatic criticism, won in in 1978; a Guggenheim Fellowship; and, in 2002, the Margo Jones Medal, given out by O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. The Margo Jones Medal honors individuals and institutions which have demonstrated a commitment to new works for the American theatre.

Mel Gussow was born in New York on Dec. 19, 1933, and grew up on Long Island, the Times reported. He attended Middlebury College, where he was editor of the newspaper, and wrote and acted in variety shows. He later attended the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. After two years in the Army, he began life as a journalist at Newsweek, where he wrote theatre and film reviews.

When Newsweek's top theatre critic, Tom Wenning, became ill in 1962, Mr. Gussow stepped in. His first review? "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Sometimes drama visited Mr. Gussow, rather than the other way around. In 1970, an accidental bomb explosion destroyed a house inhabited by members of the radical leftist group The Weathermen. At the time, Mr. Gussow lived next door to the destroyed building. (Actor Dustin Hoffman lived at the same address.) Mr. Gussow retold the history surrounding the event in a long article in the Times' City section in 2000. In the article, he uncovered new facts surrounding the case, including an F.B.I. report that noted that the house contained enough explosives to level everything on both sides of the street.

To the casual reader, it just seemed like another example of Mel Gussow being in the right place when something exciting was happening in New York.

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