Frank Rich on Showtunes, Blogging, and What’s Butchering Broadway (or, Look, Frank Rich Is Still Making Hats*)

The Fishbowl Final: FishbowlNY Editor Rachel Sklar interviews New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Rich

Frank Rich and The Blogger of Broadway.jpgOn April 10, 2005, Frank Rich returned to the op-ed page with a flourish – and a reference to a beloved musical. About two-thirds of the way down his column, he referred to a nun in terms of Julie Andrews, which is about the easiest musical reference ever to get (and if you don’t know, you’ve clearly never read Fishbowl). He followed the next week with a column entitled “Get Tom DeLay To The Church On Time,” which we found loverly. It was certainly no surprise that Rich should be dropping theater references: as most of you no doubt know, he was the NYT‘s theater critic from 1980 – 1993, dubbed “The Butcher of Broadway” for, I suppose, his refusal to give good reviews to crappy shows (I know, I know, there are no crappy shows, only shows that ‘work better as soundtracks‘).

Those familiar with this blog will know that chronicling the media’s love of showtunes is something of a Fishbowl preoccupation, up there with Canadians, our sexy New Yorker and a dripping Anderson Cooper. Those who have recently joined Rich in belting out the Lullaby of Broadway include fellow columnists Maureen Dowd with a nod to Damn Yankees (“Recline Yourself, Resign Yourself, You’re Through“)(and yes, she is irresistible, you fool) and Nicholas Kristof likening PlameGate prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to the rigid Inspector Javert of Les Mis&#233rables (yes, I know it was a book first. A book you can sing along to!). Also singing along: Matt Drudge, with the song of angry men. Do the hills still resonate? Hm, why don’t you ask Todd Purdum, former NYT Washington bureau bigwig and now Vanity Fair national editor? (He knows.) Ditto Kurt Andersen. If you’ve ever read — or written! — about that old razzle-dazzle, been depraved on account you’re deprived, wondered how to handle a woman, implored luck to be a lady, encountered a stranger in paradise, sent in the clowns, written about people who need people, washed that man right out of your hair, sent chicks/geese/ducks scurrying, or vowed to neither regret nor forget what you did for love, then you, my Funny Valentine, are not alone (attention February headline writers: it’s from Babes in Arms).

So yes, the New York media loves showtunes — but still, we needed confirmation from the source. By his own admission, Frank Rich was practically weaned on showtunes, turned to them for solace and understanding, and found himself in their themes and melodies. A ticket-taker in his teens, a budding critic in college (he got a personal letter from Stephen Sondheim after a review he did of the “Follies” Boston tryout – that, I imagine, did not often happen), Rich came by his eventual appointment pretty naturally. His family even had its own version of a Mama Rose.

So it was to Frank Rich that Fishbowl turned to expose the secret showtune agenda of the New York media.


“I’m not sure I’m representative of anything because I’m old enough to remember when musical theater was still a mainstream cultural event in America,” says Rich, thinking about my question, namely, is musical theater a relevant reference today? Sweet. He’s totally setting me up for a yes. “But I think of it as being now pretty archaic and pretty arcane.”

Wait, that’s not a “yes.” I am momentarily floored. Frank Rich has just totally dissed my whole New-York-Media-Loves-Showtunes theory. He’s clearly a nice man; we’ve just spent a few minutes having a pleasant chat about Canadians at the New York Times (I see your Lorne Manly and I raise you a Richard Siklos) and the manifold joys of blogging. How, then, could he dash my dreams so thoroughly? What happened to the guy who said that “I got the horse right here” and “a person could develop a cold” were “as much a part of our landscape as the Chrysler Building and Radio City Music Hall?”

Of course, landscapes change; and from where he sits, Rich is certainly now looking at a different one from that of his youth. “I’m 56 — I grew up in the last gasp of when Broadway musicals were sort of mainstream American pop culture,” he says. “Songs from My Fair Lady were what you’d hear on the radio.” (He’s not talking about NPR.) “I remember as a kid growing up — vividly — in the early 60s when I was 10 or 12, every time when I would hear my parents listening to the radio, hearing Louis Armstrong singing “Hello, Dolly” — it was a huge hit — and a few months later, then Beatles came and knocked it out.”

(He has said this before, in print, when writing about Stephen Sondheim as a musical theater great: “He may have even outlived the genre itself, which was long ago exiled by rock music from center stage to niche status in American culture and is now barely a going concern.”)

But wait. I’m in full agreement that, yes, showtunes are less popular than the latest Kanye West. Isn’t it possible that they remain a cultural reference point, like a book, or any otherarchaic.jpg period music (see the aforementioned Beatles)? Feh, he’s not buyin’ what I’m sellin’. Sure, they may be cultural reference points for some people, but certainly not in the mainstream. He cites his own offspring, two boys of 21 and 25 (writer Nathaniel and budding writer Simon). “I don’t see them using Broadway music as a cultural reference,” he says reasonably. “They’re culture vultures and they’re huge listeners to music.” But, they’re his sons. Wouldn’t they of all people get his references? Would they have recognized “Get Tom DeLay to the Church on Time?” I am expecting an admiring “touch&#233.” Instead I get a thoughtful, “Hm, I’m not sure that they would.” Sigh. Frank Rich’s sons are way cooler than me.

He does have a point, though. If Lerner and Loewe resonate today (and I’m saying they do, dammit), it’s because the old guard is still around to remember, plus the children they indoctrinated/saw “The Sound of Music” on TV and went from there. But, he points out, nowadays it’s only smaller boutique labels that carry the CD versions, anyway. And really, how much penetration does the Wicked cast recording have? Today, the model is very different. Rich says the biggest change he’s noticed since his departure from the theater beat has been the arrival of the giant entertainment corporations, “most famously Disney.” Says Rich: “When you have big entertainment conglomerates run any kind of show business whether it be television or book publishing or the Broadway theater, the emphasis is going to be on focus group testing and decisons by committee — and the brand.” Which means more revivals (Chicago) and more adaptations (yes, they really are making a “Rocky” musical). The converse, of course, mean less new and inspired work.

(Back to Sondheim: he cites The Great One’s advice for aspiring musical theater wonks, namely “write it and put it on any place you can. I warn them Broadway is no longer an outlet for new work.”)

As I am despairing of ever getting investors for Anderson!, Rich wonders where I came by my knowledge of theater arcana (summer fare at Camp Winnebagoe – not, as it turns out, the Camp Winnebago in Maine “with minimal theater programming that my boys went to.” Hmph. We are so taking them on in color war). He muses that, hm, he’s supposed to be dropping theater refs; he’s the ex-theater critic, after all. “What I’d like to see if there were people of your generation doing it,” he says. The geek in me springs into action. Look no further, I say in a nod to Dorothy Gale, than your own backyard: “Boldface” columnist Campbell Robertson doth sing the song of Wilmer Valderrama with each of his 76 trombones, and also really likes The Sound of Music (true, true, says Rich). Then there’s TMFTML, and it behooves me to mention Gawker here as well. Plus, Jon Stewart is aimed squarely at the hip kids — they did a “Telephone Hour” spoof! How’s this, Frank?

Hooray, victory: “I guess I just hadn’t noticed [the references from young writers]” says Rich, which makes sense because he doesn’t really notice himself making them: “I don’t think about anything I write really. I try to be clear, but if it’s just a joke understood by a small part of the readership it’s not a consideration for me, as long as some people understand it.” (That, inter alia, is our attitude.)

Now that we’re on the subject of peripatetic, poetic and chic young things, we move on to Rich’s daily blogroll (yes, that is whatcha call travelin’, actually). “I’m very haphazard in my reading,” he says, citing a few: “Josh Mashall on the left to The National Review on the right;” Gawker, Wonkette and Fishbowl (whether or not its true, we thank you for saying so); the news Times blog (“It’s gotten off to a real good start,”), HuffPo, the National Journal‘s Hotline, and more generally, “people who are mouthing off on an issue” (Hello, Young Bloggers!). We chat briefly about the Dumenco standard of blogging: good, fast, and accurate. “As everybody has said, there is no credential for being a journalist — anyone can whistle do it but you have to be fast, you have to be accurate and also you have to write well enough to hold people’s attention.” Rich, for his part, marvels at how today’s top-notch bloggers do it, staying atop the 24-hour news cycle while still managing to generate fresh, smart content. “Even just dealing with one email can be all-involving and all-consuming,” he says. “People say that pornography is addictive on the web, or so I read. I don’t know if that’s true–” (it’s okay, Frank, we read this) “–but to write a blog must be addictive in its own way.”

It’s interesting to hear Rich, stalwart of the MSM, wax on about the possibilities of blogs (for God’s sake, man! You’re behind the TimesSelect wall!). He’s getting excited about war blogging (“Can they do the kind of blogging in a war zone that the conventional media, with all its resources, can’t do?”), how bloggers tackle investigative reporting as a group, picking up Zeitgeisty threads as in Rathergate (though “getting to the bottom of where Bush actually WAS during his guard service” has been another thing entirely); and whether the blogging form lends itself to cumulative investigative stories, like Enron (“What do you do when you get to the place that doesn’t involve documents at all? With something like Enron the only way you’re going to find out is by talking to this person and that person, and then talking to them again”). It’s hardly surprising that this should fascinate Rich, given his beat: making sense of the new Beltway revelations each week, trying to parse out truth from spin. It will be the focus of his current book — “a narrative bout post 9/11 America” — for which he has just begun leave from the op-ed page (with Ted Koppel stepping into the breach). I tell him how much I enjoy his column, sincerely. “It’s very truthy,” I say. He laughs. “What more can I ask?”

What more can I ask? Only this: his Top Five. But when I try to pin him down, he is surprisingly cagey. (I was expecting the old standby, West Side Story because, come on, they’re gang members and they dance). “My tastes are pretty catholic,” he says (what, no Fiddler?), citing Richard Rodgers in both his incarnations” (aka with Messrs. Hammerstein and Hart), and a little priest.gifSondheim, natch (in his Sondheim article, he mentions Gypsy and Forum as formative shows; on the job, he gave Sunday in the Park With George an enthusiastic thumbs up; Merrily We Roll Along, not so much)(consider the lede: “To be a Stephen Sondheim fan is to have one’s heart broken at regular intervals”). He loved Crazy for You, the precursor of the songs-strung-together-with-a-kooky-plot musicals (and by the way, Billy Joel snobs, Rich “really really liked Movin’ Out” though obviously not for its showtune cred; he’s a big fan of Twyla Tharp). I’m still trying to get him to declare some sort of favoritism, so I ask him what’s on rotation in his CD player – bingo! – the current production of Sweeney Todd, a two-cd recording which just came out on Nonesuch (see above re: smaller labels)(yo again, rock snobs: Nonesuch is the label which picked up Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” after Reprise dropped it). Rich is also “a big jazz and classical fanatic,” and likes Radiohead. “I really like almost all kinds of music,” he says.

David Merrick, what you wouldn’t have given for this easygoing attitude two decades ago, huh? We’re just glad we finally got him on side about that showtunes thing.

Conversations With Sondheim [NYT]
Exit the Critic [NYT]
The Butcher of the Beltway [Slate]

Ghost Light [Amazon]
Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for The New York Times 1980-1993 [Amazon]
The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson (with Lisa Aronson)[Amazon]

*Those of you who missed this reference can get with the program here (last line); the sentiment will, I think, be familiar to anyone who’s ever stared at a blank computer screen on deadline. The creation stuff, not the relationship stuff. For that we’ve got this.