In 1986, Frank Rich was dubbed the "Butcher of Broadway" by English comedian Rowan Atkinson. He was also assailed by David Merrick, Arthur Kopit, and Trevor Nun. Rich's criticism of David Hare and the latter's subsequent retort provoked Variety into coining one of the wittiest headlines in theatre history: RUFFLED HARE AIRS RICH BITCH.
Rich has a pen that can pack poison ink. He will not endear himself to Canadian cultural nationalists, for he finds Billy Bishop "dreary" and Ned and Jack filled with "idle chitchat", and warns his readers to be wary of Canadian plays in general. Nor will he endear himself to British readers, especially those who purr over Cats or swoon at Phantom of the Opera, for he scorns Andrew Lloyd Webber in particular, and English musicals in general.
But Rich can be remarkably generous. He frequently champions "new" playwrights (new at the time of his championing), such as David Henry Hwang, Beth Henley, Marsha Norman, Eric Bogossian, Charles Ludlam, and August Wilson. He argues passionately in favour of Stephen Sondheim's sophistications, great but controversial acting (particularly by Vanessa Redgrave and Christopher Plummer), and he keeps an open mind as far as reimagining the classics.
Hot Seat: Theatre Criticism For The New York Times 1980-1993 (Random House, 1050 pages, $55.95) is a collection of over 330 pieces representing barely a quarter of Rich's writing over thirteen seasons as the chief drama critic for The New York Times after Walter Kerr's voluntary retirement. It is a considerable book that captures New York theatre (as Rich himself states) "at a time of change", and it "traces that theater's major careers, on stage, in the wings, and behind the scenes". The span, 1980-1993, takes in almost everything from the worst disasters (Moose Murders, Merlin, and Carrie) and the biggest hits (A Chorus Line and Phantom) to the mightily apocalyptic Angels In America, one of the greatest plays of our time. Rich adds brief postscripts to individual reviews in order to provide additional context or relevant anecdotes or, most interestingly, second thoughts.
It does have its faults, many of which come early when it seems that the pieces were dashed off desperately to make a tight deadline. So, instead of patrician or mandarin eloquence, we get vernacular gusto of the "you name it, this choreography does it" sort, or Madison Avenue phraseology, such as "gritty, slam-bang rhythm...knock-'em-dead speeches with raucous relish." When enthusiasm gets the better of his prose, it produces mystifying vagueness ("honest-to-God music" comes to mind) or a crazy-quilt of metaphors ("Ms. Hellman knows how to tell a story at a breath-taking clip and how to stack her theatrical deck with well-placed narrative bombshells... Most of all, she knows how to throw her actors the prime red meat of bristling language").
Two of his best traits are critical intelligence and passion. The first can be sampled particularly in the longer essays which trace the decline of Broadway as a creative source. In these pieces, he outstrips all his contemporaries in his analysis of dramaturgy and aesthetic trends. His interpretation of Sunday In The Park With George is the best counter to those who think of the musical as an intellectually-handicapped genre, demonstrating brilliantly how "the esthetic passion in the cerebrally ordered classicism of modern artists is easily as potent as the sentimental passion of romantic paintings or conventional musicals."
But it is his passion, finally, that ought to be his legacy. As a Sondheim fan, he admits to having his heart broken "at regular intervals". He feels guilty for having given 42nd Street a mixed review after Gower Champion's sudden demise on opening night. He unabashedly names Noises Off as "the funniest play written in my lifetime", and cites Gypsy as his favourite musical. In his remarkable envoi, "Exit the Critic", which frames his theatre reviewing career between two deaths, Rich relates a poignant anecdote about Joseph Papp, who was then dying of cancer. The two men had sometimes exchanged barbs, but Papp was finally able to acknowledge: "I want you to know that even when I was angry at you, I always knew you loved the theater." So even as the gloom thickens in the New York theatre in 1993, and AIDS takes its toll on some of Broadway's greatest contributors, Rich is able to empathize with Kushner's Prior Walter who delivers a farewell wave to the audience. This book, like that wave, is a transfigured benediction, a semaphore from a critic for more life and more theatre.