Columnist Frank Rich reflects on theater, Sondheim

This Saturday evening in Chapin Hall, New York Times op-ed columnist and former chief drama critic Frank Rich will sit down for a conversation with renowned musical composer Stephen Sondheim ’50. Record reporter Amanda Korman spoke with Frank Rich over the phone last week about the friendship between the critic and the composer, and the intersections between theater and politics in America today.

How did you and Stephen Sondheim first meet, and what influence has he had on you in your career as a critic?

We met when I was an undergrad at Harvard. I was, among other things at the Crimson, a drama critic. I reviewed both Company and Follies, in ’70 and ’71 respectively, when they tried out in Boston on their way to Broadway in the original productions. After Follies, to my amazement, I received a letter from Sondheim that he had read my review, which you don’t really expect to happen at a student newspaper, and he really thought that I got the show, which at the time was fairly poorly received in Boston – it would not be all that much better received in New York; it did not get a good review in the Times. He asked to meet me, so I met him for a drink in Boston … It had an incredible influence on me, because an important thing as a young writer, whether you’re a journalist or a drama critic, is to have some confidence. Someone whom I regarded as a major artist, even relatively early in his career, gave me that boost.

Ten years ago, when Sondheim was turning 70, the Times magazine asked me to interview him. I had no idea if he’d be interested, but he was … The reason I was not sure that he would want to be interviewed by me is that when I was the Times drama critic, my reviews of his shows were all over the map. I was a big champion of Sunday in the Park with George, but not of the original productions of Merrily We Roll Along or Assassins, both of which were basically failures in their initial runs. It was a mixed bag, but my admiration for him, whatever the specifics of any given show, has been enormous … He’s just an example to me of a writer who, whatever the field, has stuck by his guns, had a vision, kept to it, and had to endure, in his case, a lot of criticism through the years. Many of his shows that are now taken as classics, including Follies, Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George, did not make their money back, which means that they were failures by Broadway’s standards. And yet he’s never compromised; he’s always just kept on his own independent and, in my view, groundbreaking path.

How has he influenced the theater world?

That’s astronomical. There’s really not an ambitious piece of American musical theater – I’m not talking about juke box shows or shows that just repackage old movies – to this day that is not directly influenced [by him]. For instance, right now, there’s a direct path between the reigning musicals on Broadway and Steve’s work. Billy Elliot has alienated youth, labor strife and battles that happen on stage in a musical; West Side Story paved the way for it.

You have to remember that West Side Story, which was his first show, was written not long after he was out of Williams, in 1957. The other big musical of that season was The Music Man, [which] was typical of theater of that time: not ambitious in terms of subject matter or form. The idea that you would have rival street gangs including murderers among them, singing and dancing, was shocking. Gypsy, which was Steve’s next show, as a lyricist only, had a big impact on me as a child even before I knew his name. It was the first piece of pop culture I knew about that really dealt with being children of divorce, which my family was … And then you look at Pacific Overtures taking on American imperialism, Sunday in the Park taking on the whole idea of artistic creation and how it happens, particularly if its radical and challenging the status quo … It’s remarkably influential.

How is the news of the world and theater related? What does theater do to the world, and how does the world come in and affect the theater?

A big impact on me was by sheer happenstance. I was a theater critic at the Times when a major news story happened on that beat: the AIDS epidemic. Not long after I started as chief critic of the Times, people in the theater started dying. It was one of the most visible places at a time when people didn’t even want to say the word “AIDS” in public, when it was considered shameful to have this horrible disease, when the Times itself didn’t for a long time use the word “gay” or the word “AIDS.” So I had this situation where the real world and this horrible crisis were crashing into this supposedly rarified world of art and the theater that I was covering. People dying – at first it was a mysterious situation, in secret really – and then it became more public, and then AIDS and the AIDS epidemic became the subject itself of a very powerful group of plays, the ultimate of which was Angels in America, and the second part of which was actually the last show I reviewed before leaving the job.

Theater’s impact on the news and politics is more and more pronounced than it’s ever been. It’s almost all theater. This is something I’ve written about a lot. Whether it be the propaganda, in my view, used by the Bush administration to sell the war in Iraq and declare victory [as a] “mission accomplished” playlet, you might call it … or Barack Obama setting up those Greek pillars to give his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in Denver in 2008. Growing up in Washington was invaluable training, because if you’re a native of Washington … you’re aware to a certain extent that these [Washington landmarks] are stage sets and have very little to do with the actual business that’s unfolding not on those sets, but behind closed doors, away from TV cameras … Regardless of party or ideology, it has become the currency more than ever of American politics.