Frank Rich and Martha Lavey In Conversation Review - A Unique Perspective

Inspired by Steppenwolf’s season theme, Dispatches from the Homefront, the onstage discussion on May 7, 2012 between Frank Rich, Writer-at-Large at New York Magazine and former New York Times columnist, and Martha Lavey, Artistic Director and ensemble member of Steppenwolf Theatre offered a unique perspective on culture and world events. This well-attended general conversation about Mr. Rich and his development as a columnist succeeded to bring out Mr. Rich’s life story as well as the people who influenced his career.


Mr. Rich’s early childhood in Washington, D.C. was punctuated by the divorce of his parents at a time when such break-ups were looked down upon. Mr. Rich developed a love of movies and theater. Although movies at that time were about $1.50, theater tickets cost on the order of $3.80, which exiled him to the standing room balcony. However, he was notices as a regular and lover of theater and was given a job as ticket taker, which enabled him to see all the plays he wished. He also began to notice reviews in the Washington newspapers. When one paper gave a bad review to a play that Rich enjoyed, he could not understand it. Especially when the play went to Broadway with excellent reviews. This was probably his "Aha" moment when he realized that he might have had a better grasp of reviewing plays than reviewers from the local newspapers.


Also as a child he would review plays for his school newspaper. One of his reviews was of a musical by Stephen Sondheim, the great American composer and lyricist, which he enjoyed very much. He sent the review to Mr. Sondheim, who actually wrote back and later met with him. Thus began a long lasting friendship with one of the world’s greatest theater people.


Another strong influence on Mr. Rich was the writer and drama critic, Walter Kerr, who was also writer and director of several Broadway plays and musicals. Kerr became a theater critic for the New York Herald Tribune in 1951, and when that paper ended, joined the New York Times in 1966, where he stayed for seventeen years.  Mr. Rich also mentioned that Kenneth Tynan appreciated Mr. Sondheim’s work. Here is part of a Tynan essay on Gypsy, which was mentioned by Mr. Rich: “Quite apart from considerations of subject matter, perfection of style can be profoundly moving in its own right. If anyone doubts that, he had better rush and buy a ticket for Gypsy, the first half of which brings together in effortless coalition all the arts of the American musical stage at their highest point of development. So smooth is the blending of skills, so precise the interlocking of song, speech, and dance, that the sheer contemplation of technique becomes a thrilling emotional experience.”


Ms. Lavey asked Rich to describe his experiences during his 31-year career with the New York Times.  He mentioned his work as drama critic for 13 years and some of his experiences in this capacity. During this time he was also asked to write a piece about the AIDs epidemic, which was just starting. The article was published and after this, Rich became a columnist-at-large, writing about culture and politics. He noted that the line between politics and theater was a thin one and specifically mentioned the theatrics involved with the Iraq war, which tragically was as much theater as it was war, especially in the “selling” of the war. However, he also looked down upon those plays that were polemically motivated, unless there was something original, new and exciting. Otherwise, they become empty vessels that he could not recommend.


Near the conclusion during the question period he was asked what his interests are at the present time. He mentioned that he is executive producer of two forthcoming HBO projects: Veep, a new comedy series satirizing Washington and developed by the people who brought In the Loop to the movie screen. He is also working on a documentary about Stephen Sondheim.


All in all the evening was a delight and the event that Steppenwolf brought to Chicago was wonderful. For those who enjoy insights from an outstanding critic and commentator, this was a rare opportunity.

For information on upcoming events at Steppenwolf Theatre go

Photos courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre

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