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About American Theatre Wing

Of Critics Passed

Mel Gussow, Mike KuchwaraLast week, many blogs and tweets commented on what they saw as the oddity, the irony or even the humor of an obituary appearing in The New York Times for Elizabeth Taylor written by a journalist who had passed away almost six years earlier. Many spoke of “the guy who wrote it,” knowing nothing of his background or expertise. “The guy” was Mel Gussow, a longtime Times writer and critic, who had indeed passed away in 2005. “The guy” was also someone I considered a friend and a teacher, and instead of finding it odd to see his byline again, it cheered me, just as it cheered me to see his name atop the obituary for Ellen Stewart not so long ago.

I don’t mean to suggest that I valued Mel as a writer of obituaries; he was far more essential as a critic and interviewer. Sadly, due to the internecine politics of The Great Grey Lady, he had been shunted off those posts long before he passed away, although he never retired. He also wrote several extended profiles of theatre artists for The New Yorker; as I recalled one about Bill Irwin recently for some research needed here at The Wing, remembering it quite distinctly, I was stunned to find it had come out while I was in college, before I’d ever met Mel.

Seeing Mel’s name also brought back a more recent passing, one I mourn perhaps even more deeply: the death of Associated Press critic Michael Kuchwara a bit less than a year ago. Mike was an even closer friend; we spoke perhaps twice a week for almost 25 years, we dined together, went to shows together, he attended my wedding in 2006. I felt his absence deeply at last year’s Tony Awards and I know he would have been calling me almost daily, given my forthcoming job transition, with news and gossip about places where I might next be employed.

I did not write about these men when they passed on because I didn’t know quite what to say, perhaps I still don’t, but Mel’s byline provokes reveries: of their writing, of our relationships, of what they meant for the American theatre.

Save for their complete devotion to theatre, they were quite different. Mel was quiet, even shy, and if you did not know him, you would think him sullen or perhaps even dull. Mike, on the other hand, while never loud or boisterous, was gregarious, especially when talking about theatre. With Mel, you could often wonder why you were doing most of the talking; with Mike, he was so eager to engage that he would often finish your sentences for you. In both, I think this fostered their success at interviews, albeit with differing styles of drawing out their subjects: people opened up to Mike because he was such an enthusiast; people revealed themselves to Mel if for no other reason than to fill the silence in conversation. But Mel was not aloof, nor Mike indiscriminately verbose: Mel, once he knew you, was quite funny and at times wickedly sly; Mike always remembered your interests and wanted to hear about them, even if it meant not talking about theatre for just a little while.

I grew to know these men, both senior to me, during my years as a young publicist at Hartford Stage; even after I began my life as what I refer to as “a recovering press agent” 18 years ago, we remained in touch, even though my career only brought me to Manhattan to live in 2003. There’s a benefit to being a regional press representative as opposed to one in New York: whereas in New York you might only chat with a critic for a few moments as you hand them their tickets on a press night, when you’re out of town you have to take charge of their travel, feeding them and insuring the whole affair goes as smoothly as possible. It means convincing them to visit, since no editor compelled them; it means taking them for a good meal before they see the show. Early in my tenure, I used to personally drive them from New York to Hartford, opening up several hours of nothing but time to talk. And that is how friendship evolves.

I must admit that part of my affection for these men grew from their willingness to see the work that I was promoting; I owe my early career success to their agreeing to attend Hartford Stage regularly, although Mel had been traveling to the theatre for two decades before I ever set foot there. Nonetheless, their coverage – national coverage – was essential to the theatre and to my reputation there; I appreciated them, but I also enjoyed them.

Lest this be nothing but my personal salute to two friends and two critics passed, I want to frame their loss in a broader context, namely they loss they represent for arts journalism and for the American theatre. Mike, though he was never known in the manner of a Frank Rich or a John Simon, may well have been the most widely read theatre journalist in America, and his audience grew every time another arts department downsized. Indeed, in many cases his reviews appeared without a byline, just the simple identifier of “(AP)” at the start of an article. Mel was never nameless, though as a critic he was often known as “the second-string” theatre chronicler at the Times, an unfortunate shorthand which diminished both his influence and his impact.

Between these two men, I cannot imagine how many shows they saw in their abbreviated lifetimes, but since both had loved theatre before they were paid to write about it, I can only imagine that it numbered in the many thousands – and both could recall, in my experience, most anything they’d seen, to my perpetual delight. They also interviewed pretty much anyone of importance in the field for decades, both befriending select artists. Mel, in particular, developed a remarkable circle of intimates; when in Paris, he would meet Samuel Beckett at a café to visit and talk. Oh, to have been at the next table, eavesdropping on the enigmatic author of Godot and the soft-spoken reporter.

I truly mean no slight on any reporter or critic as I write this and fail to mention their work, for I think fondly of so many and admire even more. But when we lost Mel and Mike we lost models of what arts reporters and critics could and should be, kind and gentle journalists who always wanted to see the next show and always wanted to enjoy it. Even when they didn’t, they were more interested in pointing out flaws rather than damning artists for their lapses.

Fortunately in this electronic age we can locate their reviews online, rather than resorting to laborious microfilm, but we will never regain the compendium of knowledge they amassed and their dexterity in manipulating it for our edification. We are also unlikely to ever experience such ideal matches of writers with outlets: Mel, whose avoidance of the stylistic flourish or easy wisecrack was so suited to “the paper of record”; Mike, who understood that he was writing for his readership and not for himself, and strove to write from everyman’s perspective, never succumbing to cynicism or obscurantism.

I worry that their names will quickly fade from memory; Walter Kerr and Brooks Atkinson, their predecessors, have theatres named for them but I doubt such honors are I store for Mike or Mel. Even as I write, I know this is but a footnote of a memorial, so many bits and bytes that will scroll out of sight quickly enough. But in this era of changing and shrinking arts coverage, they are deserving of constant homage, not for being my friends, but for being friends to everyone who cared about theatre from the 60s to today, even if you never had the opportunity to meet them.

I have regrets that I did not know of Mel’s illness and didn’t get to say goodbye in any fashion, but it was not his nature to publicize such things; I recall our last lunch at Joe Allen, after I had come to the Wing, at which he expressed his good wishes for my success here (although many years earlier he had predicted to one of my friends that by the time I reached 40, he thought I’d be a Hollywood executive, a career path I later explored and rejected). I recall my last conversation with Mike as well, when we discussed what he might do when he retired, a topic I considered premature; two weeks later, I held his hand in the hospital, one day before he died, and I don’t know if he heard the words I whispered to him or not.

I attended Mike’s funeral last year and, last month, a memorial benefit for the disease that took him so swiftly; I attended Mel’s memorial only. Fittingly in both cases, the former was at a cabaret, the latter on the stage of a not-for-profit theatre. They all had one thing in common, and that was the paucity of artists and producers in attendance; I don’t know whether that was by design of the organizers or the choice of the individuals not present. I only know that these men had spent their lives consumed with love for the theatre, and I didn’t see much of the theatre paying their respects, which was a shame.

I don’t know whether the AP has any of Mike’s writing in a queue somewhere, to emerge when some theatrical figure passes on; it appears that the Times may yet have a few more examples of Mel’s work to share with the world. I hope so, and indeed, when Lanford Wilson passed away just after Miss Taylor, I awaited the publication of Wilson’s Times obituary in the hope that even as I mourned for Lanford, it might give me another opportunity to hear again from Mel, who likely had seen the original productions of every play that Lanford wrote. To my disappointment, another byline appeared.

The other night, half in jest, half in fear, a theatre artist I admire asked me to remind him again, “Why do we have critics?” We have them so that theatre, which can never truly be captured, can be chronicled, examined and preserved by those who love it and have the skill and the opportunity to preserve not the moment itself, but its effect. For their gifts at doing so, I will forever miss Mel and Mike, my friends and key parts of the collective memory of our field.



Posted on Monday, March 28th, 2011 at 9:13 am
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Filed under: Critic.

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3 Responses to “Of Critics Passed”

  1. Jason Zinoman Says:
    March 28th, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    This is lovely. Thanks for writing it.

  2. Don Shewey Says:
    March 28th, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    Howard –

    What a great piece! It’s so true that theater journalists spend their lives chronicles theater artists and their work and rarely receive acknowledgement for that devotion. Well, they certainly rarely receive recognition as thoughtful, generous, intimate, affectionate, respectful, and well-written as your essay about Mel Gussow and Mike Kuchwara. Very touching. Thanks for doing it.

    best wishes,
    Don Shewey

  3. David Gibbs Says:
    April 7th, 2011 at 9:31 pm

    This was a wonderful piece to read. Thank you for sharing it.

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