One of the first things I did after getting the job as Style's theater critic almost 10 years ago was to buy “Hot Seat” by Frank Rich and read the nearly 1,100-page book cover to cover.
Rich's compilation of reviews written while he was the chief drama critic for The New York Times between 1980 and 1993 contains many examples of the kind of pointed opinions that earned him the nickname, “the Butcher of Broadway.” But more than that, they revealed an insightful intelligence and a determination not to condescend to his readers.
Rich honed those skills as one of the editors of The Richmond Mercury, a local weekly newspaper that he helped start in 1972. Now working as one of the Times' leading cultural critics and editorial writers, he has used many of his recent columns to eviscerate the tactics of Sen. John McCain's campaign, saying, “McCain may be the first presidential candidate in our history to risk wrecking the country even before being voted into the Oval Office.”
Rich will speak at University of Richmond Nov. 9-10 and will return to interview Stephen Sondheim at the Landmark in February. I reached him at his New York office.
Style: What will you be talking about at the Modlin Center in November?
Rich: I'll be focusing on the intersection of media and politics and the impact on our culture. We've seen a radical change over the past 20 years having to do with news, 24/7 cable coverage and the Internet. And it's overwhelmed us. The [recent] election with all of its twists and turns is a good example. We now live in a narrative that is created by this omnipresent media. We are inundated by information and yet, paradoxically, we seem to know less and less.
Is this a continuation of the themes you covered in your 2006 book, “The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina”?
For me, what is interesting is asking: How did this happen? How can we as consumers who want to make good, informed decisions tell the difference between fact and fiction? How do you find truth? There are lessons to learn that transcend the Bush administration and instructive examples to analyze that predate Bush.
Does truth even matter anymore?
I think it absolutely does matter and I think we've learned some harsh lessons in the past several years. We've seen completely fictional narratives thrown up before the American people and sold. But there are systemic aspects to the problem now. It's not enough just to learn the lesson of how the Iraq war happened. There was a certain brilliance to the methods of the Bush administration, but these are techniques available to everyone. It's important for us to understand how they were used so we can tell when we are being sold down the river in the future.
How can we avoid the mistakes of the recent past?
I am hopeful about the generation that grew up after the Reagan era. I have two sons who are in their 20s. They have been completely raised on the new mass media and they are less willing to be taken in. A lot of boomers my age seem baffled and perplexed by it all.
This piece will appear in print the day after the election. Do you care to make a prediction?
No! Every prediction about this election has been wrong. Clinton was supposed to be a shoo-in as Democratic nominee; McCain was finished last summer. There have been so many mistakes; I'm not going to contribute any more.
You have been harshly criticized for your pointed opinions, both of theater productions and of politicians. How do you respond to those attacks?
You have to have a thick skin. It was good training to be a theater critic because nowhere is it more intense. You operate in a world of 10 square blocks where all anybody cares about is theater. You have to tune out most of what you hear to get the job done. It's not my job to be a politician and write so people will like me. That way lies madness.
What is your relationship with Stephen Sondheim and how did the joint appearance with him come about?
I first met him in college. I had written a review of “Follies” that was playing in Boston. He wrote me because he thought I really “got” the play. I was not in touch with him all the time I was a theater critic for the Times. In general, I was a champion of his though I gave mixed reviews to some of his shows, like the initial production of “Assassins” and “Into the Woods.”
But when he turned 70 [in 2000], the Times Magazine asked me to do a piece on him and we became friends. He rarely makes public speaking appearances and when he was asked to do some last year, he said he would only do it as an interview on stage with me. We had first done one of these conversations during the Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center [in 2002].
[The appearance] is really all about him, not me, and the conversation is sweeping and candid. It is sheer pleasure to talk to him and I think people will be fascinated by how accessible he is.
Will you be showing Stephen some of your old Richmond haunts?
I doubt many of them will still be there. My aunt, Frances Lewis, still lives in Richmond and so do many of my cousins. The time I was in Richmond is still vivid in my mind and I'm proud of the work we did at the Mercury. It was a great group of people, many who went on to great careers. Our layout guy, Peter Galassi, is now the curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. All of us covered everything, including the 1972 [presidential] campaign. We made some waves.
How did you end up in Richmond?
Before I graduated Harvard, I had started talking about the idea of the Mercury with Garrett Epps (Harvard '72 and a Richmond native) and others. My connection to Richmond — besides Garrett, who was on the Harvard Crimson with me — was family. My aunt and uncle, Frances and Sydney Lewis, and their family lived there and were very active in the community. Richmond then was still a fairly sleepy town (except around VCU) operating at a Southern pace and, somewhat like my hometown of Washington back then, not yet on the brink of its expansion and transition into a modern urban center. S
Frank Rich appears at the Modlin Center at the University of Richmond campus, Sunday Nov. 9, at 3 p.m. and Monday, Nov. 10, at 7:30 p.m. He will interview Stephen Sondheim on the Landmark Theater stage Monday, Feb. 2, at 7:30 p.m. Details available at http://modlin.richmond.edu.