Talk about a career change. In 1993, after 13 years as the lead drama critic for The New York Times, having earned the (possibly undeserved) nickname of "The Butcher of Broadway," Frank Rich handed in his cleaver and picked up a bullhorn. He's been writing about American politics and culture on the paper's op-ed page ever since. His 2006 book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina, laid out a scathing indictment of the Bush administration's shaky relationship with reality. Rich will make a brief return to his old beat Tuesday, March 11, when he will appear in conversation with composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, etc.) at Portland's Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Portland Literary Arts director Elizabeth Burnett listed Rich, who has known Sondheim since his college days, as a reference when she invited the notoriously private composer to speak in town. He agreed to come, but only with Rich. Sondheim doesn't do lectures (or interviews, for that matter). The Portland gig has turned into a miniature tour—the pair will make stops in New York, L.A. and San Francisco.
While you were drama critic, did you ever harshly review any of Sondheim's work?
Oh yes, it's something we'll talk about on the stage. One of the first shows I reviewed at The Times as drama critic was Merrily We Roll Along, which was a disaster in its original production—it got a bad review from me in The Times as well as from others, and closed in about two weeks.
Complete this lyric: "Some say it was your voice had gone/Some say it was booze/Some say you killed a country, John…"
There's no way I'll get this. It's from Assassins.
"…because of bad reviews." Does that worry you?
No, it's a joke. He often has fun with critics in his work. Anyone who's been a drama critic for the NYT knows that criticism comes with a territory, and Steve is no exception.
Did you like Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd?
I liked it very much. I like Tim Burton, first of all—I'm a fan of Edward Scissorhands. I always thought it was an inspired idea to have Burton do [Sweeney Todd]...he de-Broadwayized it.
Do you get more hate mail since you've left the theater beat?
It's apples and oranges, but it's probably the same. The volume is higher [now] because more people read general columns than theater reviews. The angriest letters I got from [theater] readers were people who thought I was just nice to things. There's no one angrier than the New York Times reader who feels he or she has thrown away $100 to $200 in a night on something that a Times critic said they'd find enjoyable. In the case of the column, a lot of the angry stuff has less to do with me than the huge divisions in the country right now.
Is a columnist more influential than a critic?
The so-called clout of drama critics in New York continues to wane. No one cares what The New York Times said about [Cameron Mackintosh's] Mary Poppins. Writing columns...you can maybe drive the discussion a little bit, or throw ideas and conflicts into the ongoing conversation, but it's not as if any columnist can end the war in Iraq or get someone elected president.
Are American politics growing increasingly theatrical?
Absolutely. There's always been a theatricality in American politics, and in the days of mass media, beginning with FDR's fireside chats, the collusion between those media and politicians has become more pronounced. I think it really has jumped the shark over the past 10 years, particularly in the Bush administration, which really had a canny sense of how to
theatricalize the messages it wanted to convey, and was brilliant at using this burgeoning 24/7 cultural news hole that we live in to present and execute those messages.
Is Bush a good actor, or a lousy one?
I think he's a pretty good actor. He convinced the American public that the scion of a blue-blood American family educated at Andover, Yale and Harvard was a shit-kicker. Maureen Dowd and I did a column in the 1992 campaign—we were at the Houston convention for George Bush the First, and discovered that Bush had got some training from Stella Adler. George H.W. Bush has a brother, still alive, named Jonathan Bush, who spent most of his life as an investment banker but actually had a career in the theater in the 1950s, and had studied with Adler. When his brother was too high-pitched on the stump in New Hampshire, he got Adler to give George some coaching.
Given that politics are turning increasingly into popular entertainment, is that good or bad for popular entertainment?
It's probably neutral, because the truth is, it's just not as entertaining as real entertainment. No matter how good they get, they'll never top the real pros in the field.
Rich interviews Sondheim at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway, 227-2583. 7:30 pm Tuesday, March 11. $5-$26.