Fred R. Conrad

On October 26, Frank Rich of the New York Times will interview musical-theater genius Stephen Sondheim in Seattle. In advance of that interview, Dan Savage interviewed Rich.

Your career as a theater critic and a writer is profoundly linked to Stephen Sondheim. I'm thinking Follies, of course, and the essay you wrote as a student for the Harvard Crimson. I guess you had lunch with him after running that piece. What was that lunch like?

Well, it was actually a drink. I reviewed the show—it was during its tryout in Boston. It got very mixed reviews on its way to Broadway. The thought that he would see a student review written for a paper that in essence was in the suburbs of the city where the show was playing seemed preposterous. I think I was too young to realize at the time that he was really giving me encouragement as a writer. The point he made in the letter and at the drink was that I understood what he was trying to do. And what he was trying to do in Follies is now universally recognized but was considered somewhat complicated or arcane or obtuse at the time.

You were able to perceive what he was getting at, even though theater critics working in that era were not able to perceive it.

The show got very mixed reviews in Boston and then ultimately on Broadway, and was a commercial failure. I think it lost all its money, but only years later did people look back on it as a classic. There were just tons of empty seats. So really, I don't remember much about the drink except he was very nice. It was the first time I really talked to anyone in the theater or ever met anyone in the theater whom I admired. It was an incredible encouragement.

Did it make it difficult as a theater critic to sit in judgment of his later works?

No, because I was completely out of touch with him. What then happened was, I went to England for a year on a fellowship—largely sort of screwing around with my girlfriend who later became my first wife and going to plays—and we had a little bit of a correspondence, by mail obviously, in those days. But then we drifted away, and there wasn't much contact after that. I didn't move to New York until 1973 and started out as an editor and film critic. I didn't start reviewing plays until 1980 when I joined the [New York] Times. And by then, we were out of touch. Indeed, as the record bears, my reviews were all over the map. The first show of his I had to review was Merrily We Roll Along, which in its original production was a fiasco. I was a champion of Sunday in the Park. I was not wild about either Assassins' original production or Into the Woods.

You mention a girlfriend. A love of musical theater used to be a mainstream, even aggressively heterosexual interest—my parents own the eight-track tapes to South Pacific, Oklahoma, Camelot. When and how did musical theater lose its hold on the general American psyche?

It was the advent of rock music—and I was just the right age to witness it happening. I remember when I was 7 or 8, the number-one songs in the country were from My Fair Lady or Camelot and West Side Story. It literally ended when the Beatles happened. I have this vivid memory, I would have been 14 or 15 at the time, when Meet the Beatles! sort of swept through the country and my life. The whole British invasion consolidated the whole rock and roll takeover of American pop culture. That was the end of Broadway musicals as being the pop music of the country, and it's never been the same since.

Why wasn't Broadway ever able to digest and regurgitate rock and roll like it had done so many other forms before?

It's so interesting—my own theory is that it was an incredibly shortsighted industry. You would think the obvious thing to do would have been for a producer to go to Laura Nyro, Simon and Garfunkel, Lennon and McCartney, whomever, and say, "Write a score, write a musical!" No one did it!

They eventually did it to Paul Simon.

Years later, 20 years later. In the past 10 or 15 years, they have tried to catch up, Spring Awakening as an example. Green Day is doing a musical right now on its way to Broadway that's trying out in San Francisco or Berkley, but that's all after the horse is out of the barn. When it would have made a difference, it did nothing. I was startled to read in the Times a piece about Bye Bye Birdie, because it's being revived for the first time on Broadway this week—and Bye Bye Birdie was in 1960, and the authors of it said they could hardly raise the money for Bye Bye Birdie because it was considered this radical rock musical by producers of the period. I thought that was an absolute snapshot of what went on. In some ways, it's like newspapers not figuring out the internet until too late. Broadway thought rock music was a fad and laughable. The last generation of great musical-theater writers, they all started their careers just before rock came in.

Will Broadway embracing rock be the death knell for rock? Which would be delightful, because I hate rock.

[Laughs.] It could be, you know there's always been that joke—when you see a Hollywood actor turn up in a Broadway musical, it's like a way to repent and reform a career that is tanking.

We've seen a few big Broadway tryouts here in Seattle—Hairspray, Shrek, Young Frankenstein, Catch Me if You Can.

Lucky you.

The daily paper here boasts about Seattle's involvement in these shows—as if we're involved in these shows. Is this a track record of which Seattle can be proud?

I think it's interesting—I don't think you can really adjudicate that. Every show tried out when I was growing up. I grew up taking tickets at the Washington tryout house the National, where the bill changed every two weeks. Tryouts are very rare now, particularly for big musicals, because the shows are so much heavier and more expensive and hard to move. What it says about Seattle is that people find it a congenial place to work, because it's very costly to do it. It seems that the old tryout towns of my youth—like Boston, New Haven, Washington—have faded and really the preferred choice right now I think is either Chicago or Seattle.

My guess is it's something about the response of the audience—it's useful to people, and it may say something with the economic deal of what they have to pay in rent, what the union deal is. I don't know.

I think it says something about gullible, unsophisticated standing-O audiences here in Seattle.

You see, that never works. In Washington—which is incredibly unsophisticated, much more unsophisticated than Seattle or Chicago—you got false information from the audiences and it was a disaster. This is something I have experienced as a child. The first Sondheim show I saw, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, tried out in Washington. It got such bad reviews, and also the reviews said that it was filthy, it had too much sexual innuendo. My parents seriously considered not letting me go—I was like 11 or 12, it was the first time I had sent in a mail order and bought tickets. I went to the last Saturday matinee of a three-week run in a 1,700-seat theater, and there were 50 people in the house. And Sondheim, years later I tell him this story and he says, "Oh yes, I remember that matinee—it was the worst house I've ever had. We almost closed it in Washington, and Jerry Robbins came in that night and convinced Hal Prince, who was the producer, to bring it into Broadway. About two weeks later, it opened on Broadway, and of course it got all these great reviews." And I thought, "God, doesn't this say something about Washington?"

Conversely, there were shows that got fabulous reviews and huge standing-room-only audiences in Washington that would come die in a week in New York. So be careful what you wish for. You want an out-of-town audience that's going to be helpful and a little bit tough.

It's just that here there's not a lot—Seattle's so isolated really, it's a long flight to New York—you don't see a whole lot of really interesting or well-produced musicals here, and our two big houses are no Broadway houses. They're movie palaces that were built to accommodate some vaudeville, but they are lousy places to see musicals in. The seats are all too close together—they did a good job rehabbing it, but still. It's too large. People here don't realize how small most Broadway theaters really are.

You're absolutely right, and I would say that Seattle's experience is typical of almost every out-of-town city. The whole arrival of performing-arts centers in Tampa, Cleveland, and so on changed it all. So now every Broadway show plays these huge barns out of town, and they don't want a smaller theater like the old Shubert in Chicago—by small, I mean still 1,800 seats. They don't want it. They want the 3,500- or 4,000-seat auditorium.

Which is too bad, because those theaters weren't designed for live performances.

Oh, it's ridiculous, and you have a show like Avenue Q, which is what everyone thinks of it—it's an intimate show with puppets, played in one of the smaller Broadway houses. It played in a theater with about 800 seats in New York. That's been playing around the country in places like the Fox in Atlanta, which is 4,000 seats.

Yeah, I saw that here for the first time at the Paramount. I called and made sure I could get tickets in the first 10 rows, and there were people in the last row in the balcony.

It's shocking. My guess is that the first maybe 12 rows of the orchestra or 15 rows of the Paramount equal the entire capacity of the Golden Theatre, which it played on Broadway in New York.

Of all the bigfoot pundits out there, you seem to be the only one who takes the issue of gay civil rights seriously and is willing to devote really serious real estate to it in your column. Why is that?

I can't speak for why others don't do it. I am baffled by it. It seems to me such an obvious civil-rights issue. In my case, I got interested in it and my eyes were opened precisely because I covered the theater. In the 1980s, which was the bulk of when I was a Times drama critic, to the early '90s, two things happened in New York theater. One was unfortunately the arrival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and the other was the AIDS epidemic, and it was eye-opening. It was literally happening on my beat; people, artists I admired, were dying, getting sick and dying. In some cases, you'd hear about people's deaths well after the fact, particularly if they weren't famous in the theater, or under mysterious circumstances in those days. Of course a lot of people don't even remember this history now, but you certainly know it, and it really had the effect of—I guess I wouldn't say radicalizing me, but really opening my eyes to a whole minority of America that had been shabbily treated, that had to often live in secret, and was now being victimized by a ruthless epidemic, while a lot of people stood around and did nothing.

So at first, it really changed my view of things; it really opened my mind to stuff I hadn't, embarrassingly, given much thought to. And then of course, what happened was that theater itself began to take AIDS as a subject, but that's already well along in the story. You'd have to have been dead to be on the beat I was on and not say: "What the hell is going on here?" And so it stayed with me.

People were dropping dead in newsrooms in America and in the Catholic Church, and it didn't open their eyes.

Yeah, I learned. When I was a kid working as a ticket taker in the theater, I learned that. I figured it out only after he had died—someone who had been a mentor to me as a kid, really helped me in my adolescence, getting my act together, going to college and stuff like that, was gay. You know, no one ever talked about it! I went to Harvard College, and by the time I got out, in 1971, I didn't know a single person who was openly gay. People can't believe it was that recently that was the case.

I went to a theater department in the '80s—University of Illinois, big place—and I was the only openly gay person in the acting program.

Well, there you go. And that's later!

Everyone else came out after we graduated. You know, this is the civil-rights movement of our era, the gay and lesbian civil-rights movement.

I think so.

And I think it's interesting and telling that there are no openly gay political columnists in any of the big papers: the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal. During the civil rights movement—capitol "t," capitol "c," capitol "r," capitol "m," the African-American civil rights movement in the '60s—papers began, you know, we saw the trajectory of the Bob Herberts and the Clarence Pages coming into these papers that hadn't had prominent African-American voices. You don't see gay people coming into prominence on the editorial pages.

Well, I think that's a great point, and I'll take your word for it that it's true, and I would say—

There's Deb Price of the Detroit News, but that's really it.

Right, and by the way, it's matched by the television networks.

Yeah, the only prominent gay faces on cable news are "openly closeted," to coin a phrase.

Right, and by the way, I have to say as a Jew, I find it amazing that there is no Jewish anchorman. Barbara Walters was an anchor briefly. But on the other hand, Jews have won their civil-rights movement quite some time ago. Gay people still, as evidenced by events just in the past week, have to fight for basic equal rights under the American Constitution. That's wrong. I also feel that not only should there be openly gay columnists in major newspapers, but that they also don't have to just write about gay subjects either. I'd like to see a world where people can write about anything they want, regardless of what group they are part of.

But it seems like a blind spot on the part of newspapers as our civil rights are being debated every day in this country. It isn't like gay people don't have blogs or the internet or the leverage—there are very prominent voices online, Andrew Sullivan for instance—but it does feel like we are missing from the op-ed pages across the country.

Well, that's interesting. I've never thought about it, I'm embarrassed to say, but I think you're right. It's self-evident, that's a problem, and I would say at a place like the Times, the progress I've seen in my career there is enormous. When I first started, when AIDS first came up as a subject that would turn up in my theater coverage, we weren't allowed to use the word "gay" in the New York Times.

I recall.

It's shocking—it seems ridiculous, but it was actually true. That edict, I can't remember when it was listed anymore, but it was well into the 1980s. And there were virtually no openly gay people at the Times. Now there are. Tons! Including reporters and critics and executives and some of the top editors of the paper.

And Frank Bruni.

Frank Bruni.

I'm not saying the Times should, God forbid, hire some bum-throwing potty mouth like me—but we see people in papers move from reporting beats to political beats to other beats and on, as you did to the op-ed pages, and with the wealth of gay talent at the Times, it seems like there should be an elevation of a gay voice in the op-ed pages.

I think that's a very good point. But they don't create columnists often, and it's quite possible that this is something on their radar screen—I wouldn't know.

It's hard to uncreate them, so I can understand why.

Yeah, there is only so much space, and people tend to stay a long time. So there isn't much turnover—and there hasn't been all that much turnover since the revolution happened, in places like the Times and the Post.

So the newspaper industry seems to have joined Broadway being another fabulous invalid. From the inside—what mistakes were made? Do you think the industry survives in its current form?

Clearly, it won't survive in its current form. I think that everyone—and I certainly take no credit for being prescient myself—didn't see how digitalization would remake almost everything in our culture. Napster should have been read as the—whatever the cliché is, the canary in the tunnel or whatever—the indicator that the distribution models for what we now call content would be upended, that they could not be preserved in digitalization. But incredibly, very few people, not just in the newspaper industry, in network television the movie industry, everyone was sort of blind to it, and now everyone is in the same boat. And I have to believe there will always be a market for high-quality reporting, analysis, commentary, criticism, and people will find a way to make money on it again.

Actually, I think there is a parallel in theater. For people who want to have careers in journalism, it's just like if you want to be an actor. There are so many people who want to be actors that people will do for free. And you will do it for free, for a time, before anyone will pay you to do it. It's sort of like that with journalism now. So many people want to do it, and there are so few jobs, that you will blog, you will write for free until someone decides to tap you and pay you.

Right, and the person who will pay you is the person, the company, or the organization that has figured out how to persuade people that you actually have to pay money to support good reporting—whether it be of your local school board or a war in Afghanistan—because to have it accurate and done right, it can't be done just by volunteers, to be of the highest quality. It is actually a profession. It may not require the training, like to be a doctor or a lawyer, but it is a profession that requires a certain expertise, integrity, and hard work. And now the crisis of the industry is to figure out how that will happen. I think that people will figure it out. You think back 25 years ago, the idea of paid TV was laughable. Why would anyone pay for TV? It like it was a birthright, you had free TV. Well, cable companies and satellite companies taught people to pay for quality or better reception or 24-hour news or whatever it is. I think that these other industries, including network television and the music industry and to a certain extent the book industry, are going to have to figure out a way.

You've been just as hard on the Obama administration as you were on the Bush administration. Democrats don't get a break—you know the Republicans rely on a really partisan media. They've got the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal, the op-ed pages of the Washington Post, and the support of Fox News, but the Democrats just have MSNBC and not even all the time—how do the Democrats thrive in a really unbalanced media environment?

Look, well, I think they have thrived over the past year.

That's true. They do have everything right now.

And they're thriving now, in spite of all the setbacks. I do have some strong criticisms of Obama, but his approval rating is still 56 percent. And by the way, I would hardly put him the category of Bush. I don't disapprove of everything.

You've been tough; there is no soft-pedaled criticism of the Obama administration.

There is no soft-pedaling of criticisms, but I think the expectations are rightly high. And he should be held accountable for them, to live up them as best as humanly possible: No one is a saint or perfect. But I do think that for something like Fox News or even MSNBC, the audience is self-selecting. In other words, I think the people who are watching Fox News are not going to be persuaded. If they were forced to watch MSNBC because Fox was off the air, they'd still have the same politics they do without a Fox News, so I don't think that's really an impediment to liberals. If anything, the Obama administration is conducting an interesting experiment in trying to label them as the enemy and trying to gain some traction. And you never know, it could be argued that these very powerful voices on Fox—Limbaugh and Glenn Beck—in the end, may be hurting the Republicans more then helping them.

God, wouldn't that be true. Your column, I'd say personally along with Jon Stewart and The Daily Show and Steven Colbert's speech in front of the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, your column is really one of the things that kept people like me sane during the darkest days of the Bush years. They were really talismanic—and I know all my friends in Seattle, the weeks you are not in the New York Times, the weeks that you take off—

Occasional vacations, yes, but not so much. But anyway thank you, thank you.

You're welcome. Pivoting off that, Jon Stewart was just named the most trusted newsman in America in an online poll at Time magazine. They pitted him against Brian Williams, Katie Couric, and Charlie Gibson. Is that good for America or bad for America?

I think it's good. I think that the more competition in this news environment, the better. Stewart always makes the case—I can't decide whether it's entirely sincere or slightly disingenuous—but you can't really get his humor if you aren't following the news to begin with. You can't get the jokes. So he can never be a primary news source. If you don't know what Dick Cheney is actually doing, then you're not going to find "You Don't Know Dick" funny. There may be some truth to that, but I think he's played an incredible role in trying to keep the networks honest. In the early dark days of the Iraq war, and after 9/11, even earlier, Stewart would line up what Dick Cheney or Bush said that day as opposed to the completely contradictory thing they said a week earlier or three months earlier. He would bounce these clips up against each other. That was innovative at the time. Now the networks all do it.

Do they?

Well, they do it occasionally; you'll see it on the Sunday-morning shows now. I don't want to give them too much credit, because I still think that their tendency is not to probe, to have "one the one hand... on the other hand." I wrote about it last week. Take John McCain as a sage, even though he's gotten every single thing wrong about foreign policy for the past eight years. But at least Stewart lit a fire under their asses and maybe made them a little bit embarrassed. And Colbert, particularly in the brilliant speech he gave at the Washington Correspondents' dinner, accusing them all of being stenographers—which they all found to be unfunny because it was true in many cases. I think that this is all good for the country. I think that it is important that news media, including establishment newspapers such as the one I work for, be challenged all the time, right and left, on television, by bloggers, or whomever.

Okay, just really quickly getting back to the talk with Stephen, then I'm going to let you go.

Well thank you for being so interested in this.

What can people who are coming to Benaroya Hall to hear your conversation expect?

It's going to be a completely improvised conversation. We have a continuing conversation now in our lives, because we are friends. But the thing about Steve is, he is really candid, very straightforward, and will talk about anything he is asked and is very honest. I learn more about him and his work every conversation I have. I think people will see someone who is considered by many—and rightly so—to be a genius. He's a very approachable guy who talks extremely articulately about his work, the world, his career, life, and everything else. I assume we are taking questions from the audience. He's game for all of it.

What's his best show, in your opinion?

It's hard for me to pick. I do think Sweeney Todd has a kind of wholeness to it. Unless I'm wrong, it has the most music—it's the least spoken book. Although in Steve's view it is not at all an opera, but it has that kind of complete surrounding-you-in-musical-theater effect. Many of his other shows, that's not what they're trying to do. Sweeney Todd is sort of sui generis. But you know, Follies, Company

For me, it is always A Little Night Music. I've never seen it onstage—I've read it, I've listened to it ten million times, but I was in a town once where there was an incompetent production up, and I stayed away from it because I didn't want my first production to blow.

Well, it's a wonderful show. The only production I've ever seen of it that I loved was right when I moved to New York, the original production. Alex and I went and saw it six or seven years ago at a Kennedy center. It was the only time Alex had seen it, and she was, um—

Bored?

She didn't get it. It didn't work. There's a big production being done in New York this season, and then this is also interesting: For in one week in February, it's being done at the Theater Châtelet in Paris. France, they rarely do any kind of Broadway musical—even My Fair Lady I don't think was done there, or failed there—but they're doing a one-week run of Night Music with Kristin Scott Thomas playing Desiree and Leslie Caron playing the mother.

Oh my God—

In English!

Uh-huh.

I don't know quite why or how, or what the economics are for doing that for one week, but that sounds pretty cool. There have been productions I haven't seen—there was one in London with Diana Rigg some years ago, and the movie...

Was awful!

Is unbelievably bad. In fact, I haven't seen it since it came out and Steve was talking one night about just how unbelievable it was. I had forgotten, so Alex and I watched it, and 10 minutes in we started gagging.

Oh my God, it's so bad.

It's really bad.

Just off the record, and I'll turn the tape off—

—FIN—