Aaron Netsky / OnStage Columnist Everyone’s a critic. Didn’t used to be so. Used to be the critics wrote for the newspapers, and that was that. Now, everyone writes for the internet, and it all looks the same. I’m not nostalgic for the elevation of certain views over others, but there was something romantic about it. Traditionally, the review in The New York Times could save or sink a theatrical production, and past theatre reviewers from the “newspaper of record” have Broadway theatres named after them. I doubt any blogger will ever be able to achieve a reputation warranting a nickname like “the butcher of Broadway,” however hard he tries. The man who did may or may not ever get a theatre named after him, but when you’ve got a moniker like that, you’ve already achieved immortality. In Ghost Light, Frank Rich, “the butcher of Broadway,” shares the story of how theatre came to mean so much to him.
When Ghost Light was published, it was compared to another coming of age theatre memoir, Moss Hart’s Act One, a book Rich writes of encountering through his mother’s book of the month club. Both are stories of young boys in troubled circumstances who develop into young men, overcoming those circumstances in large part due to increased immersion in the world of theatre. In Rich’s case, chief among his bad circumstances was coping with his parents’ divorce. Still one of the hardest things a kid can go through, back when Rich’s parents separated there was no cultural conversation about divorce. All of the families in television shows and movies were complete and happy, as were most of his friends’ families growing up. There was no outlet for his feelings, since there did not seem to be a safe place to discuss them.
It was in musicals, first those he listened to on a record player, then those he saw on stage at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., near where he grew up, or on trips to New York City, that he found refuge; in the paternal Harold Hill who, in The Music Man, finds his way into the hearts of a fatherless family, or in the ambitious Tulsa who, in Gypsy, dreams of striking out on his own and making it in show business. Rich’s earliest sexual fantasies involved Lola from Damn Yankees. His writing perfectly conveys how and why he took particular comfort from each new musical he encountered, what it made him hope and what it made him feel was really ok. Whatever negativity the real world threw at him, musicals answered however he needed them to.
Thus, things got complicated when the source of his pain and the source of his pleasure became the same person, his stepfather Joel. Joel was an abusive man, for reasons kept from the reader until the very end of the memoir, who frequently yelled at and hit his children, Rich included. He was also a well-connected man, being a Washington lawyer, who could score plane tickets and theatre tickets with ease, and was responsible for Rich’s earliest trips to Broadway. Rich’s internal struggle about whether he should give this major benefactor of his passion a chance, as his mother keeps telling him to, or try to get his father to take custody of him is heart-wrenching whenever it comes up. Decades later, the reader might think the decision is absolutely clear, but for Rich, as a boy, it is a very difficult dilemma.
The musical theatre enthusiast, even one from a happier family situation, will find a lot to identify with in Ghost Light. Closing the door of the room with the music player and playing a cast recording on loop, singing along, conducting the overture, building miniatures of the musical’s sets and re-enacting it: who among us hasn’t done these things? The activity I found most adorable, and felt silliest about identifying with, was the collection of Playbills. What is it about those little magazines? For Rich, it started with the programs brought back to him by his mother from her excursions to the theatre, which got more frequent when she married Joel, and expanded to those he himself received from ushers when he started attending. The wonderful climax of this sequence, which takes place over the course of the book, is when he asks his mother’s permission to reach into garbage cans in New York City for discarded Playbills from shows he hasn’t seen. His mother asks him if she thinks they’re clean enough, but soon admits she wishes she had thought of that when she was young and starting her collection. I have been so tempted, myself.
I have a tradition of starting theatre themed books on visits to Juilliard, when I am attending a production my roommate is involved with. I have seen quite a bit at Juilliard, from plays I knew existed but hadn’t been able to attend a production of to new interpretations of classics. As I was reading Rich’s book, I thought that Juilliard has become for me what the National was for him, a place I know I will be going several times per year to see whatever is there. I may not be a student, but in many ways I am continuing my theatre education there, taking as much of it in as I can. Rich writes about going to the National so frequently that he watched changes being made in the musicals that were in pre-Broadway runs, of seeing the creative teams watching fiercely from the back of the house. Just being there is what’s important, whatever your reason, wherever there happens to be.