(Jesse Green’s and Ben Brantley’s article appeared in The New York Times, 10/13; Photo of Karen Finley: Credit…Dona Ann McAdams; via Pam Green.)
After 27 years and more than 2,500 reviews, The Times’s co-chief theater critic reviews his own tenure and talks about why he’s (quietly) making an exit.
Critics look back for a living; that’s what it means to “review.” But healthy ones, focusing on each new play they see, don’t spend a lot of time on the old stuff. So before Ben Brantley put down his pen, I wanted to ask him (as I hadn’t had time to in the three years we’ve worked together) what his 27 years as a Times critic looked like in the rearview mirror — and what he saw ahead. These are excerpts from our final conversation as colleagues.
JESSE GREEN As far as I can tell, Ben, you made your first appearance in The Times in 1981, long before you became a theater critic here. You were then writing for Women’s Wear Daily, in which capacity William Safire quoted you in his On Language column as an authority on fashion-speak: the “big sweep” of shawls and the “Sir Tom Jones look.” Is there more of a connection than we might suppose between what you covered there and the shows you started covering in 1993, when you joined The Times?
BEN BRANTLEY Ah, I’m glad you brought that up, Jesse, as that misquotation still rankles. I said simply “the Tom Jones look.” As an English major, I would never have ennobled that foundling hero, and the misattribution made me suspicious of what I read in The Times for a good while. But yes, reviewing fashion — just out of college, with no background in the field — was great practical training for reviewing theater. You had to focus on a fleeting vision, which materialized on a stage (or runway) for a matter of seconds, commit it to memory, and instantly pass some sort of judgment as to its viability.
GREEN Your first review in The Times was of “Annie Warbucks,” the misbegotten 1993 sequel to the megahit “Annie.” I think we could call it negative: After ripping through the second-rate score and skeletal book and cheap sets and shimmying little girls, you wrote that even the dog who played Annie’s beloved Sandy was “rather wooden.” Be honest, did you love writing a pan, right from the get-go?
BRANTLEY I was pleased to have a show (a singing comic strip!) that demanded to be written about with pop flair for my debut. And the production wore its frailties so flamboyantly and desperately, it was a cinch to anatomize them. But, no, I wasn’t all that pleased to start off with a pan. The theater — the wonderful old Variety Arts, razed 15 years ago — was only a block away from where I lived in the East Village, so I knew that I would be living with the marquee’s reproachful image for however long “Annie Warbucks” ran.
GREEN Frank Rich, the chief theater critic at the time, had been known almost since he took the job in 1980 as the Butcher of Broadway for his scathing reviews of what was admittedly a lot of trash. Producers, and soon the public, believed he could make or kill a show, investing him with huge mythic juju. And when you became chief critic, in 1996, you soon found yourself the subject of a website — Did He Like It? — that hung on your every word. Did that sort of power, perceived or actual, appeal to you?
BRANTLEY Being powerful has never in itself been something I aspired to. I was probably more powerful at Women’s Wear Daily, which had outrageous weight in the fashion industry in those days. So in that sense, again being in a position of perceived power wasn’t all that intimidating. Years later, when I’d become The Times’s chief critic, I ran into Calvin Klein at a party, and when I stepped away, he told the friends I was with: “You don’t understand. He used to be really powerful.”