Saturday, January 23, 2010

Frank Rich and the Power of Theater

Since witnessing the interview between Frank Rich and Stephen Sondheim, I have been thinking about them both a lot lately. I have shared some thoughts about Sondheim, but really nothing about Rich. Well, the night of the interview, I finally landed a copy of Rich's 2000 memoir "Ghostlight," which is a memoir of his often troubled boyhood, often brightened and even transformed by his early experiences in the theater. From about the age of 10 on, Rich was obsessed with theater, especially musical theater. Thanks to good fortune and youthful persistence, he went to the theater often. Some productions he saw repeatedly, thanks to his proximity to Washington, D.C., which in Rich's day was a major tryout city and because he eventually became a ticket taker at the leading theater in D.C. - the National.

One of the plays he saw when he was about 14 was King Lear with Paul Schofield. Here is what he says about how the audience received what must have been generally regarded as a momentous production: "Once the play was over, the audience reacted as no other I had ever seen. As the curtain fell, not a single person clapped. When the curtain rose again, the entire cast assembled onstage, flooded in light and the whole audience stood up, as if on cue, but still in silence. Only then, as if seventeen hundred people had all at once taken a deep breath and then exhaled, did they start to applaud, softly at first, as if they were trying to regain their strength. The applause grew louder and louder, but when the curtain call was over, the audience didn't rush out as it usually did. I could understand why: No one wanted to let go of this memory while it was still fresh; this play was a dream that would dissipate too quickly upon awakening."

I love Frank Rich's weekly journalism, but this book is something else. Painstakingly crafted, there are many, many paragraphs as beautiful as this one. It is in many ways a sad book about a difficult childhood, but the passages about going to the theater are lovingly remembered and undeniably inspiring about the transforming power of theater.

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