A toast to …

Terry Teachout (1956-2022)

About twenty years ago, at the dawn of the blogosphere, I started my own blog to write about theater, drama, and playwriting efforts. At the time, the only critic with a blog presence was Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal, and with the misplaced confidence of youth, I dropped him a short note alerting him to my own web site and suggested that he might find it of interest. Terry did more than that; he responded enthusiastically, both at About Last Night and in personal emails, and so began a friendly relationship. Terry and I did not see eye-to-eye on many aesthetic issues, but his generosity and open-mindedness made our disagreements more on the order of cheerful exchanges of views instead of bitter arguments. And on several occasions it turned out we did surprisingly agree on certain plays, music, and social issues, and this deepened my respect for his perspective.

Terry and I would get together for lunch once in a while, and a few times I was his +1 for press previews; I would also run into him occasionally when I myself was a freelance theater reviewer for the New York Times. (Once I came across him during a press preview for a particularly uninspired Broadway musical comedy. When I approached him to say hello, he looked up at me from his aisle seat, widened his eyes, and said with a smile, “Boy, did somebody put you on the wrong list.”) And when, in 2006, he kindly agreed to accept a press ticket for my own play, he not only attended but gave it a rave review on his web site, a review that brought considerable cheer and happiness to the director and cast of the play, not to mention myself. And, because I was familiar with Terry’s journalistic integrity, which nobody who knew him would deny, it was doubly appreciated; had he not liked the play, a tiny-Greenwich-Village-theater bagatelle rather than a Broadway extravaganza, he would have responded to it with a kind, but silent, smile.

Since then Terry and I remained in only occasional contact, but it was with great sadness that I read of his passing at the age of 65 this morning. In the years since, Terry had written highly-regarded biographies of two of the jazz musicians most important to him, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. He began a side career of writing and directing plays himself.  And Terry was particularly admired and beloved for his unstinting devotion to regional theater productions, travelling far and wide (at least, before corona set in) to cover out-of-the-way plays and musicals that otherwise would not have received national attention; indeed, Terry was the only national theater critic to spend any time searching out theater on the highways and byways of this huge country of ours, and for this alone I’m sure he’s at Heaven’s check-in desk.

Terry had his share of sadness over the past few years, becoming a widower two years ago, but had recently found love again, a love he was unashamed of expressing on Twitter, his preferred social medium, where he posted with sometimes alarming frequency. I’ll miss seeing his name and his posts there, so a toast to you today, old friend. We hardly knew ye.

A very Mineshaft new year

The turn of the year brings the Winter 2022 issue of Mineshaft — number #41. For just ten smackeroos you’ll be treated to new work from R. Crumb and Christoph Mueller, Mary Fleener’s memoir of her college days, Max Clotfelter’s “Liz’s Last Birthday Party,” publisher/editor Everett Rand’s early Mineshaft memories, a great interview with old-time-music veteran and surrealist Robert Armstrong, their usual fine letters section, and much, much more. You can buy it here — and don’t forget to subscribe.

I wrote about Mineshaft for the first time a few years ago. You can read that here — but it’s no substitute for the magazine itself.

Back to basics

Yesterday in one fell swoop I wrote a little sketch — a bit over seven pages — for my 11-year-old daughter Billie, who is taking acting classes at the Lee Strasberg Institute. It’s the first dramatic writing I’ve finished in the past six or seven years. As I wrote earlier, Billie’s stage debut, even in the context of an acting class open rehearsal, engendered some melancholy in the Old Man, but apparently produced a few sparks out of the ashes of my previous ambition. Last night we sat around the living room and read it out loud — a coffee-table read, I suppose — and it met with approval from the cast, all Hunkas.

In part it must have been the challenge of writing for my own 11-year-old daughter that fanned that spark into a tiny flame. The challenges were profoundly unlike writing for adult performers, who have a much broader range of experience and training to draw from. Concision is key, of course: attention must be held, and the attention span of an 11-year-old is already paltry to begin with. It’s good if there are a few jokes in there too; the characters and situation must be immediately identifiable and relevant to their experience.

But primarily I found that, in writing for her, I couldn’t go too far above her head, at the same time acknowledging that 11-year-olds are surprisingly aware and mature, so I couldn’t write down to her either. This is especially the case after the past few years, when pre-teens have had to navigate a particularly treacherous landscape, ridden with frightening pandemics and what appears to be the collapse of American democracy, which undermines everything they might learn in the classroom (and pedagogy is always a few years behind the curve). Socialization, for this reason, has been an ongoing struggle for them, and the struggle doesn’t end there. Two days ago David Leonhardt assembled a depressing list in the New York Times of the pressures facing children these days, and I’m sure most parents and educators would concur and agree, even if this kind of reporting rarely makes it into the newspapers.

Theater and drama may prove to be a saving grace in this case, because theater — in-person, simple, text-based theater — may provide at least one avenue to understanding this world and permit a means of living in it. My play had nothing to do with coronavirus or politics; it was really just a little anecdote, based on my observation of Billie and her friends. (And writing a play like this tested my powers of observation and empathy too.) But if we can still negotiate our relationships on the stage, person-to-person even if we still can’t see the lower halves of our faces through our masks, perhaps we can make up for some of that lost socialization. Somehow writing plays for people this age gets you back to basics. Which is where we all seem to be nowadays.

Oh, the shark bites …

For Christmas, my thoughtful brother, aware that I’d just purchased a new turntable and stereo system, dug his way through the racks of a used record store in upstate New York and came up with one of my prized possessions as a teenager — this 1974 reissue of an early stereo recording of Die Dreigroschenoper in German, produced under the supervision of Kurt Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya. It plays beautifully (dig that Seymour Chwast cover art, too), and I’m looking forward to spending more time with it. (This, along with my daughter, may also be dragging me back to writing more about theatre and drama, as I used to back in the day.)

English-language translations of this Threepenny Opera don’t often catch the sharp, rough inflections of Brecht’s lyrics; Bobby Darin’s suavity doesn’t really approach the gutteral growls of Wolfgang Neuss, say, who sings the “Mortitat von Mackie Messer” on this recording:

But, performed in the right spirit, the English-language “Mack the Knife” can bite. Dave Van Ronk, who once recorded an album of Brecht’s songs, performed “Mack” with his Ragtime Jug Stompers on a 1964 album for Mercury Records; he wrote in the album notes:

“Mack the Knife” is kind of a brainstorm. We think that we do no violence to the spirit of the song in performing it. As a matter of fact, I personally think that if Kurt Weill had been familiar with the form he would have scored the entire “Three Penny Opera” for jug band.

Could be; you can listen and judge below. I’m also waiting on the original cast album of the Richard Foreman/Stanley Silverman Lincoln Center production of 1976, so more then.


A gentle reminder to renew

It’s that time of year again — your subscription to the Old Farmer’s Almanac is running out, so you’d better hie down to your post office and send a money order to Dublin, NH, pronto. As I wrote two years ago:

A gentle reminder that you still have a day or two to prepare for the new year with the purchase of your 2020 Old Farmer’s Almanac, North America’s oldest continuously published periodical, now in its 228th year. Since its founding by Robert B. Thomas in 1792, the almanac has proven indispensable, and you can still find in it a wealth of information about the weather, gardening, herbal remedies, snappy household tips, your pets, tides and the moon, and 1,001 other topics.

Read — and watch — more here.