One reads today with shock that theatre critic John Simon has been “offed” by New York Magazine, a publication for which he helped get recognition when it was launched back in 1968. Apparently his marching orders came without any warning with no good reason, and I can identify with what that feels like.
What can Editor-in-Chief Adam Moss, who looks to be less than half Simon’s age, be thinking of? He’s why I subscribed, and now I shall have to cancel as my small protest!
I do believe that John Simon, an icon among reviewers, represents what theatre criticism is and should be about; the theatre’s values and standards, and the two should not be confused.
“Values” has dollar signs attached to it, and relates to the present. “Standards” does not, it goes back forever, and requires knowledge, integrity, culture and a long memory.
Simon did not compromise his measure of what constitutes good theatre, and one always had the feeling that if the show lacked standards, he got angry, and said so in a way that hurt the offender by letting the air out of inflated egos as a form of contempt. I see little wrong with that. Actors are supposed to have thick skins, and anyway, it made for must reading, and did get everyone’s attention.
I don’t think he cares about values, because they have their own upholders.
I have never met Simon, but I have a very special reason to remember him.
If you look at my posting on the left about Lynn Redgrave’s CBS television series “House Calls”, you will see where Alan Schwartz’s bankrupt lawfirm Finley Kumble & Associates came after us for three quarters of a million dollars in courtroom sanctions payable to themselves, because we refused to open up our books to those figurative bastards. Well there’s a story attached to this event, which I will tell here for the first time.
Instead of throwing what assets we had at a bankuptcy court to give to a bunch of shady bankrupt lawyers, I mounted Lynn’s one woman show “Shakespeare For My Father” on Broadway. It had been on the college circuit, and Columbia Artist’s Management, the sponsors, when asked, said they had no stomach to underwrite it for Broadway.
That’s why I decided to do what only a fool would do. It was a gesture of contempt for the American legal system, and a lesser contempt for the values of Broadway. I booked the show into a little theatre next to Sardi’s restaurant, the Helen Hayes, on West 44th Street, squeezed between the hit musical “The Who’s Tommy” at the St. James’s, and the hit musical “Kiss of the Spider Woman”, playing opposite at the Shubert.
And I put up all and only our money.
People laughed at us. People said “Who cares about your feelings of rejection from your father, Shakespeare not withstanding?”.
I personally expected that we might be laughed off the stage by critics likening us to “Springtime for Hitler”, at best a tax write-off, at worst, thrown out after a week by the theatre owner for lack of business.
After a few previews, opening night came and went, and we adjourned next door to Sardi’s, and waited for the reviews. Which weren’t bad, considering, but they would not sell many tickets.
Then came Simon in New York Magazine a couple of days later.
An extraordinary dream of a review. He praised the show to the sky, he praised Lynn to the sky, but most of all, he used our downright chutzpa as a cudgel to beat on the commercial theatre. Wow. (Footnote, he didn’t say much about me. These things don’t just happen, I directed, co-wrote, and produced it, but I don’t hold that against him, Lynn’s successes were mine too.)
Afterwards, we became a big hit. We ran for almost a year, 266 performances, a record, then, and a Tony nomination. I think that we were kept going by women theatre-goers who, while the rest of their families took in a musical, sneaked in to see our little show.
I attribute our success on Broadway to John Simon. And I think he did it by noticing what we were trying to do, believed in it, and championed it. And as a result, we went on to play Canada, Australia, and the Haymarket in London, to wondrous reviews.
So to John Simon, who is a little older than me but occupies the same decade of life, I say don’t go away, the theatre needs you more than ever. You, it is obvious, were never bought. It needs your education, your humor, and your fearlessness of crazy mad actresses like Sylvia Miles, who threw a cheap plate of spaghetti on your head. You might want to consider the same treatment for editor Moss, along with a glass of good Chianti.
Your next job is just around the corner, so take a cue from Clive and hang in.