The Impossibly Impossible Terry Teachout



Two recent pieces by Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout have me reaching for a tumbler and something to fill in. In his blog, About Last Night, the title of which has always struck me as an apology for the wearing of a lampshade at the big party before the morning hangover, Teachout whines and moans, albeit succinctly, over the fact that President Obama chose to take his wife to Broadway show rather than take in some theater in Washington, D.C.

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The whining is so absurd it makes Ionesco seem like Sesame Street. It was one outing a few months into a presidency. Why does Teachout assume that there won’t be more? And why does he assume that they won’t be in Washington, D.C. — or any other great theater town.

You have to love the partisanship, not all that well hidden, with which Teachout begins his blog post:

President Obama’s trip to Broadway to see August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Goneis reported to have cost the American taxpayer some $24,000, a statistic that did not escape the watchful eye of his political enemies. Says Gail Gitcho, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee: “If President Obama wants to go to the theater, isn’t the presidential box at the Kennedy Center good enough?”

Well, thank you Ms. Gitcho, whose idea of a presidential night out is probably helping Newt Gingrich figure out how many more Latinas he can brand as racist and how many more code words he can use to incentivize right-wingers to assassinate pro-choice doctors.

If the trip cost $24,000, by the by, and we divide that by 300,000,000 Americans, that means each man, woman and child paid $.00008 for Barack Obama to take his wife to see a play. Shocked to my gourd I am.

But then, Teachout’s willingness to carry water for the right is well established. In his post, he goes on to extol — and briefly, mind you, very briefly — what theater in D.C. the First Couple missed. If he knows so much, why not list 10 shows instead of two?

His post actually made me forget about another piece he wrote, complaining about the Broadway musicals this season:

When the nominees for this year’s Tony Awards were announced, I was struck by the fact that I hadn’t cared for any of the musicals that turned up on the list. Then I looked through my columns for the year and saw, much to my surprise, that I’d panned every musical that opened on Broadway in the 2008-09 season. Some of my verdicts were mixed, others brutally dismissive. But the bottom line was clear: I didn’t review a single Broadway musical that I would have paid to see.

I’m not bragging. Unlike some highbrow critics, I love musicals-and not just old ones, either. But the new shows that opened in the season just past illustrate my belief that the Broadway musical is suffering from four chronic problems that are growing increasingly pronounced:

I’m not including excerpts from the rest of his piece because his four “chronic problems” — “commoditization,” “gratuitous glitz,” “undramatic scores” and “message mongering” — are so old hat, so ultra-conventional in their thinking, so well established as sad conditions in the industry, that I can’t believe anyone with a knowledge of the American musical can read it and actually think Teachout is teaching us something new. Rather, Teachout’s try at a teachable moment reads as if Percy Hammond, a theater critic who died in 1936, was reincarnated as the theater critic of the Journal, and boy, how things have changed! Or better still, he piece reeks of I Have Space to Fill.