From Murder, Center Stage, by Bob Abelman
The rough draft first paragraph of Gwen’s review of the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was typed out on her computer just before she left her near west side efficiency apartment for downtown Cleveland’s Hedley Theatre. It read:
All of us deserve to die. So sings the homicidal [or deranged, perhaps unhinged] title character in Sweeney Todd, which reinforces the pitch-black theme that drives this remarkably angry, bleak, and brilliant musical. Set in grimy [or grungy or decaying] 19th century London, we find the barber avenging his wrongful imprisonment and the senseless destruction of his fledgling family by whittling away at his clueless clientele and turning the fruits of his labor into meat pies to be sold in the shop below.
The paragraph was to be revised and the review fleshed out with astute observations, carefully honed opinions, and clever writing upon her return from the sold-out opening night show. It would then be posted in time for tomorrow morning’s deadline and published in the next issue of the Chronicle. Instead, it was recovered from Gwen’s laptop by the police.
The notepad she used while watching the North Coast Theater production was no doubt filled with insightful reflections about this evening’s performance—the acting choices, the rendering of Sweeney’s decrepit Fleet Street dwelling, and the goth-inspired costuming. Very little was legible because of the blood.
Chapter 2: Doing a Plimpton
Gwen had been warned about the hazards of the job.
An intense, accomplished, and overachieving sophomore at a local Jesuit college, she easily made the short list for the intern position at the newspaper that had hired me as its theater critic. As we toured the artificially bright and authentically busy newsroom on the way to an interview with Mark, the managing assistant editor of the Chronicle and my boss—me completely fabricating a running, rambling narrative about how things operate around here and Gwen diligently writing down everything—I clued her in on the perils that awaited her in a life dedicated to arts journalism.
“It’s not all fame, fun, and fortune,” I told her. “Taking notes with a pen in a small spiral notebook in a darkened theater is a high-risk enterprise not for the faint of heart. I’m a seasoned professional, yet most of my note-taking ends up on the right thigh of my pants. I’ve taken to wearing light tan khakis to the theater to best facilitate the late-night transcriptions.” She jotted this down, missing the pad she held and leaving a blue trail of words on the palm of her hand. Bonus points for a working sense of humor.
“There’s also the loss of a normal social life when all your Friday and Saturday nights are spent at a theater.” Her blank expression and lack of response suggested that “normal” for her meant “nonexistent,” which was an ideal lifestyle choice for a highly overworked intern.
“Overnight deadlines can be quite stressful,” I added, although I knew from having read her lengthy resume and impressive letters of recommendation that tight turnaround was more of an enticement than a deterrent for a chronic go-getter like her.
“And there’s the very real likelihood of making enemies within the arts community when the job requires a very public critique of their work, which influences their professional reputations and impacts their livelihoods.” When she said that this was the “price a critic pays for being a referee of the muses,” we skipped the interview and I welcomed her to the paper.
Gwen and I shook on it, and some of the blue ink from her sweaty palm transferred to mine.
“Well, I suppose that’s better than spitting on our hands to seal the deal,” I said.
“I guess we’re pen pals,” she countered.
Since then, over the past six months, Gwen has served as a reliable proofreader, all-purpose gofer, and occasional beat reporter.
I have been with the Chronicle for about twenty years, reviewing the dozens of regional playhouses, classic repertory companies, and national tours that make up the thriving Cleveland theater scene. But prior to my life as a theater critic, I had been a professional actor. I quickly realized that the name Asher Kaufman would be better placed in the byline of a show’s review than in the dramatis personae of its playbill. I got work, but almost always in small supporting roles in plays penned by Schwartzes, Bernsteins, and Simons. I once asked a casting agent what it would take for someone who looked like me—short, solid, and alluringly Ashkenazi—to land a romantic lead in something other than a play chronicling the Jewish diaspora or taking place during the Holocaust. She said, “the unexpected comeback of radio drama.”
And so I left the stage, just not the theater.
But I recently dusted off my acting skills and landed a small role in North Coast Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It so that I could write about the experience. The professional theater company is a partnership organization that shares production costs and performances with another theater, so As You Like It was rehearsed and opened in Cleveland before moving to the Taos Shakespeare Festival in New Mexico for an additional three-week run.
The idea that I write a series of articles about what takes place on the other side of the proscenium arch came from my boss, Mark. The man is straight out of central casting from the classic 1928 stage comedy The Front Page, where characters are fast-talking, hard-boiled, big-city newshounds who somehow come across as appealing and approachable. Like them, he wears suspenders, as if the news cycle was so unrelenting that there was no time to strap on a belt. There’s no explanation for his bow tie.
He called our clandestine operation “doing a Plimpton,” noting that it was named after the American journalist who, in 1963, attended the preseason training camp of the Detroit Lions of the National Football League under the pretense of being a backup quarterback. Plimpton also wrote about sparring boxing champion Archie Moore, who, at the time, had a record of 171-22-9, earned largely by having great defense and a strong chin. Neither was required when he met the journalist in the ring, who was an intellectual heavyweight but pugilistic lightweight. Plimpton, a glutton for punishment, also wrote about absorbing slap shots as an ice hockey goalie with the Boston Bruins.
Treading the boards seemed so much saner and safer, so I thought I’d give it a go.
The As You Like It experience was, in a word, terrifying. I found myself struggling to memorize Elizabethan prose, wrestling with iambic pentameter, and failing to keep pace with the very same classically trained, passive-aggressive North Coast Theater company members whom I had brutally panned in the past. Prior to this, the only Shakespeare I’ve ever performed professionally was The Taming of the Shrew, but only after Cole Porter had transformed it into the lovable musical Kiss Me, Kate.
Mark was ecstatic about the interest my painful and very public attempt at experiential journalism sparked among the paper’s readers and advertisers. And he was delighted to have my awkward opening night attempt at Shakespeare-speak reviewed by Gwen, who was starting to find her voice as a journalist at my expense.
He was still supportive when the company offered to cast me in its next production, Stephen Sondheim’s challenging musical Sweeney Todd. This was a North Coast Theater decision clearly based on the publicity I offer a production by writing about it and not necessarily what I bring to the stage as a performer in an ensemble role. Famous theater practitioner Michael Chekhov, a nephew of playwright Anton Chekhov and a student of performance guru Konstantin Stanislavski, once said that “an actor has to burn inside with an outer ease” to win over an audience. These days, I tend to embrace the advice of the Hippocratic oath in my acting: “First, do no harm.”
Sweeney Todd’s dense and difficult lyrics, demanding vocal range, and enigmatic melodies meant more engaging backstage stories chronicling my terror, and playing a small role would suffice for our purposes. After all, Plimpton got only five snaps during his short time as a backup quarterback for the Lions, stood for only five minutes in the crease for the Bruins, and sparred only three rounds with Archie Moore.
Of course, the driven and ever-opportunistic Gwen—who has a 4.1 GPA at her Jesuit college, is co-editor of her campus newspaper, and serves as captain of her school’s épée fencing and debate clubs—once again jumped at the chance to get a running byline in the paper during my absence for Sweeney’s rehearsals and run in Taos, and she was more than happy to review the show during opening night when it returned to Cleveland a few weeks later.
I often joked that, if there were such a thing as competitive prayer at her school, Gwen would be its record holder. She often joked that, if I ever got hit by a meteor from space or, less probably, if The New York Times came a-calling for my services, she would be happy to make my column her own.