A Rich Life

Article excerpt

Is Frank Rich the world's gayest straight man? The New York Times columnist talks about his passion for musicals, his support for gay causes, and his new memoir, Ghost Light

Frank Rich may never live down the epithet "Butcher of Broadway" that was indelibly applied to him during his years as the chief theater critic of New York Times, but since retiring from criticism in 1993 and moving to the Times's op-ed pages, Rich has reinvented himself as, among other things, a sympathetic chronicler of gay causes.

Covering the volatile territory at which culture and politics intersect, Rich has devoted columns to the cruel legacies of the Clinton administration's "don't ask, don't tell" policy; to the social significance of Ellen DeGeneres's coming-out; and to the 1998 outbreak of violence against gays that culminated in the Matthew Shepard murder--as well as the waning popularity of the religious right's antigay rhetoric that followed. He's a significant part of the Times's commitment to gay issues, which marks a sea change from its policies of just two decades ago.

During his years as the Times's chief drama critic, from 1980 to 1993, Rich also hailed the rise of a new generation of gay playwrights, which included Terrence McNally and Tony Kushner, and mourned the loss of some of the industry's greatest artists as the AIDS epidemic swept up and down Broadway with a stealth abetted by silence from media outlets that included his own paper. (When Rich reviewed Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, which harshly criticized the Times's coverage of the crisis, the paper ran a rebuttal following the review, defending its coverage--somewhat unconvincingly.)

Although he's heterosexual (Rich is the father of two teenage sons and is married to the witty Times style reporter Alex Witchel), Rich's love of musical theater is, of course, a taste shared by many gay men. In his evocative new memoir, Ghost Light, Rich explores the roots of his fascination with the Broadway musical, a diversion that grew into an obsession as he sought emotional escape from a troubled childhood. (Sound familiar?) It's not your average straight man, after all, whose first adolescent crush was on Gwen Verdon, who breezed into his hometown of Washington, D.C., during the tour of Damn Yankees and ignited his sexual imagination.

Ghost Light has just been published by Random House.

When you talk about the pain of being picked last for sports teams or the sense of isolation you felt as a kid--those are touchstone feelings for a lot of gay men. Did this occur to you as you wrote the book?

It occurred to me before I wrote the book because in my column I've written a fair amount about gay civil rights issues. It's been a topic that has really interested me, and I've often asked myself, What are the things that made me identify with it? One of them, I realized, was that as a child of divorce, at a time when divorce itself was closeted--people didn't even say the word out loud--I could make a connection with the idea of being ostracized or forced to feel shameful about something that was an innate part of your identity.

There is also a shared affinity in a taste for--even obsession with--musical theater. What do you think of the stereotype of the Broadway show queen?

I don't know if I'm particularly knowledgeable about it, but I know it is a stereotype. The Stephen Sondheim profile I recently wrote generated mail from all sorts of people, from the standard theater queens to 15-year-old girls in Oshkosh, Wis. I'm not sure it's fair to generalize that musical theater is the particular province of gay men or any one group. What is clear and was clear even when I was growing up in the '60s is that theater is completely unfashionable. It has fallen from being a major part of American culture to obscure-niche status. There's something self-separating about anyone who's a theater fanatic.

But if there is a deep attraction for gay men to musicals, where does it come from? …