W. Elliot Norton, inarguably one of the most esteemed and admired theatre critics of the 20th century, died Sun., July 20 in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. He was 100 years old.
A career like Norton's, both in terms of impact and of stature, is likely never to be seen again in American theatre criticism. Born William Elliot Norton in Boston on May 17, 1903, the future Harvard graduate studied under George Pierce Baker a few years after another famous student, Eugene O'Neill, began exerting a powerful influence over the direction of the stage of the still-new century. Norton's own influence first became apparent in the crisp, precise, decisive manner by which he wielded his often-pointed pen, beginning as the theatre critic for The Boston Post, a post he held from 1934 until the paper's demise in 1956. He subsequently wrote for The Boston Record American and The Boston Herald; for nearly 25 years hosted his own TV show, "Elliot Norton Reviews"; and he compiled a series of lectures given at the Boston Public Library into a volume called "Broadway Down East."
All told, according to his Boston Globe obituary, Norton reviewed "upward of 6,000 performances" over 48 years, no doubt an unimaginable record.
Unlike the present era, when the walls between theatre critics and artists seem thicker than ever and implacably so, Norton eagerly distinguished himself as a creative friend and advisor to many of the artists he ultimately reviewed. His input, in print and informally, to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II as they reworked their first collaboration, "Away We Go," became the stuff of legend after the show opened triumphantly on Broadway following an out-of-town tryout at The Colonial Theatre—with "Oklahoma!" as its new title. A Boston Herald obituary described at considerable length how Neil Simon credited Norton with the return of the Pigeon sisters in Act III of "The Odd Couple."
Such willingness to engage artists as well as evaluate and encourage their work earned Norton the kind of respect few theatre critics have known. Indeed, one can measure his stature simply by a selected list of accolades: a 1962 George Foster Peabody Award (for the TV show), a 1964 George Jean Nathan Award (for theatre criticism), his 1966 election as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a 1971 Special Tony Award, and his 1988 election by the American Theatre Critics Association to the Theater Hall of Fame. Norton was also founding president of the New England Theater Conference and acting chair of the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities.
And in 1982, Boston's annual celebration of the best of its theatre scene, the Elliot Norton Awards, was created; the awards' namesake was a regular attendee until just a few years ago.
Norton is survived by his son, David A. Norton; two daughters, Elizabeth M. Norton of New York, and Jane Norton Hardy of San Francisco; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.