"I want to reach an audience of smart, culturally engaged people who may not take a natural interest in theatre," says Jeremy McCarter, 28, who has been hired to replace the erudite and controversial John Simon as chief theatre critic at New York magazine, starting June 1. "I'm not going after an exclusively younger crowd. But to the extent that theatre needs to cultivate a young audience to survive, I'm interested in making a case for theatre's appeal to those people."
McCarter, chief theatre critic for the New York Sun for the last three years, knows his work will be eyed closely in the wake of Simon's departure. Simon, 79, was fired last week after 37 years as a theatre critic for the magazine. Although neither Simon nor New York magazine editor-in-chief Adam Moss returned Back Stage's calls, Moss' determination to revamp the publication and attract a new, young audience is widely known.
McCarter would not specifically address how he planned to reach a readership that (allegedly) eluded Simon or the differences between the two critics except to say, most circumspectly, "John has a mix of intelligence and fierceness and an elegant style all his own. He leaves enormous shoes to fill. But like any critic, I have a different set of interests and different context in which I see work."
In the press release announcing McCarter's hiring, Moss stated, "I am, and have always been, a great admirer of John Simon's courage as a critic and of his powerful prose. John has outlasted every critic in the long and illustrious line of cultural writers for this magazine—and almost every other critic in this business. It has been an incredible ride. He will be missed.
"Jeremy McCarter...will have to forge a fresh path at New York magazine, while doing justice to the space that for 37 years has been occupied by a cultural legend. Jeremy is that rare critic who appears to have been born with a confident voice and a discerning eye, and I am sure that our readers will be excited and impressed by him as I am."
A Theatre World Brouhaha
Simon's professional passing has not gone unnoticed in the theatre community. Indeed, the plethora of responses has been downright impassioned to judge by some of the commentary that surfaced on various websites. Simon was praised as an entertaining intellectual on the one hand and bashed as a racist and elitist on the other. One writer dubbed him "saint and sinner."
Little was said, however, about the new incoming critic. So who is Jeremy McCarter? How does he define the role of critic? And what new vision of theatre criticism will he bring to the table?
Asked to define his sensibility, McCarter equivocates a bit, suggesting that when he goes to the theatre he is "hoping to fall in love." He continues, "I love the things that are possible in the theatre, the way a play can engage your imagination, unlike anything else in the culture. I thought 'Doubt' was a masterful piece of writing, directing, and acting. I also loved 'Shockheaded Peter.' It was a wonderful mix of theatricality, humor, and style. And I still find Caryl Churchill one of the most fascinating and provocative playwrights in the theatre."
McCarter, who was a contributing editor at The New Republic in addition to his work at the Sun, offers these thoughts on the theatre scene:
On naturalism: "I find most of it unsatisfying. Chekhov would be the exception."
On "conceptual" directing, gender bending, and updating: "I can't make generalizations. It all depends. I'm not instinctually for or against it."
On star casting: "It's the crack cocaine of New York theatre. Stars are brought to Broadway to sell tickets, not to give first-rate performances. Star casting breeds a reliance on more stars. I'd rather see one of the hundreds of very good New York actors than a star who has been flown in from the Coast in an effort to breathe new life into an old text. Hugh Jackman is an obvious exception. So is Ethan Hawke."
On hip-hop musicals: "I'm excited about where it might lead. There is great potential there. I especially liked Will Power's 'Flow' at the New York Theatre Workshop."
On the significance of physical beauty on stage: "It's much less important than many other aspects of the performance." (As anyone who read Simon knows, physical beauty on stage—especially among actresses—is critical to him, and he was less than kind when he found it lacking, a source of much outrage in theatre circles over the years.)
Serving Reader and Theatre
But the question remains: Does he see the critic as a consumer advocate or as a member of the theatre community criticizing from within?
"Both," McCarter insists. "I feel a responsibility to the theatre community and the readers of the magazine."
After graduating with honors from Harvard, McCarter began his professional writing career as editor of the New Republic Online, a post he held from 1999 to 2002, before becoming a contributing editor at the magazine. His articles have also appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian of London, MTV Magazine, and Slate.
Brustein, drama critic for The New Republic, has nothing but praise for McCarter (and, indeed, was instrumental in him getting his job with that magazine, according to the latter).
"Jeremy will bring wit, balance, and theatrical savvy to his new job at New York magazine," says Brustein. "But he doesn't impose his own aesthetics…. He doesn't have an angle, except to see plays. He has a singular writing style. He's energetic and not afraid of metaphor. He's bold and opinionated."
Brustein adds, "I don't know what happened at New York magazine and why the change after 37 years. John is a friend, but I'm critical of his bearbaiting and pig-sticking. He is a good scholar and I hope he has a chance to do some scholarly writing. But, of course, you can't make a living at that."
A Dignified Departure
We'll let John Simon have the final word. In this week's issue of New York magazine, Simon, in his valedictory column, writes:
"Dear readers, this will be my final New York column, and it has been a thrilling ride, if 'ride' is the right word for 36 years and eight months, which is considerably longer than the Kentucky Derby…. Thirty-six-plus years is rather like a marriage, falling as it does midway between a silver and a golden anniversary. I don't know what the exact term for it is; perhaps divorce time. It is entirely possible that there is such a thing as a time for renewal, both for 37-year-old magazines and an 80-year-old critic. Longevity is a staple in my family, and I—though conceivably not the best judge of this—do not see a decline in my brain or writing hand. But I realize that new starts can be beneficial even to old (elderly? mature? experienced?) critics.… So this is a fond farewell to you, my readers.… Keep up your interest in this column and in the Theater with a capital T, which, as you and I know, is bigger than all of us."