For the actors and producers expertly impaled on Frank Rich's pen during his 1980-93 run as "the Butcher of Broadway" (a.k.a. the drama critic for the New York Times), there are, in his new memoir, a couple of bombshells: Rich has a heart, and that heart loves the theater passionately and needily. Ghost Light (Random House; 311 pages; $24.95) is really two memoirs. The first is about--surprise!--a troubled childhood. The second is a tender reminiscence of the American theater of the '50s and '60s. Where Ghost Light often excels is where the two meet: the critic's evolving personal relationship with the art.
Rich discovered Broadway young, wearing out the sound tracks of South Pacific and The Pajama Game on the hi-fi with his parents: "The music, our shared affection for it, became a private language of the afternoon, a whole vocabulary of joy." But when Rich was seven, his parents split up, a stigmatizing act in 1950s suburban Washington, D.C. His mother was remarried, to a volatile lawyer who beat Rich and broke her down into sad resignation. As he sought the escape of the theater, Rich's love of the stage flowered--abetted, ironically, by his stepfather, who subsidized his trips to new shows in Washington and New York City.
There Rich glimpsed a life beyond his fractious home. Sneaking into a lonely, darkened Broadway theater, he saw the crew strike the set, leaving behind a naked light bulb on a tall pole--a "ghost light," meant to ward off spirits. That image--the idea of the theater as a welcoming place where the light never goes out--sparked in him "the fantasy that I might extract some glittering consolation prize for being different and alone." Rich became a theater geek nonpareil, an awkward Jewish kid who, making his Bar Mitzvah, recognized the designer of the temple's ark from his set-design credits in Playbill.
Rich spreads the nostalgia and the theater-as-life metaphors too thick at times, and like many authors of his generation, he is enthralled with the conceit that the politics and culture of his time just happened to complicate themselves in synch with his life: his loss of innocence is paired with the quiz-show scandals, his home terrors with the Cuban missile crisis, his maturing and breaking away from home with Martin Luther King's assassination.
But such egocentrism--the belief that great events and works speak to you personally--is also a foundation of the critic's craft. At The Music Man, Rich empathizes with the disillusioned, fatherless boy Winthrop: "'Hurry up and leave!' he yelled at the Music Man," he writes, "his sobs now more hurt than sad--another sound I recognized. He wanted the Music Man to stay and be his father." Ghost Light ends as Rich leaves home for college, but in this eloquent book, we already see him becoming a critic and art lover in the truest, deepest sense. In the process, he teaches us that you can't be a good butcher without loving the cooking.
--By James Poniewozik