By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
For the record, this pathetic situation has dragged on since December 2001, when Michael Phillips left Spring Street after two years for the Chicago Tribune. It’s been such an embarrassment that the subject arose several times at the National Critics Conference, held at USC May 25-28, including during a panel discussion on employment in arts journalism. That’s when an obviously sheepish Lisa Fung, the Times arts editor, assured the audience that the newspaper was actively looking but wouldn’t make a hire until it found the right person. According to conference attendee and Curtainup.com reviewer Laura Hitchcock, incredulous laughter spread throughout the room — as well as murmurs of “Three years? Three years!”
Finally, the paper on Tuesday announced the selection of its new point person on the theater beat: Charles McNulty, a Yale University School of Drama Ph.D., head of the MFA program in Dramaturgy and Theater Criticism at Brooklyn College, and a senior editor at our sister paper, The Village Voice.
Even in its own announcement, the Times couldn’t help but acknowledge its “exhaustive search.” I say it was just exhausting, period.
“It’s been very frustrating that it has taken us this long to fill this job,” Sunday Calendar editor Bret Israel told me Tuesday. “But really, the actual reason is that the paper places such a high premium on its critics. I’m very confident that Charlie will distinguish himself to the same extent as our other cultural critics. I know his criticism of theater will be penetrating, intelligent and amusing.”
Editors John Carroll, Dean Baquet and John Montorio were searching far and wide, hard and long, long, long for a “star.” In the words of one Times source, they were “looking to hire a god and holding out for a great hope.” They especially wanted someone known in worldwide theater circles with an already impressive reputation.
Just one problem: A star wasn’t looking for them. The Times truly combed the globe, considering Charles Isherwood, a New York Timestheater critic, and Matt Wolf, Variety’s veteran London theater critic. But LAT brass found it next to impossible to pry any established theater critic from the neon lights of New York or London to come to what was obviously regarded as a quaint theatrical outpost where musicals like Wicked come only after premiering on the Great White Way.
“Good people were reluctant to move to Los Angeles,” an LAT insider tells me.
So why not look for someone within L.A.? Nah. Times editors are nothing if not dismissive of local talent, even on their own editorial roster. For instance, LAT theater critic Don Shirley has been with the paper for more than 10 years. But he was deemed not enough of a star to be given the lead job. The LAT also had within its ranks one of the country’s best theater critics, Sean Mitchell — the first non–New York drama critic to win the prestigious George Jean Nathan Award when he was the critic for the old Dallas Times Herald — but chose to ignore him. Even at several of the paper’s notorious editor-staff discussion groups, writers who told Montorio they were interested in being the drama critic received perfunctory nods from the editor, but no interview or follow-up.
Because Montorio is a NYT renegade and a close pal of famed former NYT drama critic Frank Rich, who is now one of the paper’s op-ed political columnists, the editor by all accounts was feeling even more pressure than usual to make this hire stellar. Too bad he dismissed any attempt to build a star of his own, like he did when he took a chance on up-and-coming film reviewer Manohla Dargis (then at L.A. Weekly, now at the New York Times), or when he chose TV reviewer Carina Chocano (previously at Salon) to be her replacement.
Close to home, L.A. Weekly’s own theater editor and critic, Steven Leigh Morris, discussed the job with Israel and Fung, who told him back in August 2004 he was on “the shortlist.” However, he wasn’t contacted again, nor was Steven Mikulan, L.A. Weekly’s other theater critic, who won the Nathan award for this paper.
But was the vast delay worth it?
Certainly not for L.A.’s frustrated theater community.
For starters, the consensus is that McNulty is no household name like Rich. Still he’s considered capable enough. Those in the know tell me McNulty is a safe but pretty uninspired choice. The star of the Village Voice theater department for many years has been chief critic Michael Feingold, a brilliant, contentious, yet also entertaining contrarian. When McNulty writes reviews or features, they bespeak his academic background and read like term papers, which can be death for a newspaper critic. By contrast, the LAT’s previous drama critic, Michael Phillips, was a good combination of studious yet passionate writing. McNulty needs to blossom.
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