NEW YORK – In the age of the blogosphere, in which everyone’s a critic and in which informed, impartial analysis often takes a backseat to gleeful off-the-cuff savagery or unrestrained gush, the death of Howard Kissel is an especially significant loss.
A theater critic for nearly four decades – most notably for 20 of those years at the New York Daily News – Kissel died at his Manhattan home on Friday of complications from a liver transplant he had undergone in April 2010. He was 69.
The only person to have served as chairman of both the New York Drama Critics Circle and the New York Film Critics Circle, he was a cultural all-rounder with a passionate interest, not only in theater and film, but in classical music, opera, jazz and fine arts. He also wrote over the years about travel and food.
The mane of silver curls that crowned his bespectacled face was a regular fixture around the Manhattan theater district. His demeanor balanced kindliness and droll bemusement with intellectual seriousness, giving him the air less of a hawk-eyed critic than a ruminative old-world philosopher, as if he were immersed in the world of the show even before it began.
His friend and professional colleague Michael Feingold, the long-standing chief theater critic of the Village Voice, graduated from Columbia one year after Kissel. He recalls seeing him play Socrates in a Varsity Show revue sketch in the mid-‘60s.
“That should have been an early indication,” said Feingold.
Kissel made a memorable cameo appearance in Woody Allen’s 1980 Fellini homage, Stardust Memories, playing the manager of Allen’s character Sandy Bates, a neurotic filmmaker torn between the demands of art and commerce.
To someone like me, who came to New York theater criticism during the past ten years from a background in film, Kissel was part of an ever-diminishing circle of veterans who had occupied the aisle seats on press nights for decades, and whose encyclopedic recall of legendary shows both good and bad was inspiring.
He was a beloved colleague to his contemporaries and a gracious, gentlemanly figure offering a warm welcome to us relative newcomers. But more importantly, he was a critic who loved his chosen field and wrote from the perspective of someone for whom it was a privilege and a joy to cover New York’s cultural landscape.
“Howard was a knowledgeable person and a person who tried to be reasonable,” said Feingold. “That was his great strength. The point was that he really strove for balance and clarity. He was interested in seeing a situation all-round and not just jumping on it. That for me is the mark of a good critic.”
“I would find myself disagreeing with Howard but never found myself taking wildly vehement issue with him,” continued Feingold. “You would never have occasion to do that, not because he wanted to avoid controversy but because he wanted to see the thing whole. He had a lot of respect not only from other critics, but in the profession in general because of that.”
His reputation for fairness by no means meant he gave a pass to undeserving shows. But even Kissel’s more tepid reviews sought out the positive aspects along with the shortcomings. In the 1980s, when many Broadway pundits were groaning about the British invasion of mega-musicals such as Cats and Les Miserables, his review of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera delivered some cutting assessments while at the same time acknowledging its appeal as “a longing look back at the stagecraft, the sense of wonder, theater had a century ago.”
“To say the score is Lloyd Webber’s best is not saying a great deal,” Kissel wrote with typical elegance in the Daily News. “His music always has a synthetic, borrowed quality to it. Nevertheless he seems to be borrowing from better sources, and he has much greater sophistication about putting it all together.”
In addition to his body of work as a critic, Kissel’s books notably include “David Merrick: The Abominable Showman,” the unauthorized but perhaps definitive biography of one of Broadway’s most colorful commercial producers of the 20th century.
Since stepping down at the Daily News, Kissel continued publishing his Cultural Tourist blog on the Huffington Post, even while battling poor health. His last entry appeared Feb. 21 and his final Broadway review, of the revival of Wit starring Cynthia Nixon, ran on Jan. 31.
This is neither the time nor the place to go into the complexities and casualties of an unstable media climate in which newspapers continue to fight for their lives, or the opportunistic content-is-free mentality so pervasive on the Web.
But as regular salaried reviewer positions continue to evaporate, it’s a stinging reality that so many eminent voices in American arts criticism end up sharing their expertise in unpaid – or at best, minimally compensated – forums. That said, there’s much to admire in the dedication of senior arts critics who toil away simply for the personal reward of being able to continue writing about what they love.