An Ode to a Broadway Journalist
An Interview with Jonathan Mandell
He was one of Newsday’s two theater reviewers, and has also been an editor, a web producer, a staff feature writer, an instructor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a freelancer for magazines, websites and newspapers ranging from Good Housekeeping to NPR.com to the New York Times.
I’m sure you can imagine why we aspire to be just like him. Read on to find out how fascinating he really is!
Tell us about yourself. Why write about theater?
I saw my first play when I was maybe four years old, “The Taming of the Shrew” in Central Park, a shrewd move on my parents’ part, because it starred one of our neighbors, J.D. Cannon. Jack Cannon is now best-known as the one-armed man in “The Fugitive” or maybe the snarly boss in “McCloud,” but he once told me he only went into television after he got tired of acting. Before that, he was a passionate stage actor.
Jack lived on the sixth floor with his wife, Alice, who was a Broadway actress and, later, a playwright. I loved this couple; they were funny and friendly and, being childless, they hadn’t been forced to become authority figures, so they made me feel like an equal. They introduced me to the theater by their example, and I was swayed from that very first performance, with Petruchio’s whip and his booming amplified voice and the endless pebbly black bridal path we had to cross to get to the theater. I might have been drawn to the theater without that performance, without the Cannons, because we lived in Greenwich Village, inhabited by artists, filled with legitimate theaters.
I eventually worked as an usher in that Central Park theater, the Delacorte, and in a puppet theater; acted in school plays; took drama classes; went to theater camp; toiled in summer stock; and then, when I was 17, I took a play writing workshop, and wrote a play inspired by another neighbor. Mr. Weinstock was an old man with a young wife who nevertheless spent nearly all his time by the downstairs entrance intent on engaging passersby in conversation.
The play was produced, and reviewed! The critic said it “owes a great deal of its parentage to The Zoo Story,” which I suppose was true; I was a big fan of Edward Albee. The following year when I attended Yale University, my play was my passport to studying with playwright Adrienne Kennedy, and to taking courses (in play writing, in lighting design) in the graduate School of Drama, one of only two undergraduates permitted to do so. As two of my instructors pointed out – future NYPD Blue and Deadwood creator David Milch and Yale School of Drama associate dean Howard Stein – I wasn’t very good. Whether or not that’s the reason, I soon switched my main interest to journalism, a smooth transition given that I had grown up in a family of journalists. I had already begun writing reviews of shows as a way to see them for free.
Ever written something you regret?
I asked Arthur Miller in an interview whether he had any regrets, and he said “Sure, but I’m not going to tell you what they are.”
But I’ll tell you that I regret an article I wrote about a family of child actors. It was funny; the whole family was organized around their careers; I got some great quotes from these world-weary journalists at Teen Beat and Tiger Beat, who themselves looked all of 12 years old. But I think it was too mean.
First Broadway show you watched? Where? When? Who starred in it?
I didn’t go to Broadway very much until after I graduated from college, although I did perform in school in shows that had originated on Broadway, and I went to Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway shows all the time when I was a teenager. My mother tells me the first show they brought us to on Broadway was something starring Herschel Bernardi but I have no memory of this at all. I allegedly turned to her afterward and said “This was inferior to ‘Taming of the Shrew.’” My first review!
When you write, do you have any rituals?
Two things you keep on your desk.
Tell us about your job.
What is the best thing about being a theater journalist?
There are so many great things about doing this gig. It is not just that I get to attend almost every show I want to, but that I am seeing everything with a purpose — I am there to write something sensible, maybe even useful, for my readers. That makes for a much more engaging experience especially with plays or musicals I don’t like: I have to figure out WHY I dislike something; I can’t just think about what I am going to have for dinner afterward.
Follow Jonathan’s Twitter and read his current articles here at TheFasterTimes.com
-Ashley August, 2011