This blog did not exist two years ago when my friend Alvin Klein, the longtime regional theater critic for The New York Times, died unexpectedly. I wrote this essay partly as therapy, partly as eulogy in the event that no one else at his memorial specifically addressed his years with The Times. That role was cast elsewhere, and in any case I would not have made it through. But this yahrzeit weekend seems a fitting time.
Heidi once introduced me to someone – I think it was Bonnie J. Monte of New Jersey Shakespeare – as Alvin’s boss. I nearly fell on the floor laughing. As if Alvin ever had a boss.
Everyone starting a career in journalism is given certain pieces of advice – for example, “Never agree to write a regular column” and “Never show your story to a source before it’s published.” Today I’m adding a new one: Never give the freelancers your home phone number.
Because if you do, they’ll use it. First they’ll call on Saturdays with questions about assignments. Soon they’ll start inviting you to use their second ticket, and then you’ll find yourself having long late-night talks about, say, how “The Iceman Cometh” exposed you personally as the world’s biggest fraud. And then you’ll find yourself attending their birthday parties, and their children’s weddings in far-off places, and their wives’ memorials. And before you know it, it’s today.
In 1995, I was leading a perfectly normal life when Chuck Strum stopped by my desk at The Times and asked, “Did you get my message?” I had not. Chuck had recently taken over the Sunday New Jersey section and wondered if I might be interested in becoming its arts editor. I didn’t know it then, but this was one of those moments that can change a life.
By summer I had started the job. It’s not unusual for editors to work with writers, especially freelancers, for years without ever meeting them face to face. (In this e-mail era, I freelance for a newspaper in Abu Dhabi where I’ve never even spoken to any editor.) In the first few weeks I introduced myself to Alvin and edited several reviews with him, all by phone. Somewhere along the line, he said, “What’s your home number?” I hesitated; I had been burned before. But for some reason, I gave it to him.
One day that summer, Chuck invited another editor and me to lunch in Jersey City with our bureau reporters there. I still knew next to nothing about New Jersey. I sat at the table listening to nonstop insider talk about Union County politics, wondering, “What on earth am I doing here?” Back at the office, I had no sooner sat down at my desk than a tall, long-limbed, shortwaisted man came up to me and said, “Hello! I’m Alvin Klein” – making a rare daytime appearance in the office to pick up his mail. (He much preferred late-night visits, after the theater.) We moved to a quieter area and talked, and talked, and talked. I know we talked about musicals; I think we talked about “A Little Night Music,” my all-time favorite, and that conversation was still going on in January [when Natasha Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave starred in a one-night benefit for the Roundabout]. Somewhere in the middle of it all, I thought: “Oh, I get it – those people talk about Jersey politics the way we talk about musicals.” Suddenly there was a we. Having Alvin to talk to was one of the things that kept me going on that job for nearly five years, and the conversation didn’t end when I left.
Soon I needed to assign a feature on the New Jersey State Opera. Our classical music writer was at Tanglewood for the summer, so I took a chance and called Alvin: “Do you happen to know anything about opera?” I soon learned there wasn’t much about opera he didn’t know.
Over the years, I came to realize what an incredible resource he was. I could call him to ask the most arcane question from the history of theater in America, and he could tell me the answer off the top of his head. When I moved back to the daily culture desk, he became my mole in the theater world. Alvin knew and cared more about theater than anyone else I’ve ever known — and I’ve edited four chief theater critics of The New York Times.
He could be absurdly prolific. One week he wrote seven pieces for the four regional sections; that’s more than some Times staff writers have been known to produce in a year. I remember one Thursday, our deadline day, when the page designer complained that he hadn’t filed at 4:30 for a 6 o’clock close, and I explained that he hadn’t been given the assignment until 1:30. Then, when I needed him to answer questions, he would disappear. It was years before I learned he was usually taking a nap.
Some of his pieces were incredibly beautiful – for example, his advance on “Rags” at Paper Mill Playhouse, a musical about Jewish immigrants to New York at the turn of the century that so moved him that he lent his father’s eyeglasses to the costumers for the run of the show. I tore up the arts pages on deadline to make it that week’s lede. Around the same time, he wrote an advance on “Do I Hear a Waltz?” at George Street that brilliantly summarized that rarely produced show from the mid-1960s, the only collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim, as the nexus between musical theater’s past and its future. One of our most heated arguments – and I was no more immune to those than anyone else – came when Athol Fugard had a world premiere at the McCarter, and the eminent Vincent Canby, then the chief theater critic, asked us not to review it so he could have the first word. Alvin fought me for a week on that one. Then he switched gears and went to Princeton anyway, attended a class Fugard was giving and brought all his expertise as a teacher to bear in writing one of the finest features of his career.
I’ve said more than once that when Alvin’s time came, I wanted to have the contents of his brain downloaded directly into mine – not the personal things, but everything he knew about theater and opera and New York. In the event, I missed my chance. And I would have liked to have memories of the original “Death of a Salesman,” and Alfred Drake in “Kiss Me Kate,” and Gertrude Lawrence in “The King and I,” and, of course, all the Sondheim – especially “Anyone Can Whistle,” the original production.
But I’m lucky enough to have my own memories of sitting next to Alvin in the theater, and that was always an education – sometimes sublime, sometimes ridiculous. He took me to the musical “Footloose” on Broadway – mainly because Janet was smart enough not to go — and I never let him live it down. Once we went to the Public Theater to see Cherry Jones in a play so awful I can’t even remember the title, but we marveled at how such a fine actress could make us believe that she believed in every word. A couple of years ago, I took him to see the National Theater of Greece in “Electra” at City Center. At first he didn’t want to go. “Come on!” I said. “What could be more fun on a Friday night than watching a bunch of Greeks kill each other?” He went along. When I asked him if he was enjoying it, he answered, “I stayed awake, didn’t I?” Yes, we had a good time.
I don’t think I ever saw him look better, or happier, than the night I sat next to him and Janet at the New York Philharmonic’s concert version of “Sweeney Todd.” And I remember how we made peace after another major argument, just about a year after Janet died, by going to see “Falsettos” at Barrington Stage. We both cried through most of the second act, so you know it was good.
For a long time I’ve thought that, when today came, I would want to tell that story of my first meeting with Alvin. The trouble was, there’s a passage from Shakespeare that I happen to think is the most beautiful speech in the English language. I wouldn’t mind if it were the last words I heard on earth. For some time now, I’ve realized that the voice I’d like to hear reading it was Alvin’s, and I couldn’t figure out how we would manage both. Maybe when my turn comes, I’ll hear his voice in my head:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
2 thoughts on “Good night, sweet Jewish prince”
I always regretted that you didn’t share this at his memorial but I know you were too busy making sure I didn’t completely fall apart. Alvin would be so glad you posted it — as am I.