As the chief drama critic of The New York Times from 1980 to 1994, Frank Rich was so powerful that the lights on a Broadway play could be darkened overnight by his criticism. Reviled by those he scorned in his reviews, Rich reveals in Ghost Light how his passion for the theater shaped and transformed his boyhood. Rich's memoir begins in the 1950s with a depiction of life in a dreamlike era. In the early chapters, I lingered on each page just to savor the memory. It is a treat to begin reading a book that does not foretell a harrowing future.

But in time things changed. Complicated family troubles marred Rich's otherwise blissful discovery of the theater. His parents' divorce was heartbreaking and reminds us how embarrassing it was for children in the '50s to endure the stigma of a broken marriage. His mother's remarriage was traumatic for Rich as a young boy and caused him insomnia. He was able to survive his woes with a unique escape: the theater.

Early on it was clear that things theatrical captivated Rich. As a young boy, he thought his Dad's hi fi was magic and found the lyrics from musical comedies irresistible. He listened to the music hour after hour. He even created stage productions in shoeboxes.

Rich was single-minded in his desire to immerse himself in the thrill of Broadway. Most youngsters are wide-eyed at stage productions, but Rich was possessed by them, hypnotized. His family's connections with the theater helped feed his voracious lust to see any live productions near his home in Washington D.C., or on Broadway.

Readers hoping to read about Rich's adult life may be disappointed, for this memoir ends when he is just 19 years old. Perhaps part two is in the works.

Ghost Light refers to the theatre superstition that a small stage light must be left on 24/7 to prevent a ghost from invading the premises. Like that ghost light, the theater itself became a beacon in Rich's life, eventually leading to his powerful position with the Times. The book provides a fascinating window into the boyhood that propelled him toward his destiny.

Mims Cushing is a columnist and book reviewer for The Florida Times-Union.

 

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