Remembering Michael Feingold and the Heat-Seeking Missiles of His Theater Criticism

Theater was by no means my beat, so I typically took Michael Feingold’s phrase on it. He’d been writing criticism for the Voice since 1971, and in 1991, I (together with many people in the workplace) was lol’ing (earlier than we knew that was what we have been doing) over his good takedown of the bloated and cynical (although destined to be wildly common) Broadway musical Miss Saigon. His opening salvo savaging everybody and all the pieces to do with the manufacturing of the play and the theater-industrial-complex that supported it’s a textbook instance of Swiftian satire, organising, in the second paragraph, one of the greatest punchlines in the annals of criticism.

Feingold’s broadside from greater than three a long time in the past is a lesson for our personal age of vituperation: In case you don’t like one thing, then you’re obligated to again your assault with broad data of the topic at hand and thereby provide insightful aesthetic, historic, formal, and conceptual context to your readers, equipping them to make up their very own minds.

In different phrases, sincere and constructive criticism—although these on the receiving finish is likely to be forgiven for not viewing such prose in a rosy gentle.

Oh, and all the pieces beneath your personal proud byline.

On the different facet of the pen, Feingold labored as a playwright, dramaturg, lyricist, and translator, recognized particularly for his translations of Brecht-Weill musical theater works. He was additionally a longtime decide and director of the Voice’s Off Broadway Obie awards.

In 2013, Michael was let go from the Voice by one in a really lengthy line of editorial regimes that periodically roiled the workers over the a long time. He returned to the paper in 2016 beneath a brand new editor (who was out the door later that 12 months), and he and I often emailed about crucial takes on varied media. We disagreed on one canonical painter specifically (me thumbs down, he extra constructive) and after a couple of rounds Michael wrote again, maybe not desirous to waste any extra crucial thought on e mail ephemera, “Anyway no sense arguing with colleagues; let’s just agree to differ.” —R.C. Baker

 

 

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Michael Feingold: 1945 – 2022

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By Michael Feingold

April 23, 1991

 

Each civilization will get the theater it deserves, and we get Miss Sai­gon, which implies we are able to now say definitively that our civilization is over. After this, I see no method out however an aggressive clearance professional­gram: All the Broadway theaters have to be demolished, with out re­gard for his or her measurement, historical past, or landmark standing; all the members of the League of New York Theatres have to be lined up in opposition to a wall and shot; the New York Instances have to be firebombed into nothingness and its complete editori­al workers (most of whom are com­posed wholly of gravel and pitch anyway) fed right into a stonecrusher and used to repave the West Facet Freeway; whereas anybody discovered to have voluntarily bought a $100 ticket to Miss Saigon have to be sentenced to a lifetime of arduous ­labor and have his or her youngsters cooked and distributed as meals provides to famine areas in the Third World. The authors, one hopes, can have the grace to com­mit ritual suicide—the atrium of the Marriott Marquis Resort is likely to be an acceptable spot—whereas Camer­on Waterproof coat and his produc­tion workers ought to be slowly overwhelmed to dying with blunt devices; this 12 months’s Pulitzer Prize judges in drama could possibly be used for the job.

In reply to your subsequent ques­tion, no, I didn’t like Miss Saigon. I don’t even like Puccini’s Ma­dama Butterfly all that a lot, actual­ly, however not less than Puccini (a) knew how you can compose music; (b) was a grasp at conveying emotion and theatrical impact by way of music; (c) exhorted his librettists to attempt for max credibility as a method of giving his theatrical creations a maintain on life. Each second of Miss Saigon is as implausible as it’s trite and savorless, from the dancing to a ’40s blues sax in the Saigon bar of the opening, to the suicide by service revolver (nobody even says “Get a doctor!”) in the again room of a Bangkok whorehouse at the finish. As this means, Miss Saigon is drab and sordid in its triteness. Puccini’s Japan—borrowed from David Be­lasco—was a distant and fascinat­ing place to his viewers; it was additionally not a rustic the place, inside latest reminiscence, 1000’s of Ital­ians had died and others had com­mitted unspeakable brutalities, in a futile and disgusting conflict that had torn Italy’s social cloth aside.

To impose the kitsch tragedy of the betrayed geisha and her feckless American lover on the very actual tragedy of the betrayed Asian nation is a trick of exploitation that somebody concerned with Miss Saigon will need to have thought very intelligent. It will not have occurred to Puccini, who had the sense to maintain a melodramatist’s honorable distance from actuality. Helicopter or no helicopter (and the celebrat­ed chopper impact is hardly greater than a techno-update of the midg­et clown automobile in a circus), utilizing the fall of Saigon as an adjunct to tear-jerking over the plight of an imaginary bar woman and her Amer­asian child, and passing the consequence off as some type of social com­ment, is a degradation of the spir­it too miserable to ponder. The distinction between Puccini and this present, in essence, is the distinction between shopping for a trin­ket from a avenue peddler and get­ting rolled by a whore; the whore doesn’t make the latter act much less degrading by coming away with $100 as an alternative of $2.

 

You possibly can assume provisionally that the cre­ators of Miss Saigon see absolute­ly nothing fallacious in utilizing the actual anguish of real deserted youngsters to jerk a couple of further tears on their technique to parlaying them­selves a multimillion-dollar revenue. If you wish to plunk down your cash at their field workplace figuring out that, OK, however please cease studying me. For good. You’ll by no means beneath­stand something I write.

 

At the high of Act II, Miss Saigon trespasses on actuality in a method that’s much more revolting than any of its fictive steps over the sure­ary line: To cue us into the woes of its Cio-Cio-San and her little one, what appears to be like like actual documentary footage of half-American Viet­namese youngsters in an orphanage is proven. I write this with my psychological fingers crossed, hoping in opposition to hope that the press rep will telephone tomorrow to inform me these youngsters are actually extremely paid members of SAG or AFTRA, that the complete factor is a reproduction, that the producers are donating a tenth of their proceeds to the aid of Vietnamese conflict orphans. However I’m not taking any bets on the arrival of that telephone name. You possibly can assume provisionally that the cre­ators of Miss Saigon see absolute­ly nothing fallacious in utilizing the actual anguish of real deserted youngsters to jerk a couple of further tears on their technique to parlaying them­selves a multimillion-dollar revenue. If you wish to plunk down your cash at their field workplace figuring out that, OK, however please cease studying me. For good. You’ll by no means beneath­stand something I write.

Miss Saigon‘s perpetrators may respond that their work has a seri­ous intent: to indict the world, and America in particular, for its unfeeling materialistic greed. Ser­monizing in this vein has always paid off for melodramatists, at popular prices, but it gets a tad shady when they demand a C-note for the privilege of hearing their sermon, especially when its theme, on which they have noth­ing new or imaginative to say, is so old and familiar—almost as fa­miliar as the old tunes from which their score is so liberally bor­rowed. (Linda Winer’s Newsday assessment provided the most thorough listing of these, although she ignored my favourite, Rodgers and Hart’s “There’s a Small Hotel,” on the tune of which the American sol­dier’s music to his sleeping Viet­namese love is constructed.) Like thieves with no actual understanding of the items they’ve filched, the authors dump each concepts and tunes on­stage cheaply and repetitively, taking no pains with them; the solely need evident is to unload the illicit haul as profitably as pos­sible. Not content material with Butterfly alone, they snatch a bit of Tosca by making the heroine’s North Vietnamese fiancé, who’s already doing double responsibility as a mix of Puccini’s Bonze and Yamadori, an officer in the Viet Cong’s se­cret police, so he might be Baron Scarpia as effectively; all they ignored was having her shout, “Questa è il bacio di Kim!” as she shoots him.

If the value scale weren’t sufficient proof that these crooks imagine not one phrase of the pious indictment they spout, they supply a helpful piece of extra proof by placing their sermon in the mouth of Jonathan Pryce as the Engi­neer, a Saigon pimp whose position is analogous to that of Goro, the matchmaker in Puccini’s opera, however constructed up right here right into a lead, with reckless disregard for the charac­ter’s irrelevance to the drama. The outcomes are simply as attention-grabbing as you’d count on Butterfly to be with Goro as the central determine: After each limp episode of motion, he comes on to hector the viewers for interminable minutes about the innate greed of humanity and the joys of the free-enterprise sys­tem. Then some occasion occurs, limply, and then there’s one other interminable lecture. The bore­dom is likely to be mitigated if Pryce have been a superb bravura actor, however, regardless of the shrewdly exploited up­roar over his casting, he seems—as traditional in these overheated conditions—to be totally uninter­esting, performing the position in a raspy, energetic monotone, diversified not as soon as in the night by a change of facial features or vocal colour.

 

One has to deduce that his motives are as cheesy as his cohorts’: one other spherical of cash and applause, and to hell with the dignity of artwork.

 

As well as—and I hate having to say this, as a result of on precept I assist the proper of a gifted actor to play any half—his look as a Eurasian is ludicrous (espe­cially since, as a result of of the uproar, he appears to be attempting at the similar time to behave as un-Asian as possi­ble). Fairness was completely proper to object, on grounds of frequent sense: the worst Asian-American actor conceivable can be higher in the position, as a result of his ethnicity would make the viewers see, if nothing else, the distance between the character and his dream of America. Pryce (who’s taller than most of the white People in the forged) comes off as precisely what he’s—a scrawny, balding, mid­dle-aged Welsh ham promoting the similar drained showbiz routine he’s bought a thousand occasions earlier than. He appears to be like precisely as foolish as Carol Channing would taking part in the life of Lena Residence.

The one mileage the present will get out of him comes from his reputa­tion as a critical artist—one other piece of peddled status: That’s a classical actor you’re watching hump the hood of that Cadillac, jocko. Why Pryce, with each ma­jor position in the repertoire obtainable to him, would wish to be seen in New York for less than the third time repeating this one shouldn’t be a pleas­ant query. One has to deduce that his motives are as cheesy as his cohorts’: one other spherical of cash and applause, and to hell with the dignity of artwork. He’ll go down in theater historical past as the acclaimed actor who bought out not simply his items, however his skilled stand­ing, for rubbish—making him a sleazier whore than any bar woman in the historical past of Saigon.

As for his colleagues onstage, to whom fewer decisions can be found, they moved me to pity for their very own plight, if not for his or her charac­ters’. Lea Salonga was value bringing over: She has a candy and very distinct stage character, plus a gorgeous voice with a robust, even-toned chest vary, although like most individuals who sing this type of amplified pop swill, she produces her higher register erratically and insecurely. (All the ladies in the forged do: When the whores sing the hero and heroine a marriage refrain, it’s a vocal coach’s nightmare.) Willy Falk, Hinton Battle, and Liz Callaway, as the night’s Pinkerton, Sharp­much less, and Kate respectively, don’t have anything of curiosity to say, sing, or do, since the perpetrators, ever ea­ger to play each side in opposition to the center, have made them non-ugly People to steadiness the ugly model of America provided by the Engineer. They give the impression of being and sound identical to the good individuals in TV commercials, however what different selection have they in a present so solely preoccupied with its personal advertising and marketing?

David Hersey’s lighting is much less murky than traditional, so the viewers can see for as soon as, behind Nicholas Hytner’s perfunctorily environment friendly staging, simply how shabby and boring John Napier’s visible sense is. Generally, you can be doing your folks a service if you happen to can embar­rass them out of losing their cash on Miss Saigon, however you most likely gained’t have to hassle for lengthy, since the alleged $34 million advance sale is presumably as massive a fiction as each different declare that’s been made about this taw­dry monolith by the Ozymandiac frauds who constructed it.   ❖

 

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This text from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 22, 2022



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