Walter Kerr

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For the RN admiral see Lord Walter Kerr
Walter Kerr
Helen Hayes and Walter Kerr in Ann Arbor.jpg
Kerr with Helen Hayes
Born Walter Francis Kerr
(1913-07-08)July 8, 1913
Evanston, Illinois
Died October 9, 1996
Dobbs Ferry, New York
Education Northwestern University
Notable awards Pulitzer Prize
Spouse Jean Kerr

Walter Francis Kerr (July 8, 1913 – October 9, 1996) was an American writer and Broadway theater critic. He also was the writer, lyricist, and/or director of several Broadway plays and musicals as well as the author of several books, generally on the subject of theater and cinema.

Biography[edit]

Kerr was born in Evanston, Illinois and earned both a B.A. and M.A. from Northwestern University.[1] He taught speech and drama at The Catholic University of America.[2] After writing criticism for Commonweal he became a theater critic for the New York Herald Tribune in 1951. When that paper ended, he then began writing theater reviews for the New York Times in 1966, writing for the next seventeen years.[1]

He married Jean Kerr (née Collins) on August 9, 1943. She was also a writer. Together, they wrote the musical Goldilocks (1958), which won two Tony Awards. They also collaborated on Touch and Go (1949) and King of Hearts (1954).[3]

He was portrayed pseudonymously by David Niven in the 1960 film Please Don't Eat the Daisies, based on Jean Kerr's best-selling collection of humorous essays.

Criticism[edit]

Stephen Sondheim[edit]

Some of the shows he panned over his long career included the musically ambitious shows of Stephen Sondheim. Of Sondheim's Company, Kerr wrote that the show was too cold, cynical and distant for his taste, though he "admitted to admiring large parts of the show."[4]

In his review of Sondheim's Follies, he wrote " 'Follies' " is intermissionless and exhausting, an extravaganza that becomes tedious for two simple reasons: Its extravagances have nothing to do with its pebble of a plot; and the plot, which could be wrapped up in approximately two songs, dawdles through 22 before it declares itself done... Mr. Sondheim may be too much a man of the seventies, too present-tense sophisticated... The effort to bind it up inhibits the crackling, open-ended, restlessly varied surges of sound he devised with such distinction for Company." [5]

He praised A Little Night Music, writing that "The score is a gift, the ladies are delightful, and producer Harold Prince has staged the moody meetings with easy skill."[6]

He expressed mixed sentiments about Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, praising the music but deeming it too lilting for the show's grisly subject, and finally writing, "What is this musical about?"[7] As an afterthought, he wrote a follow-up article on his observation that the musical contained a plot from Molière's The School for Wives, posing the question who, of all of the authors who had revised the tale of Sweeney Todd over the years, had put the plot into the story.[8]

Nevertheless, in 1977, he wrote of Sondheim "I needn't tell you that Stephen Sondheim is, both musically and lyrically, the most sophisticated composer now working for the Broadway theater."[9]

Leonard Bernstein[edit]

In reviewing Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story he focused on the dancing: "the most savage, restless, electrifying dance patterns we've been exposed to in a dozen seasons... The dancing is it. Don't look for laughter or—for that matter—tears." [10]

In his review of the original 1956 Broadway production of Candide, he wrote that it was a "really spectacular disaster".[11] However, in reviewing the 1973 revival of Candide he wrote that it was a "most satisfying resurrection. [...] 'Candide' may at last have stumbled into the best of all possible productions... The show is now a carousel and we are on it quite safely... The design of the unending chase is so firm, the performers are so secure in their climbing and tumbling...that we are able to join the journey and still see it with the detachment that Voltaire prescribes."[12]

Frank Loesser[edit]

Of Frank Loesser's "musical with a lot of music" [sic. opera], The Most Happy Fella he wrote: "the evening at the Imperial is finally heavy with its own inventiveness, weighted down with the variety and fulsomeness of a genuinely creative appetite. It's as though Mr. Loesser had written two complete musicals—the operetta and the haymaker—on the same simple play and then crammed them both into a single structure."[13]

Other criticism[edit]

Kerr wrote a favorable review of The Pajama Game: "a bright, brassy, and jubilantly sassy show [that] takes a whole barrelful of bright new talents, and a handful of stimulating ideas as well, and sends them tumbling in happy profusion over the footlights."[14]

For My Fair Lady he wrote "Don't bother to finish reading this review now. You'd better sit right down and send for those tickets to My Fair Lady."

From his oft-quoted review of Gypsy: "the best damn musical I've seen in years."

Of Frank D. Gilroy's famous play The Subject Was Roses: "a family triangle in which a father loves a son and the mother loves that son and the son loves both mother and father and not one of them can make a move or utter a sound that does not instantly damage the other."[15]

Kerr was also notable for his lack of enthusiasm regarding the plays of Samuel Beckett. For instance, of Beckett's Waiting For Godot he wrote "The play, asking for a thousand readings, has none of its own to give. It is a veil rather than a revelation. It wears a mask rather than a face."

Notoriously he is credited with one of the world's shortest reviews, "Me no Leica" for John Van Druten's I Am a Camera in the New York Herald Tribune, December 31, 1951.[16][17]

Awards and honors[edit]

Walter Kerr won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1978 for "articles on the theater".[18]

In 1983, Kerr was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.[19]

In 1990, the former Ritz Theater on West 48th Street in the Theater District, New York was renamed the Walter Kerr Theatre in his honor.[20]

Works[edit]

Books (selected)
  • How Not to Write a Play (1955)
  • Criticism and Censorship (1957)
  • Pieces at Eight (1958)
  • The Decline of Pleasure (1962)
  • The Theatre in Spite of Itself (1963)
  • Tragedy and Comedy (1967)
  • Thirty Plays Hath November (1969)
  • God on the Gymnasium Floor (1971)
  • The Silent Clowns (1975)
  • Journey to the Center of the Theater (1979)
Broadway
  • Count Me In 1942 musical – wrote book
  • Sing Out, Sweet Land 1944 musical revue – wrote book and directed
  • The Song of Bernadette 1946 play – wrote book with Jean Kerr and directed
  • Touch and Go 1949 musical revue – wrote sketches and lyrics with Jean Kerr and directed
  • King of Hearts 1954 play – directed (written by Jean Kerr and Eleanor Brooke)
  • Goldilocks 1958 musical – wrote book and lyrics with Jean Kerr and Joan Ford (lyrics) and directed
Other

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b "Walter Kerr biography". Northwestern University Library. Retrieved July 4, 2009. 
  2. ^ Benedick, Adam (October 21, 1996). "Obituary: Walter Kerr". The Independent. 
  3. ^ "The Theater: New Play in Manhattan, Apr. 12, 1954". Time Magazine. April 12, 1954. 
  4. ^ Miletich, p.51
  5. ^ Kerr, Walter. "Follies", The New York Times, p. D1, April 11, 1971
  6. ^ Kerr, Walter. The New York Times, "Who Could Resist These Women?", p. 119, March 4, 1973
  7. ^ Kerr, Walter. The New York Times, "Is 'Sweeney' on Target?", 1979
  8. ^ Kerr, Walter. The New York Times, "Who Sneaked the Molière into 'Sweeney Todd'?", 1979
  9. ^ Kerr, Walter. "Broadway is Alive with the Sound of Music", The New York Times p. D5, May 1, 1977
  10. ^ Block, Geoffrey Holden. Enchanted Evenings (2004), Oxford University Press US, ISBN 0-19-516730-9, p. 245
  11. ^ Candide at Bernstein", leonardbernstein.com, accessed July 4, 2009
  12. ^ Kerr, Walter. "Best of All Candides?", The New York Times, p. 55, December 30, 1973
  13. ^ Riis, Thomas Laurence and Block, Geoffrey. Frank Loesser (2008), Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-11051-0, p.161
  14. ^ Miletich, p.29
  15. ^ Coy, Stephen C. (1981). Twentieth-Century American Dramatists. Detroit, Michigan: Gale. ISBN 978-0-8103-0928-9. 
  16. ^ Botto, Louis."Quotable Critics" Playbill, May 28, 2008
  17. ^ Friedman, M. (1989). "Commercial expressions in American humor: an analysis of selected popular-cultural works of the postwar era". Humor – International Journal of Humor Research 2 (3): 265–284. doi:10.1515/humr.1989.2.3.265. ISSN 1613-3722. 
  18. ^ "Pulitzer Prize for Criticism". Columbia University. Retrieved July 4, 2009. 
  19. ^ "Theater Hall of Fame Gets 10 New Members". New York Times. May 10, 1983. 
  20. ^ Rothstein, Mervyn (March 6, 1990). "Broadway Musical Tribute To the Critic Walter Kerr". The New York Times. 

Notes[edit]

  • Miletich, Leo N. Broadway's prize-winning musicals (1993), Haworth Press, ISBN 1-56024-288-4

External links[edit]