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Michael Feingold, forceful drama critic and Chicago native, died at 77

NEW YORK — Michael Feingold, whose learned writing about the theater was a fixture of The Village Voice for decades, and who was also a dramaturge, a translator and a Tony Award-nominated lyricist and adapter, died on Nov. 21 in Manhattan. Hey what 77.

Daniel Pardo, one of his executors, confirmed the death, in a hospital. He said Feingold had had a long-standing heart condition.

Feingold had an encyclopedic knowledge of plays and musicals, which he drew upon as he sized up productions of all sorts, beginning in the early 1970s and continuing until recently. He did not pull punches, even if his target was a venerable veteran.

He once dismissed Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose music is often said to be derivative, with this line: “Webber’s music isn’t so painful to hear, if you don’t mind its being so soiled from previous use.”

In 2003 he assessed Neil Simon’s last produced play, “Rose’s Dilemma,” saying that it “doesn’t mean anything to anybody and doesn’t reveal any understanding, on its author’s part, of how plays are written.” Simon at that point had won multiple Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Theatrical trends did not impress Feingold either, especially Broadway’s late-20th century fixation on big-budget musicals that, as he once put it, were about “large, mechanized objects” rather than characters. His 1991 takedown of Cameron Mackintosh’s production of “Miss Saigon,” which ran on Broadway for 10 years and was famed for its onstage helicopter, which was part of theatrical lore.

“Every civilization gets the theater it deserves, and we get ‘Miss Saigon,’ which means we can now say definitely that our civilization is over,” he wrote. “After this, I see no way out but an aggressive clearance program: All the Broadway theaters must be demolished, without regard to their size, history or landmark status.”

Also, he said, “Cameron Mackintosh and his production staff should be slowly beaten to death with blunt instruments; this year’s Pulitzer Prize judges in drama could be used for the job.” Those judges had, weeks earlier, given the drama Pulitzer to Simon for “Lost in Yonkers.”

But Feingold was not one of those critics who would just sit and snipe. He was active in creating for the theater himself, even while writing criticism for The Voice.

He translated numerous European works for the American stage, especially those of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. His adaptation of the Brecht-Weill collaboration “Happy End” even made Broadway in 1977, with Meryl Streep and Christopher Lloyd in the cast. He shared Tony nominations for the book and for the score. He earned another Broadway credit in 1989 for his translation of another Brecht-Weill work, “Threepenny Opera.” His translation earned some favorable comments, but critics trashed the show, which featured the rock star Sting.

Feingold also spent time as literary manager for the Yale Repertory Theater, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, roles in which he would read scripts and often help shape ones that were accepted for production. The theater historian Jeffrey Sweet, in his book “The O’Neill: The Transformation of Modern American Theater” (2014), recounted the role played by Feingold in propelling the career of August Wilson.

In 1982, when Wilson was still largely unknown, he brought his play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” to the National Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, where Feingold was doing some dramaturgy. The first reading of the piece, directed by William Partlan, lasted more than four hours. Partlan and Feingold talked Wilson through the necessary trimming.

“Cutting was a torment to him,” Feingold said in an interview for the book. “Cutting was always a terrible struggle for August because every word was blood.”

Another reading was held, and this time the play was 90 minutes shorter. Frank Rich, the New York Times criticize what was in the audience and was impressed. His enthusiastic write-up jump-started Wilson’s career.

“While there’s nothing novel about rich language in the theater,” Rich wrote, “it is quite unusual in 1982 to find a playwright who is willing to stake his claim to the stage not with stories or moral platitudes, but with the beauty and meaning of torrents of words.”

Feingold wrote for The Voice from 1971 to 2013, when he became a victim of downsizing (though he would return later in a limited capacity). Robert Simonson, reporting on that dismissal in Playbill, said that Feingold’s writing was known for “erudition and understanding of theater history, both ancient and modern, and how current plays fit in with that continuum.”

Feingold was born on May 5, 1945, in Chicago. His mother, Elsie (Silver) Feingold, taught piano, and his father, Bernard, managed a tannery.

Michael grew up in Chicago and Highland Park, where the family moved when he was in high school. The Highland Park high school he attended had a drama club where, as he put it in an interview with the Primary Stages off-Broadway Oral History Project in 2018, “I did some inept acting and some slightly less inept directing.”

He became further interested in theater at Columbia University, where he earned a degree in English and comparative literature in 1966. He had taken a senior seminar from Robert Breastein, who was then known primarily for his theater criticism, and in the fall of 1965 asked if Brustein would write him a recommendation to support his application to the Yale School of Drama. After Christmas break, he asked if Brustein had remembered to do so.

“He smiled mysteriously and said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about that,'” Feingold said in the oral history. “And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘Read The Times tomorrow.’”

The next day the newspaper reported that Brustein had just been named dean of Yale Drama.

“So he wrote the recommendation and then he accepted it,” Feingold said, “feeling that he should take his own advice.”

Feingold had wanted to study playwriting at Yale, and he did, but Breastein steered him toward criticism as well. He began writing for The Voice, and in 1983 he was named its chief drama critic.

Feingold, who lived in Manhattan and who leaves no immediate survivors, was often a judge for the Obie Awards, which recognize off-Broadway work. In 2020 he received one of his own, a special citation recognizing “his extraordinary service to the theater.”

He was, above all, a champion of theater that is bold and challenging. In 1993 he was the editor of “Grove New American Theater,” a play collection that included work by Karen Finley, Mac Wellman and other cutting-edge writers.

In the introduction to that book, he lamented the cyclical nature of American theater: a period of innovation, then stagnation, repeated endlessly, stunting growth.

“If the theater doesn’t grow up, the American public doesn’t grow up either,” he wrote. “Instead, it gets hotted up, every 20 years or so, over the same issues — sex, politics and religion — the three matters that art, according to some strangely permanent lunatic fringe of American opinion, must never be allowed to deal with, at least not in any open manner.”

c. 2022 The New York Times Company

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