On Media / Pop Culcha

Jewish World Review May 21, 2000/ 28 Iyar, 5761

Robert Leiter

All's fair for a good column

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- FRANK RICH, for years the principal theater critic for The New York Times and now a major fixture on the paper's op-ed pages, likes to revisit his old stomping grounds in his opinion pieces. But these days, he insists on using "culture" to make larger statements about American society.

Such was the case recently, when Rich considered the connections between the hit Broadway musical "The Producers" by Mel Brooks and the hot HBO series "The Sopranos," starring James Gandolfini as a Mafia kingpin.

Titled "Springtime for Adolf and Tony," Rich's article tried to understand why these two particular pieces of pop culture were raking in the big bucks and what their wild popularity tells us about the mood of the American public. Rich notes that in the first act of "The Producers" alone, the Jews are depicted as so greedy that they'll merchandise Adolf Hitler to turn a buck; the gays are all swishy and overdue the sybillant "s"; and elderly women are so depraved that they'll do anything for a sexual fling.

Rich argues that "The Sopranos" has also had something to offend almost everyone who's looking to be offended. Segments have included Chasidic criminals, priests hitting on married women and a highly lovable protagonist "who not only kills people, but derides his daughter's racially mixed boyfriend as Ćan Oreo cookie.' "

According to "Producers" star Nathan Lane, the backlash against the phenomenally successful musical -- considered to be the biggest hit in New York in 25 years since "A Chorus Line" opened in 1975 -- should be starting soon, especially, Rich writes, if the reaction to "The Sopranos" is any indication. A condemnatory congressional resolution has been fashioned by Marge Roukema, a New Jersey Republican who is miffed at how the TV show portrays Italian Americans in her district.

Why should these two shows have captured the imaginations of so many Americans?

Rich suggests that the over-the-top response, especially to "The Producers," may be the need audiences feel to liberate pop culture "from the p.c. sanitization that has become such a bore over the past two decades." The adulation for Mel Brooks' kind of anarchic comedy is, in the critic's opinion, a "spontaneous expression of widespread discontent with the pasteurized fare that is our dull entertainment bread." According to Rich, these two shows have "reawakened an excited, paying public to entertainment that isn't afraid to offend in pursuit of artistic and human bite."

And there's nothing wrong with that, except when you realize that Rich, in his capacity as a major critical voice at the major metropolitan daily in the country, was one of the architects of -- let's call it -- p.c. artistic fairness. The point of so many of Rich's reviews was that every voice was to be heard. No quarter was to be condemned. And we were not only to sit and listen, but we were to be moved by the pain and suffering of others, especially of those who may be leading lives radically opposed to ours.

Now, I've always been a fan of Rich. But it seems rather odd of him, 20 years down the line, after having created the atmosphere to allow all things p.c. to have their (respectful) day in the sun, to be cheering on rowdy and sometimes vicious denunciations of all he once appeared to hold dear. Or is it that he'll do anything for a good column?

JWR contributor Robert Leiter is Literary Editor at the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001 Robert Leiter