Writer and producer
Writer and producer Frank Rich has led a long and varied career in the arts, from serving as theater critic for The New York Times to his current role as executive producer for the hit HBO show “Veep,” now in its final season. Rich talks about his experience in the political circles of D.C., using drama as an escape and his brief but spectacular take on a life in theater.
Amna Nawaz: Frank Rich is a writer and producer whose career has taken him from The New York Times, as theater critic, to HBO, as executive producer of “Veep,” now its in final season.
In tonight’s Brief But Spectacular, Rich looks back on his life in the arts.
Frank Rich: I grew up in Washington, D.C. The theater became a kind of obsessive passion for me as an escape, I think, from a childhood I wanted to escape from.
When I was growing up, it was the tail end of what we now think of as the golden age of New York theater, the careers of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, the burst of Edward Albee.
And there was a theater still exists right now called the National Theatre, which was a tryout house, as they called it then, for Broadway shows. I went there so often, usually buying standing room, that the manager took pity on me and hired me as a ticket-taker. And, frankly, it was my entire education in the theater, and really, in retrospect, in television producing that I do now, because you would see a show like “Hello, Dolly!” come in that seemed to be a hit.
But you would watch David Merrick work on it and make it better. You would see “The Odd Couple,” directed by Mike Nichols, come in, and you would see Neil Simon, the playwright, keep tinkering with it.
I started writing theater reviews when I was in college on The Harvard Crimson, because I reviewed plays that were trying out in Boston. One of them was a new musical by Stephen Sondheim. Years later, I would find out that the producer of the show had recommended me to The Times as a potential drama critic.
I am really against journalists becoming friendly or chummy with their subjects. I never went to the Tony Awards. Indeed, to this day, I have never been to the Tony Awards. I feel the lesson is applicable to Washington. It doesn’t help to be chummy with the people you’re covering.
I’m very much against the White house Correspondents Dinner, for that reason. But, even at a more profound level, if you look back, like, at a story like Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein got that story because they were not going to Georgetown dinner parties and being told by John Mitchell or Henry Kissinger that this is a nonstory and forget about it.
In 2008-ish, I had started working as a consultant for HBO, and one of the things they were actively looking for was a Washington show. I saw “In The Loop,” Armando Iannucci’s film about essentially the run-up to the Iraq War, and I immediately felt, this is the guy.
Very early on, before we shot anything, he sent a memo about production design for “Veep.”
Here’s the thing, he said. You go to these offices in the EOB or the White House, they look terrible. There’s detritus everywhere. The chairs don’t fit with the desk. They’re government issue. Everything is a mess. The people dress 10 years behind New York.
“Veep” captures D.C. in a way that I had been waiting for my whole life. It reminds me of what I fantasized about the theater growing up, being with a show out of town, rewriting it, fixing it, making it better.
It’s great to sort of mix it up and come up with these crazy stories about these horrible characters whom we love.
My name is Frank Rich, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on all the theater in my life.