In 1962 Howard Taubman, then the New York Times’ chief theater critic, was the subject of a New Yorker cartoon, the caption under a drawing of a musical-comedy version of “Hamlet” reading, “Howard Taubman isn’t going to like it.” And on April 19, 1963, Broadway producer David Merrick “reviewed” Taubman, maliciously, on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” That’s fame.
But rather than being merely famous, Taubman was — through his 42 years with the Times as music editor, music critic, chief theater critic and critic-at-large, and then his 15 years as adviser/consultant to the Exxon Corp. in its relationship with public television’s “Great Performances”– a leading arbiter of taste in this country for nearly 60 years.
During that time he reviewed, interviewed and sometimes was befriended by an imposing number of the world’s greatest musicians and theater practitioners. And with the exception of very few — Merrick definitely among them — he happily recalls the pleasure of their company in this relaxed, conversational reminiscence.
There’s no sensationalism here, no kiss-and-tell, unless you count lusty operatic soprano Mary Garden pressing a young Taubman’s hand to her bosom during an interview. But there’s much entertaining, rewarding insider information that adds up to an overview of more than a half-century of music, theater and television in the U.S. and well beyond.
Because Taubman was in the Times’ music department for 30 years, it’s understandable that there’s much ado about music in his book. Nevertheless, the theatrical community won’t find it unrewarding, if for no other reason than its chapter on the Merrick “feud” in which Taubman tells the whole story for the first time. It includes the fact that Merrick lied on the nationally viewed Carson show, during which Taubman was referred to as “Howard the coward,” when he said Taubman had been asked to appear on it with him but chose not to. Although Merrick wrote a private letter of apology to Taubman, neither he nor NBC ever made a public apology. Taubman also chose not to sue either man over the outrageous incident.
A chapter details how Taubman got to do a lengthy interview with the then-notorious Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini that ended up in Look rather than in the Times or Ladies Home Journal. Another reveals a great affection for cellist Pablo Casals. Others discuss such musical and theatrical stars as Leonard Bernstein, the Lunts, Marian Anderson (Taubman more than helped her write her “autobiography”), Vladimir Horowitz (Taubman persuaded the vehemently opposed pianist to perform on television), Arturo Toscanini (Taubman wrote a book about him), Igor Stravinsky (disagreeable), Dimitri Shostakovich; operatic voices; Taubman’s period as a writer on the U.S. Army’s Stars and Stripes, during which he wrote the front-page story on the surrender of the Nazi armies in Italy; his brush with McCarthyism; and so on, ending with a chapter on his strong belief in government support of the arts.
Taubman began his long Times career when he was hired, on approval, after he’d won a Times current-events college contest while in his last year at Cornell. During his 30 years in the music department, he was lucky enough to spend extended periods abroad doing the rounds of the world’s great music festivals. And as music critic, theater critic and critic-at-large, he reviewed most of the world’s great performers, along with a considerable number of the not-so-great and the dreadful. When the New Yorker honored him with a cartoon, the Times substantially increased his salary.
Taubman was an avid theatergoer long before his stint in the first chair from mid-1960 to the end of 1965. In a chapter titled “Theater — Bitter and Sweet,” he recalls the great plays and performances — Danny Kaye in “Lady in the Dark,” Bert Lahr in “The Beauty Part,” Paul Scofield and Zoe Caldwell in “Love’s Labors Lost,” Laurette Taylor in “The Glass Menagerie,” Jessica Tandy in “Streetcar,” Lee J. Cobb in “Death of a Salesman,” Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” among them. Taubman’s last review as the Times drama critic was of a Merrick import, “Marat/Sade.” It was a “money review,” exactly what Merrick always wanted from critics.
Now in his mid-80s, Taubman looks back on what has been, in many respects, a privileged life — how many other people got to spend so much time at great music festivals? Or to know so many great artists? The pleasure he took in their company is projected with evident affection.