Interview: Jeremy McCarter on His Journey From Theater Critic to Theater-Maker
McCarter, once a theater critic for New York magazine, explores similar, but different theatrical horizons.
"I think there's an approach to criticism that says it's not enough to just sit back and passively render judgments on whether you think something is good or bad. That's part of it, sure—but I think the real joy of it is to have a positive vision for what you think the art form can do, to be writing on behalf of something and not just criticizing what you don't like. I wish theater—musicals in particular—did a better job of harnessing the power and vitality of American theater. I've said it every way I knew how to say it."
Accentuating the positive is a kind of a mantra for Jeremy McCarter. He has seen theater from the inside looking out as a creative, and he has seen it from the outside looking in as a critic.
The die was cast in college. A history major at Harvard, he found time to assist friends in putting on shows. "That was the experience I wanted when I went there," he insists, "getting to collaborate with really smart, funny, talented people who are, to this day, still my friends."
Basically, this came down to directing student productions—and pretty constantly during his junior and senior years. "I directed Tony Kushner's Slavs and an obscure, wonderful Tennessee Williams play called Clothes for a Summer Hotel. On graduating, the first thing I did—and I'm grateful I got to do it—was to intern for Anna Deavere Smith, who set up in Cambridge that summer to get artists and scholars together to open up some new channels for culture and society. Lots of people have gone through that opening that Anna created. I learned an extraordinary amount from watching her at close range. Look at the stuff I've done ever since. A lot of it traces back pretty directly to what I watched her building when I was 21 years old."
Now 45, McCarter has accumulated a colorful patchwork of professions—a stint teaching theater history and criticism at Brooklyn College, a drama critic's job at both the New York Sun and New York magazine, a cultural and political reporter at Newsweek and the founder and host of the Public Forum series which offered plays plus after-talks at the Public Theater.
It was during his five years at The Public that he began writing in earnest Young Radicals, a political tome that grew out of the research that he did on his senior thesis at Harvard. It's about five Greenwich Village bohemian activists in the 19-teens opposing our involvement in World War I. (Two of them, John Reed and Max Eastman, were played by Warren Beatty and Edward Herrmann in 1981's Reds.) Observed the Wall Street Journal: "It's not difficult to see why [Lin-Manuel] Miranda would have been attracted to McCarter as a writing partner."
Miranda is the main reason that McCarter, more than once, had to put Young Radicals aside in order to meet deadlines for books based on Miranda's two Tony-winning musicals, Hamilton: The Revolution and In the Heights: Finding Home. "With the Hamilton book,'" McCarter relays, "we went from blank page to sending it to the printer in a little less than six months. The Heights book we started in 2019, but that one was delayed by the coronavirus. We initially thought it would be finished in the summer of 2020. It would have been just a little longer than we spent on the Hamilton book. Then, as it happens, it wasn't done until 2021."
McCarter and Miranda tend to think of these books as a set. They are different mostly because the shows are different. "Hamilton is about one man, written by one man. "In the Heights is about a community, and Miranda worked his songs into a libretto by Pulitzer Prize winner Quiara Alegría Hudes, who contributes four essays to the book describing the changes she made from libretto to screenplay. Miranda reprints his lyrics and, in the margins, explains his thought processes in creating them. Then, snugly lacing all this together is a massive narrative arc by McCarter, spanning 22 years of creativity—from Miranda's first flush of inspiration at age 19 when a sophomore at Wesleyan University to the movie's world-premiere three months ago.
The promotion McCarter has done for In the Heights: Finding Home has been from his home in Chicago, where he lives with his wife and daughters. He married her when she was a New York Times reporter, and, when the Times transferred her to its Chicago bureau, he did the biblical "whither thou goest, I will go" thing and transferred with her from Brooklyn in 2014.
It seems a successful adjustment, although commutes are frequent, and it has become something of a tale of two cities. Nevertheless, "Chicago's a great town for beer, baseball, and theater," he says, oozing contentment. "When I finished those book projects and was figuring out what to do in Chicago, I thought it an opportunity to try something new. I have always loved audio storytelling—from the old radio plays up until now—and I thought that the podcasting boon had created a listening base to try some different forms of storytelling."
What he came up with—and founded--is the Make-Believe Association, an audio storytelling organization that creates socially driven audio dramas. One, City on Fire: Chicago Race Riot 1919, won a National Headliner Award last year. McCarter produced it and co-wrote it with Natalie Y. Moore, a Chicago Sun-Times journalist, to mark the centennial of Chicago's race riot. "It was a real joy to collaborate on something that meant so much to the city," he admitted.
"We lost an entire season that we had planned to the lockdown, which was really difficult in 2020, but I hope to keep making audio. I'm writing projects in the works I can't talk about yet. A group of us are collaborating on a project I hope we can share with the world in a few months."