Michael Kuchwara, the Associated Press' drama critic, passed away May 22 at 63. His death is a horrible loss to the theater community; I never heard of anyone who hated Michael Kuchwara.
"I think the most amazing thing about Kuch is that he was a theater critic and yet everyone in the world liked him," theater publicist Don Summa said.
I don't personally have much interaction with theater critics, but I knew Kuch (as he was affectionately referred to). We weren't close friends or anything, but he always treated me with kindness. Occasionally he would write a feature or a news item and I remember calling him once, angry because I thought he had stolen some "scoop" I had. But it was hard to be annoyed at Kuch--I felt stupid after the first minute on the phone with him.
Kuch had none of the biting venom you encounter so much in this industry. Everyone could tell that in his writing, but, those who knew him had more to base their assessment on. He always smiled when I ran into him at the theater. He showed up at press agents' parties (even though he was frequently the only critic who would) and chatted happily with the industry folk. We could all tell how much Kuch cared about the theater. He knew not all of it was wonderful, but he honestly wanted it be.
"Mike truly loved what he did and we all loved him in return," theater publicist David Gersten explained. "He was not just a great critic but a great friend. I cannot imagine the world without him on the other end of the phone."
Kuch was always on the other end of a line when someone needed him. I remember once discussing at a party who I called for musical theater knowledge when I was stumped--The New York Times' Charles Isherwood chimed in that it was Kuch he called. That didn't surprise me, I had heard the same thing from many press agents over the years.
"Mike Kuchwara knew more about the American Theatre than any member of the cognoscenti working in the arts over the last thirty years," theater publicist Judy Jacksina praised. "He also loved the theater more than any one else on earth. But that's not why I admired him so. His role model status in my life came from the fact that he was a triumphantly successful human being. His vast intelligence was dwarfed by his boundless kindness. When they name a Broadway theater after him I pray the call it the Great Michael Kuchwara Theatre."
Jacksina is far from alone in her love of this man. Typically press agents tell me bad critic stories, but none had any about Kuch. Seriously. Ever. I swear. Theater publicist Marc Thibodeau talked to me tonight about his long history with the writer:
"Mike and I started our respective NY theater careers at around the same time--he, as chief theater critic for AP, and me, a fresh out of NYU timid press agent assistant. From the start, Mike was always incredibly kind, approachable, and responsive, no matter how un-newsworthy the pitch I was making might have been... The last time I saw him, I took Andrew Lippa to AP to be interviewed by Mike. It was a tumultuous time [for The Addams Family], but Mike could not have been kinder to Andrew, while not in any way compromising his sterling journalist credibility. After the interview, he took us on a tour of the vast AP newsroom, something he did with pride and enthusiasm every time I brought anyone there. He mentioned how the giant newsroom had a lot of empty desks now and was a lot quieter, and I recall thinking to myself, 'Wow, he has survived--and thrived--here for three decades.' For that entire time, AP meant Mike Kuchwara to anyone and everyone who worked on Broadway. That big newsroom on the far west side just got a lot emptier."
Indeed it has. The AP has lost a person Variety once called "arguably the most influential legit critic in America." That loss is felt by us all. Kuch was the common bond between so many in this industry--the only critic loved by all the other critics. His close friends included Michael Sommers, Jacques le Sourd and many more.
"Mike reached out to me at a time when nobody gave a crap who I was," Drama Critics' Circle President Adam Feldman said. "He was very generous to me at a time when he had no reason to be other than his own generosity. A lot of us in this business end up getting jaded and acquire a bitter affect. Mike somehow never acquired that patina of jadedness. He was passionate for the entire art form; that sort of leaked out in his reviews. Critics are not generally beloved creatures--but his manner was always so congenial and easygoing, he was beloved."
Kuch's death, due to cardiac complications resulting from treatment of his idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, seems sudden, even though he had been in the hospital for almost two weeks. He (and all of us) thought surgery would cure him. Press agent Charlie Siedenburg noted that, while in the hospital, Kuch "perked up when I started talking about the theater." Those who knew him well talked to him earlier in the week about his plans for seeing upcoming shows and taking trips to the beach. But none of that was to be.
"I spent more time with Mike when he wasn't in NY than when he was," theater publicist Richard Kornberg said. "He was so passionate about going to theater, it didn't have to be in this city or even this country. He went to see theater everywhere. He happened to be AP's theater critic, but you thought of him first as your friend and then as a critic. You wanted him to go to your shows, but you enjoyed him even more when you were out with him. He was in a class by himself."
According to The Associated Press obituary, Michael Kuchwara died with his family around him, listening to show tunes. He is survived by a sister and wife.