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Michael Kuchwara, at 63; longtime drama critic for AP

Influential and candid critic Michael Kuchwara (right) interviewed playwright August Wilson in April 2005. Influential and candid critic Michael Kuchwara (right) interviewed playwright August Wilson in April 2005. (Michelle McLoughlin/ Associated Press)
By Hillel Italie
Associated Press / May 24, 2010

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NEW YORK — Michael Kuchwara, the longtime drama critic for the Associated Press whose thoughtful, fair-minded reviews made him beloved and respected in the theater world and influential beyond, died Saturday night. He was 63.

Mr. Kuchwara, who had held his position since 1984 and recently celebrated his 40th anniversary with the AP, died at Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan of complications of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease that causes scarring. He entered the hospital May 10.

Ponder Henley, his brother-in-law, said Mr. Kuchwara was surrounded by family and was listening to music from his favorite show, “Gypsy,’’ on his iPod when he died.

“Michael touched so many of you, his friends, family, and business associates,’’ Mr. Kuchwara’s family said in a written statement. “Your outpouring of love and support these last days and weeks were a great comfort to Michael and to his family. We will miss him dearly, and these next few days will be challenging, but we know that Michael is without pain and at rest.’’

Mr. Kuchwara reviewed plays by Edward Albee and August Wilson, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Miller, his work appearing in thousands of papers and on websites around the world.

“As theater reviewers have been dropped, newspapers increasingly pick up the Associated Press reviews, making Michael Kuchwara arguably the most influential legit critic in America,’’ proclaimed Variety writer Robert Hofler in July 2009.

Said Kathleen Carroll, the AP’s executive editor: “For millions of readers, a Mike Kuchwara review was like a chat with a pal just back from a show. He was candid about stunners and stinkers he saw, but never gushy or mean. And his affection for the theater and for audiences infused every review.’’

Mr. Kuchwara, commenting in a 2006 video that appeared on the American Theatre Wing’s website, had a plainer take on his role as someone whose reviews often appeared hundreds or thousands of miles from Broadway: “I’m writing for an audience that may never see the shows that I’m writing about.’’

His favorite musical was “Gypsy,’’ which he felt was one of the best musicals ever written, because the entire story could be heard in the first four notes of the overture which begins the song “I Had A Dream.’’

“Mike’s likable and intelligent presence was a comforting constant in the theatre community,’’ said Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of The Broadway League. “He has always been one of the extra special people in our world and will be deeply missed by everyone who knew him.’’

A past president of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle, Mr. Kuchwara’s hundreds upon hundreds of reviews covered a quarter-century of blockbusters and failures in the theater world.

“He never seemed remotely jaded or sour,’’ said Ben Brantley, chief theater critic of The New York Times. “He always seemed happy to be at the theater and brought incredible good will to it, which is rare in any profession.’’

Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth wrote on Twitter after hearing of Mr. Kuchwara’s death: “Sweetheart he was. . . . Xxoo.’’

He raved about “The Producers’’ in 2001, calling it a “demented, deliriously funny stage version’’ of the Mel Brooks film. “Merriment has been a rare commodity on Broadway in recent years. What with Sondheim-serious musicals and bloated Brit spectacles, genuine funny business has been in short supply. Brooks and [director-choreographer Susan] Stroman have been fortunate, too, in finding a cast that can do ‘funny.’ ’’

He was lukewarm about Tony Kushner’s 1993 AIDS drama “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches,’’ saying it was “an extravagant political epic, overstuffed and sometimes pretentious, but also containing some wonderful writing that’s tough and, weirdly enough, highly poetic.’’ He said it fell “short of being a completely satisfying theater event.’’

He described “Billy Elliot,’’ about a coal miner’s son who dreams to dance as “a very intimate personal story.’’

“It celebrates being true to yourself and finding your place in the world, even against the most adverse of circumstances,’’ Mr. Kuchwara said.

“ ‘The Lion King’ is a rare theater experience,’’ he wrote in 1998. He called it an “intelligent spectacle, extravagance with a purpose — and a heart.’’

He wanted every play to succeed, but did not pretend all would. “You may need a drink — and not necessarily water — after viewing ‘A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick,’ ’’ he wrote in March, looking sadly upon “Kia Corthron’s messy message play that places water right at the center of its convoluted story.’’

Born in Scranton, Pa., Mr. Kuchwara was a graduate of Syracuse University and had a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. Before being named drama critic, he worked for the AP in Chicago as a general assignment editor and reporter and in New York on its main editing desk for national news.

According to his sister, Pat Henley, he loved theater so much as a child that the local newsstand would make sure to save him a copy of Variety. While his peers read comic books, Mr. Kuchwara kept up with the celebrities in Life magazine.

“My first really memorable theater experience was at the Pocono Playhouse, a long, long forgotten comedy called ‘The Third Best Sport,’ which I think came to Broadway and died in about two weeks,’’ Kuchwara said in 2006, referring to a bawdy comedy starring Celeste Holm as an 8-year-old girl.

When he watched Holm in the second act, he was “totally exhilarated.’’ He thought, “My gosh. She’s getting a reaction from this audience.’’

“From then on,’’ he said, “I was hooked.’’

In a highly competitive profession, few were as generous and self-effacing as the man known to his colleagues, with affection, as Kuch. He would shy from credit for stories he had helped write (and break) and present framed copies of posters from shows that younger staff members had reviewed. Rarely did he have an unkind word for anyone; even rarer was an unkind word heard about him.

More than a critic, he was a hardworking reporter, and his connections in the theater led to scoops. Just this month he broke the news of actress Lynn Redgrave’s death. And when others asserted that the attempted car bombing in Times Square had forced “The Lion King’’ to go dark, Mr. Kuchwara reported correctly that it was not so; two other shows delayed their curtains by a half hour.

“To the world, Mike was one of the best theater critics in the business, but to us, his colleagues, friends and family, he was also a phenomenal person who will be truly missed,’’ said Alicia Quarles, AP Global Entertainment Editor.

Mr. Kuchwara’s last review, which ran May 10, was of the off-Broadway musical “The Kid,’’ an “appealing story’’ based on Dan Savage’s autobiography.

“It says something about ‘The Kid,’ the new musical celebrating a journey to gay parenting, that the show’s most powerful moments occur when the characters don’t sing,’’ Mr. Kuchwara began.

His last sentence: “Even with its undernourished score, ‘The Kid’ and its intriguing characters may still draw you in. Now if it only sang.’’

Mr. Kuchwara leaves his sister and his wife, Johnnie Kay Kuchwara, whom he married in 1975 and who remembered him as having a “Broadway melody in his heart.’’