I became extremely interested in musical theater in the early 1990s, when Howard Kissel was the main theater critic for the New York Daily News. I started working at the News in 1993 as a general assignment reporter.
Kissel wrote an article once about the mega musicals that were dominating the Broadway stage at the time: Phantom of the Opera (which, holy Lord, is still running), Les Miserables, Cats and Miss Saigon. I was surprised when Kissel said Phantom was the best of the bunch. I’d seen all four and I disagreed with him. So I sent him a short note, nothing extensive, expressing my surprise that he liked Phantom more than Les Miz, which I felt was the superior work.
I’ll never forget his reply. First, he said, Phantom leaves the audience with a stronger impression that they have been to “the theater.” I have to agree with him there. And then he said this [my quote is based on memory]:
The reason you prefer Les Miz over Phantom is that Les Miz had real characters and a plot. I’ve often said that if you put a gun to the head of the people leaving Phantom and demand that they tell you what they just saw, they couldn’t. Not even to save their lives.
May people are better suited than I to eulogize Howard Kissel, who passed away Friday at age 69. I just wanted to share one small memory of a man who, on one particular day, brought a lasting smile to one particular fan of musicals. I’m sorry we didn’t talk more, Howard. Rest in peace.