By: Alix Cohen
July 7, 2023: Three years ago, Steve Ross and I were bemoaning lack of musical theater/cabaret awareness and appreciation among young people, when he suggested I listen to Backstage Babble, a podcast by 13 year-old Charles Kirsch. THIRTEEN! The boy’s interview of scenic designer Beowulf Boritt was astonishingly well researched and perceptive. Who WAS this mature young person with a preternaturally developed passion? I began to notice the bespectacled uber-fan in audiences. With one live 54/Below show (a second July 17), two J2 Spotlight Cabaret Host appearances, and over 150 podcasts under his belt, we sat down to talk.
Both Charles’ parents are literary; he was reading by age three. His parents and grandparents have always exposed him to music and theater. At six, he was taken to the Broadway musical, Annie. “I remember sitting in the plush seats and feeling very fancy.” He started to write his own musicals (dialogue and songs) that year, sometimes original, sometimes based on things he’d seen – a sequel to Aladdin, for example.
Charles at On the Town
It wasn’t until the ripe old age of seven, however, that Charles Kirsch fell in love with musical theater. The show was On the Town. (Leonard Bernstein/Betty Comden and Adolph Green) Why this show? “The humor felt more adult,” he says. “It also had great design, like the dinosaur collapsing.” He waited at the stage door to collect autographs. At home, Charles attempted to recreate the experience asking family members to play roles and perform songs with him. With the help of his mom, Remy, he also began following up with research, acquiring CDs at signings and looking things up.
Interest in The Golden Age (1943-59) began to develop. “I often prefer earlier stuff, especially for listening,” he says. Fred Astaire or Bing Crosby, I ask? “Astaire.” Remy says Charles danced as a toddler. They found him a first class at the 92Y -at four. Later, he took tap and jazz.
Charles at the 92Y dancing at four; playing Tevye (Fiddler on the Roof) at 15 (second photo, Jaqlin Medlock/92Y)
The program pivoted to musical theater four years ago. Since then, he’s acted in two shows each semester playing every lead to which a musical theater actor might aspire. “There were not that many boys,” he says modestly. “Charles is pretty word perfect and often knows everybody’s lines. Auditions have to be filmed and he knows how to do that too,” Remy tells me. Summers, he attended the Academy Musical Theater Intensive at Marymount School, a month of singing, dancing, acting.
He’s particularly aware of lyricists. “With the revival of She Loves Me, I think Sheldon Harnick became my favorite along with Betty Comden and Adolph Green…My love of Sondheim came later,” he says. Discriminating choices. Most young people who are familiar with anyone from The Golden Age cite Oscar Hammerstein II. “I think you need both good music and good lyrics to have a great song, but only when one of them is bad, do you notice the difference,” he remarks thoughtfully.
Charles at Sardi’s
At ten he started a blog called Broadway Baby which continued over two years. It shared recommendations for books and streaming. Among postings was a “Lyric Quiz.” I will name the lyric, and when you write to me you can get 1 point for the song or the show, 2 points for both. I can’t stop you from cheating, only discourage you. It’s not an easy test even for the seasoned. Click here for the test.
When he was younger, Remy told her son which songs he should listen to on a particular CD and others for which she didn’t think him ready. He had to wait to see Chicago and still hasn’t attended a performance of Cabaret. “I chose not to go to Assassins because I thought it might be too intense,” he says. He put off seeing Parade.
Book Signings: left, Sheldon Harnick, Charles, Danny Burstein; right, Harold Prince and Charles
Asked to do a book report in fourth grade, Charles and his dad went to the theater section at Barnes & Noble. The student chose Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season 1959 to 2009 by Peter Filichia. “This book gives you behind the scenes stories. For instance, did you know that David Merrick was an infamously strict producer?…learn what critics thought, brief no-spoiler plot summaries, and how a show suffered and/or was boosted by different actors… a funny, though challenging book written in an intellectual tone, in a good way…” he wrote at eight years old.
Remy discovered she was Facebook friends with the author and sent him the review. Filichia invited them to lunch and became a mentor. “I was charmed by this eight-year-old kid concluding his report with ‘I recommend this book for ages 10 and up,’” Filichia says. “Charles asked so many questions that concerned the late 20th century hits and flops I’d detailed that I could see an unquenchable thirst for knowledge of a time that even predated his parents… He appreciates any kindness people do for him… Charles has many talents, but his talent for appreciation may well be what I like best.”
Charles and Peter Filichia
The next show Charles saw was Tim Minchin’s Matilda. “It was a little scary and a little creepy which actually might have added to my interest…” He was then a writer for Kid Critics on Broadway on the web site Broadway World. “We made two to three minute videos once a month talking about a show,” he says. “You’d get to see something for free (with a parent), then answer questions about it.” Most productions to which the young critics were sent Charles thought of as “kid shows” – Spongebob, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, School of Rock. “I enjoyed the adult shows like Kinky Boots, Amelie and Come From Away better,” he says.
Charles interviewing Lea Salonga and Christy Altomare
Observing avid interest, scenic designer Beowulf Boritt, a friend of Charles’ mom, invited them to various rehearsals. Among those he saw was Sunday in the Park with George, and Bernhardt Hamlet. (Yes, he attends straight theater as well.) At 12, Charles watched first a tech rehearsal, then a performance of Flying Over Sunset, a play about early LSD experience. I ask what he made of it. “It was really interesting, very complex. My mom explained about LSD and why people took it.” He sat next to playwright James Lapine. “That was a great last memory of theater before the pandemic.”
“I confess, I just did it as a favor to the child of an old friend, but he blew me away with his poise and how smart his questions were,” Boritt tells me. “He’s smart beyond his years, but he also has the enthusiasm of youth and the pure unjaded love of theater I remember from my own youth which is so refreshing to see. It allows me to see the world, and the theater through his eyes. I really love that. It reminds me why I got into this business in the first place!”
Beowulf Boritt and nine year-old Charles at a rehearsal
One night at 54Below, Charles walked up to director/producer Rob Schneider and complimented his podcast, Behind the Curtain (with Kevin David Thomas). After Schneider got to know him, the teenager was commissioned to write a chapter (about Annie) in Fifty Key Musicals (Routledge Press) which Schneider was co-editing. An excerpt:
“Audiences before 1977 would not have been able to define the concept of a ‘Children’s Musical.’ If you look at Annie’s predecessors, there is no Broadway musical that was written for a young audience. The King and I (1951) is about cultural tension. The Sound of Music (1959) involves forbidden love. Oliver! (1963) is all about a ring of criminals. All of these shows have children as main characters but were clearly aimed at adults. It was assumed that shows only children would appreciate could not sell tickets.” (Charles Kirsch)
Rob Schneider and Charles hosting Broadway Bound-The Musicals That Never Came to Broadway at 54Below 2023
“Charles Kirsch, in only a few years on this Earth, has amassed a vast knowledge about the American musical theater greater than most aficionados obtain in a lifetime…I have tried to include him in just about every project I do in the city for two reasons: 1) His knowledge is the greatest resource out there and 2) I need to be nice to him now because I know, one day, I will be working for him when he ends up running Broadway.” (Rob Schneider)
“At the start of the Pandemic, it occurred to me that maybe I could do a podcast,” Charles recalls. “I had three connections, with Peter Felicia, Ken Bloom and Beowulf Boritt so I had a base.” “It was his way of connecting to theater and the outside world during the shutdown,” Remy notes. Backstage Babble started the last day of July 2020 – with Charles’ grandfather serving as litmus test. (Harold Holzer who has worked in politics and the arts for decades.) “I had the time and will to research during the pandemic. I didn’t expect it to be as big as it got,” Charles says.
Charles generally broadcasts once a week using a ZOOM background. He’s a one man operation. There are now over 150 podcasts. People recommend each other. “Often stars have time limits. Chita Rivera’s assistant volunteered to do a part II. I prefer them long, but people are busy. I say 60-90 minutes to a guest. If they think I don’t know anything, they’re hesitant to agree.” Charles has interviewed singers, dancers, actors, directors, writers, designers, and a few producers.
Charles at work
“I actually did an hour with Scott Rudin a day before the big article came out and he got canceled,” Charles says. (Allegations of workplace abuse and misconduct.) “I pulled it, but I think down the road when things clear up, I’ll run it because it was really interesting. I had a costume designer, but never a hair/make-up person or lighting designer.” Who’s your aspirational “get” I ask. “Tommy Tune and Victoria Clark,” comes the answer. “Between shows, I read, listen, research. I often watch videos before I interview someone.” When Charles was deemed old enough, Remy also took him to select cabaret shows.
Barry Kleinbort, director, composer, lyricist, and librettist met Charles when the boy was 11 and attended his ZOOM Bar Mitzvah during the pandemic. They would intermittently communicate on things musical and theatrical. Eventually Charles interviewed him on Backstage Babble.“What I think makes Charles different as an interviewer is that he has no guile. No agenda. No snark,” Kleinbort says. “He wants to hear it all and eager to learn from it. His passion is evident. No one worries about being misquoted or slyly re-edited. As a kid, I had a voracious appetite for musicals and the theater, I read everything and listened to everything I could. I see that in Charles. He makes me believe that the tradition isn’t over yet, but, will continue to be passed on from generation to generation.”
Charles with friends/supporters: Michael Lavine, Steve Ross, Steve Brinberg
“Sometimes guests think they’re saying yes to an adult. When that happens, the thing to do right away is prove I know their career, so I start with something very specific or something not well known,” Charles tells me. Actor Melissa Errico had just such an experience. “I was prepared to be interviewed by a `kid’ and found instead a sophisticated journalist who had done homework on me…He struck a wonderful balance between wanting to know what had gone well (what bright adventures I had), but also what sort of missteps I may have made or disappointments,” she says.
“Charles knew a lot about the first Broadway show and flop I did, Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? Who under 60 years old would know about that? He’s got such an open, intelligent and curious demeanor, I found myself telling him stories I haven’t told my own mother.”(Actor Jason Graae)
“I far too often finish interviews and wonder why the person even wanted to speak to me since they seemed so clueless and uninterested in my career, but Charles was a great interviewer who really did his homework.” (Composer/ lyricist Marc Shaiman)
Follies Reunion -Top: Mary Jane Houdina, Charles, Susan Schulman; Middle: Ted Chapin, Joanna Merlin, Marti Rolph; Bottom: Kurt Peterson, Michael Misita
The intrepid journalist has featured Carol Burnett, Chita Rivera, Harvey Fierstein, New York Times critic Jesse Green, playwright Alfred Uhry…There have been notable reunion shows such as Follies 50th, On the Twentieth Century, and several events for Dancers over 40. Logistics alone must’ve been daunting.
July 2022. Charles presented his first Backstage Babble Live, brief interviews and vocals at 54/Below. The young man was as well spoken and gracious on stage as he is without an audience. Live was Musically Directed by Michael Lavine who met “the TWELVE year old genius” a few years ago. I ask whether the maestro has an anecdote about Charles’ character: “I would bring up the time we were rehearsing for his 54Below show at my apartment. A Broadway star was there to rehearse. Her voice was failing and she was increasingly frustrated. Charles immediately told her that she didn’t have to sing in the concert. He proposed interviewing her instead. She really liked that, and that’s what happened. His ability to think on his feet saved the day, as she was ready to completely back out.” (Michael Lavine)
Rehearsing for Backstage Babble II: Michael Lavine, Josie de Guzman, Thom Sesma, Charles
Charles Kirsch wants to be a director, but with all his talents and enthusiasms, who knows to what area or areas he’ll end up contributing to? Clearly the young man should be watched, listened to, and enjoyed along the way.
COMING UP Backstage Babble LIVE July 17, 2023
Loni Ackerman (Evita, Cats), Tony® Award nominee Christine Andreas (Oklahoma, On Your Toes), D’Jamin Bartlett (A Little Night Music, Boccaccio) Jim Brochu (Brigadoon, Camelot), Lori Tan Chinn (M. Butterfly, Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen), Tony® Award nominee Josie De Guzman (Guys and Dolls, West Side Story), Tony® Award winner Judy Kaye (On the Twentieth Century, The Phantom of the Opera), Karen Mason (Sunset Boulevard, Torch Song Trilogy) Teri Ralston (Company, A Little Night Music) Thom Sesma (Man of La Mancha, La Cage Aux Folles). Steven Skybell (Fiddler on the Roof, Wicked)
All photos courtesy of Remy Kirsch
Opening photo at 54Below – Helane Blumfield