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Walter Kerr

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Walter Kerr
Kerr in 1972
Kerr in 1972
BornWalter Francis Kerr
(1913-07-08)July 8, 1913
Evanston, Illinois, U.S.
DiedOctober 9, 1996(1996-10-09) (aged 83)
Dobbs Ferry, New York, U.S.
  • Theatre critic
  • playwright
  • director
  • lyricist
EducationNorthwestern University (BA, MA)
Notable awardsPulitzer Prize
(m. 1943)

Walter Francis Kerr (July 8, 1913 – October 9, 1996) was an American writer and Broadway theatre critic. He also was the writer, lyricist, and/or director of several Broadway plays and musicals as well as the author of several books, generally on the subject of theater and cinema.



Kerr was born in Evanston, Illinois, and earned both a B.A. and M.A. from Northwestern University.,[1] after graduation from St. George H.S. also in Evanston.

He was a regular film critic for the St. George High School newspaper while a student there, and was also a critic for the Evanston News Index. He was the editor of the high school newspaper and yearbook.[2] He taught speech and drama at The Catholic University of America.[3]

After writing criticism for Commonweal he became a theater critic for the New York Herald Tribune in 1951. When that paper folded, he then began writing theater reviews for The New York Times in 1966, writing for the next seventeen years.[1] During this time, Kerr lived in New Rochelle, NY in the same house Norman Rockwell lived in. [4]

He married fellow writer Jean Kerr (née Collins) on August 9, 1943. Together, they wrote the musical Goldilocks (1958), which won two Tony Awards. They also collaborated on Touch and Go (1949) and King of Hearts (1954).[5] They had six children.[6]

Kerr died from congestive heart failure on October 9, 1996.[6]

He was portrayed pseudonymously by David Niven in the 1960 film Please Don't Eat the Daisies, based on Jean Kerr's best-selling collection of humorous essays.

Critiquing shows


Kerr was one of the harshest New York theatre critics of his era, giving the fewest favorable reviews.[7] He was well known for panning musicals that were musically ambitious.

Notoriously he is credited with one of the world's shortest reviews, "Me no Leica" for John Van Druten's I Am a Camera in the New York Herald Tribune, December 31, 1951.[8][9]

Stephen Sondheim


Many of the shows he critiqued were those of Stephen Sondheim. About Sondheim's Company, Kerr wrote that it was too cold, cynical and distant for his taste, though he "admitted to admiring large parts of the show."[10]

About Sondheim's Follies, he wrote " 'Follies' is intermissionless and exhausting, an extravaganza that becomes tedious for two simple reasons: Its extravagances have nothing to do with its pebble of a plot; and the plot, which could be wrapped up in approximately two songs, dawdles through 22 before it declares itself done... Mr. Sondheim may be too much a man of the seventies, too present-tense sophisticated... The effort to bind it up inhibits the crackling, open-ended, restlessly varied surges of sound he devised with such distinction for Company."[11]

He praised A Little Night Music, writing that "The score is a gift, the ladies are delightful, and producer Harold Prince has staged the moody meetings with easy skill."[12]

He expressed mixed sentiments about Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, praising the music but deeming it too lilting for the show's grisly subject; his conclusion- "What is this musical about?"[13] He wrote a follow-up article on his observation that the musical contained a plot from Molière's The School for Wives, posing the question who, of all of the authors who had revised the tale of Sweeney Todd over the years, had put the plot into the story.[14]

Nevertheless, in 1977, he wrote of Sondheim "I needn't tell you that Stephen Sondheim is, both musically and lyrically, the most sophisticated composer now working for the Broadway theater."[15]

Leonard Bernstein


In reviewing Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story he focused on the dancing: "the most savage, restless, electrifying dance patterns we've been exposed to in a dozen seasons... The dancing is it. Don't look for laughter or—for that matter—tears."[16]

In his review of the original 1956 Broadway production of Candide, he wrote that it was a "really spectacular disaster".[17] However, in reviewing the 1973 revival of Candide he wrote that it was a "most satisfying resurrection. [...] 'Candide' may at last have stumbled into the best of all possible productions... The show is now a carousel and we are on it quite safely... The design of the unending chase is so firm, the performers are so secure in their climbing and tumbling...that we are able to join the journey and still see it with the detachment that Voltaire prescribes."[18]

Frank Loesser


Of Frank Loesser's "musical with a lot of music" [sic. opera], The Most Happy Fella he wrote: "the evening at the Imperial is finally heavy with its own inventiveness, weighted down with the variety and fulsomeness of a genuinely creative appetite. It's as though Mr. Loesser had written two complete musicals—the operetta and the haymaker—on the same simple play and then crammed them both into a single structure."[19]

Other criticism


Kerr was also notable for his lack of enthusiasm for the plays of Samuel Beckett. For instance, of Beckett's Waiting For Godot he wrote "The play, asking for a thousand readings, has none of its own to give. It is a veil rather than a revelation. It wears a mask rather than a face."

Awards and honors


Walter Kerr won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1978 for "articles on the theater".[20]

In 1983, Kerr was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.[21]

In 1990, the former Ritz Theater on West 48th Street in the Theater District, New York was renamed the Walter Kerr Theatre in his honor.[22]



Books (selected)

  • Criticism and Censorship (1954)[23]
  • How Not to Write a Play (1955)
  • Pieces at Eight (1958)
  • The Decline of Pleasure (1962)
  • The Theatre in Spite of Itself (1963)
  • Tragedy and Comedy (1967)
  • Thirty Plays Hath November (1969)
  • God on the Gymnasium Floor (1971)
  • The Silent Clowns (1975)
  • Journey to the Center of the Theater (1979)


  • Count Me In 1942 musical – wrote book[24]
  • Sing Out, Sweet Land 1944 musical revue – wrote book and directed book[25]
  • The Song of Bernadette 1946 play – wrote book with Jean Kerr and directed[26]
  • Touch and Go 1949 musical revue – wrote sketches and lyrics with Jean Kerr and directed[27]
  • King of Hearts 1954 play – directed (written by Jean Kerr and Eleanor Brooke)[28]
  • Goldilocks 1958 musical – wrote book and lyrics with Jean Kerr and Joan Ford (lyrics) and directed[29]


  • Miss Calypso – a Maya Angelou album that Kerr produced
  • Stardust (1946) wrote (comedy), presented at the Catholic University, Washington, DC under the title Art and Prudence[30]


  1. ^ a b "Walter Kerr biography". Northwestern University Library. Retrieved July 4, 2009.
  2. ^ "Walter and Jean Kerr Papers, circa 1920-1993" Wisconsin Historical Society, accessed February 14, 2020
  3. ^ Benedick, Adam (October 21, 1996). "Obituary: Walter Kerr". The Independent.
  4. ^ https://www.zillow.com/homedetails/20-Coventry-Lane-New-Rochelle-NY-10805/32956145_zpid/?utm_campaign=iosappmessage&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=txtshare
  5. ^ "The Theater: New Play in Manhattan, Apr. 12, 1954". Time Magazine. April 12, 1954. Archived from the original on July 17, 2012.
  6. ^ a b "Lauded Theatre Critic Walter Kerr Dies at 83". The Washington Post. October 11, 1996. Retrieved April 16, 2019.
  7. ^ Gross, Jess (June 18, 1958). "Trib's Walter Kerr Does It Again; Toughest N.Y. Crick; Atkinson Next". Variety. p. 1. Retrieved January 16, 2021 – via Archive.org.
  8. ^ Botto, Louis."Quotable Critics" Archived September 7, 2012, at archive.today Playbill, May 28, 2008
  9. ^ Friedman, M. (1989). "Commercial expressions in American humor: an analysis of selected popular-cultural works of the postwar era". Humor – International Journal of Humor Research. 2 (3): 265–284. doi:10.1515/humr.1989.2.3.265. ISSN 1613-3722. S2CID 145418943.
  10. ^ Miletich, p.51
  11. ^ Kerr, Walter (April 11, 1971). "Follies". The New York Times. p. D1.
  12. ^ Kerr, Walter (March 4, 1973). "Who Could Resist These Women?". The New York Times. p. 119.
  13. ^ Kerr, Walter. The New York Times, "Is 'Sweeney' on Target?", 1979
  14. ^ Kerr, Walter (May 1, 1979). "Who Sneaked the Molière into 'Sweeney Todd'?". The New York Times. p. C8. Retrieved January 16, 2021.
  15. ^ Kerr, Walter (May 1, 1977). "Broadway is Alive with the Sound of Music". The New York Times. p. D5.
  16. ^ Block, Geoffrey Holden. Enchanted Evenings (2004), Oxford University Press US, ISBN 0-19-516730-9, p. 245
  17. ^ Candide at Bernstein", leonardbernstein.com, accessed July 4, 2009
  18. ^ Kerr, Walter (December 30, 1973). "Best of All Candides?". The New York Times. p. 55.
  19. ^ Riis, Thomas Laurence and Block, Geoffrey. Frank Loesser (2008), Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-11051-0, p.161
  20. ^ "Pulitzer Prize for Criticism". Columbia University. Retrieved July 4, 2009.
  21. ^ "Theater Hall of Fame Gets 10 New Members". The New York Times. May 10, 1983.
  22. ^ Rothstein, Mervyn (March 6, 1990). "Broadway Musical Tribute To the Critic Walter Kerr". The New York Times.
  23. ^ Kerr, Walter (1954). "Criticism and censorship". Bruce Pub. Co. Retrieved April 11, 2021.
  24. ^ Count Me In Playbill, accessed February 14, 2020
  25. ^ Sing Out, Sweet Land Playbill, accessed February 14, 2020
  26. ^ The Song of Bernadette Playbill, accessed February 14, 2020
  27. ^ Touch and Go Playbill, accessed February 14, 2020
  28. ^ King of Hearts Playbill, accessed February 14, 2020
  29. ^ Goldilocks Playbill, accessed February 14, 2020
  30. ^ Stardust books.google.com, accessed February 14, 2020


  • Miletich, Leo N. Broadway's prize-winning musicals (1993), Haworth Press, ISBN 1-56024-288-4