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Opinion: Remembering a friendship with Terry Teachout

Terry Teachout in 2012.
Charles Giuliano
Terry Teachout in 2012.

Terry Teachout once worked as a bank teller in Kansas City, and I think he used to enjoy dropping that fact into conversation with theater folks. It was a way to say, "I am a theater critic. But really, I'm the audience."

"I still think Jell-O salads are vegetables," Terry told me once as, in fact, we ate veggie burgers before a play.

Terry Teachout died this week, at the age of 65. He was theater critic for The Wall Street Journal, a playwright in his own right, who wrote Satchmo at the Waldorf, on Louis Armstrong, and an accomplished biographer of Armstrong, George Balanchine, Duke Ellington and H.L. Mencken.

Terry and I became friends out of our shared love of musicals, especially Sondheim, Thornton Wilder, jazz, the Midwest, and, I guess, because we both chronicled the loss of loved ones. Terry's wife, Hilary, whom he wrote about in his theater blog and tweets as, "Mrs. T," died in March 2020, at the age of 64, shortly after she received a bilateral lung-transplant for which she had waited and hoped for years.

"Loss is the price of love," Terry wrote after her death. "I was lucky beyond belief to have her for far longer than her doctors foresaw."

And in a blog post he recalled a phrase from Wilder's Our Town to say, "For those of us still on earth, straining to make something of ourselves, it seems there is no weaning away from the people we love and lose: they are always there, dissolved into the completeness of eternity, waiting patiently — and, I suspect, indifferently — for the little resurrection that is memory."

As a critic, Terry was more admiring than acerbic. He laughed out loud in previews, where critics were supposed to be inscrutable, and would often write me after he saw a production — it could just as easily be in Oregon as off-Broadway — to say, "You've got to go. They are amazing each night in front of just 50 people." He used social media to be kind and make friends.

Terry believed that truly great works didn't squish you in the face with speeches and polemics, but let an audience wander, discover, breathe and live in each other's skins for a while.

"A masterpiece doesn't push you around," Terry Teachout wrote. "It lets you make up your own mind about what it means—and change it as often as you like."

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Corrected: January 16, 2022 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous online version and the broadcast version of this essay incorrectly stated that Hilary Teachout died at the age of 49. She was 64 when she died.
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.