By Zach Pincus-Roth 02
whiff of celebrity
Stars teach at Princeton, sometimes only a day
Early in Broadways new musical Sweet Smell of Success,
J.J. Hunsecker, a powerful newspaper columnist, invites Sidney Falco,
a struggling press agent, to come out on the town to search for
gossip. The presence of his idol and the powerful people surrounding
him initially flusters Sidney. But Hunsecker modeled after
Walter Winchell and played by John Lithgow sets him straight:
Be confident when dealing with the famous, and you will become one
My family had bought tickets for the $25 nosebleed section of the
Martin Beck Theater balcony, but the usher let us sit in the unoccupied
box seats that hovered above stage left. With a kings-eye
view of everyone who paid full price, I suddenly spotted a familiar
mustached man sitting on the aisle of the orchestra section.
"Thats him," I said to my dad.
Last spring, Sweet Smells lyricist Craig Carnelia signed
up to teach THR 391, a songwriting workshop. The day after the first
Friday afternoon session, Carnelia called Theater Program Chair
Michael Cadden to say that he had decided not to teach the class.
Cadden, confounded, asked me what went wrong.
The class was peculiar. We all brought in songs, which we presented
meekly and nervously. Understandable, considering it was our first
exposure to a Broadway veteran. Some of us were Triangle Club writers,
embarrassed by the frivolity of our songs, which made fun of cannibals,
Ralph Nader 55, and the Nude Olympics.
Carnelia tried to yank us from our unease by giving us tasks designed
to help our vitality emerge. After Aliza Kennerly 03 sang
a song a capella, Carnelia asked her to figure out the chords on
the piano. After a while of fumbling about, he told her to do it
for next week. He asked Courtenay Green 02 what was the most
important thing to her, and asked her to come up with the first
line of a song about it on the spot.
The class was nerve-wracking. But Carnelias challenges were
welcome ones, helping each of us confront our particular fear about
songwriting. Adam Ruben 01 called it "the most profoundly
insightful first class I've had here at Princeton." Carnelias
simple message was the same as Hunseckers: dont be afraid.
Fast-forward to Sweet Smell. Seconds before intermission, Carnelia
stood up, grabbed his bag and coat, and shuttled toward the exit.
As the lights turned on I tore down the stairs, through the lobby,
out the doors, and up and down the street, but couldnt find
him. When my dad came out, I related my dismay.
"Isnt that him?" he replied, pointing a finger toward
the mustached man, standing in the crowd.
I approached him. "Are you Craig Carnelia?" I said.
He was indeed.
So why did you quit the class? The answer confirmed my fear
the problem was us.
"The energy in the room that day was so low," he said,
that he didnt feel it justified the time put into it. Even
more stingingly: "Some people were such novices."
That was March 8. A month later I went to see Humpty Dumpty,
the new play at McCarter Theater written by Eric Bogosian. The writer-performer
is famous for his plays and one-man shows that angrily rail against
commercialization, suburbanization, and other plagues of contemporary
This past fall Bogosian was scheduled to teach a course on writing
and performing monologues that I was signed up to take. Cadden feared
this next big name recruit would also quit which he did,
this time before the first session.
I saw Bogosians one-man show Wake Up and Smell the Coffee
at McCarter last spring. I disliked the show for the same reason
I disliked the rest of his collected works, which I slogged through
over the summer in preparation for his seminar. Bogosian fancies
himself a cutting edge, offensively brutal cultural critic, but
his works are instead plagued by clichés in both language
and ideas. In Coffee, for example, he complained about airplane
I enjoy almost every play I see. But I was ready to hate Humpty
Dumpty. And I did.
I wanted to confront Bogosian about the class, so I figured Id
look for him in the audience or prowl McCarters backstage
after show. Conveniently, Bogosian appeared for a post-show question
and answer session. Afterward, I walked up to the stage, grabbed
his attention, and asked why he quit.
After complaining that I should have asked questions during the
session, Bogosian said he didnt have time to both teach the
class and perfect his masterpiece. He tried to save face with the
excuse that "the guy in charge" (Cadden?) wasnt
very "forthcoming" about discussing the course.
So we were abandoned by two professors whose own journey to success
was evidently more important than ours.
I find celebrity professors appealing, even if their particular
artistry or scholarship doesnt move me. I asked Peter Singer
to be my JP adviser. I showed up early on sign-up day to make sure
I got into Joyce Carol Oatess fiction-writing section. Steve
Forbes 70 came to my Politics and the Press seminar freshman
year. Last spring, Arthur Kopit brought our playwriting class to
rehearsals of the McCarter production of his play Because He
Can. Poet C.K. Williams got called out of class for a phone
call and returned to announce, "Ive just won the Pulitzer
Prize." In my current American Studies class on presidential
speeches, former Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol entertains us
with White House stories. Even the nominal fame of academic celebrities
such as John DiIulio and Amy Gutmann gave their classes a spark
of excitement that wouldnt have been there if the professors
were merely great teachers.
Why are famous professors so alluring? Is it that we trust famous
people to give better advice because they evidently know how to
achieve success? Do we secretly buy into celebrity-worship, simply
wanting to be close to them? Do we hope theyll write us recommendations
or use their renown to find us jobs? Or are they inspirational role
models, pictures of how we hope to turn out?
Probably a mixture of all four. Like J.J. Hunsecker with his protégé
Sidney Falco, we want all professors, famous or not, to take us
under their wings, devote time to us, to give us confidence that
our work can one day be as important as theirs is now.
My own fame and fortune seems far away. Next year, the closest I
could get is working in the mailroom of a Hollywood talent agency.
Princeton, on the other hand, is a fairy-tale world. When we pass
Toni Morrison on McCosh Walk, we empathize with Sidney when he sings:
"Im so close I can smell the smell of success."
You can reach Zach at firstname.lastname@example.org