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April 24, 2002:

By Zach Pincus-Roth ’02

A whiff of celebrity
Stars teach at Princeton, sometimes only a day

Early in Broadway’s 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 of them.

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 king’s-eye view of everyone who paid full price, I suddenly spotted a familiar mustached man sitting on the aisle of the orchestra section.

"That’s him," I said to my dad.

Last spring, Sweet Smell’s 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 Carnelia’s 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." Carnelia’s simple message was the same as Hunsecker’s: don’t 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 couldn’t find him. When my dad came out, I related my dismay.
"Isn’t 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 didn’t 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 America.

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 Bogosian’s 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 food.
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 I’d look for him in the audience or prowl McCarter’s 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 didn’t 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?) wasn’t 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 doesn’t 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 Oates’s 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, "I’ve 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 wouldn’t 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 they’ll 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: "I’m so close I can smell the smell of success."

You can reach Zach at zacharyp@princeton.edu