Murrow by Joseph Vitale, directed by Jeremy Williams, and starring Joseph J. Menino in a fine rendering of the iconic newsman, is a fascinating look at one of last century’s most exceptional journalists Edward R. Murrow. Unless you saw the film Good Night and Good Luck or are a journalism major, you may not be acquainted with the rich voice, the somber, grave look, the deep intoning of the news presented with style and gravitas by Murrow. The play recalls the meat of the man in his elegant writing, powerfully expressed dramatic concepts, astute phrasing and pointed news delivery that are unforgettable and that made Murrow one of the most respected newsmen of all time.
Vitale’s play weaves quotes from selected broadcasts and letters, reconstructing Murrow’s life from biographies by Alexander Kendrick, A.M. Sperber, and recollections and chronicles of conversations by Fred W. Friendly with Janet Murrow and David Schoenbrun.
Director Jeremy Williams shepherds Joseph J. Menino through the solo performance, together wisely crafting a Murrow out of history and authenticity, but Menino’s performance is not an impersonation. Murrow was one of a kind, and it was his words and delivery that spoke the loudest of all. These, the playwright, director, and Menino adhere to with precision, and the effect is engrossing.
The production, thanks to the design team, creates a great period atmosphere, including its sounds (railroad train whistles, music, the movement of trains, etc.), marvelous black and white screen projections of photographs (of his childhood, various settings in the U.S. and Europe during WWII), and engaging and enlightening audio-visual tapes as an assist to chronicle Murrow’s life and journey toward broadcast news greatness.
Along the journey we learn about his parents, his Christian upbringing with its staunch values and ethics, his college years, his influencers and mentors (Ida Lou Anderson-speech teacher, Bob Trout master newscaster). The account which is staged well by Williams, keeps Murrow physically moving to various sections of the set to illustrate and convey his passage through life events and thoughtful moments in his study. We discover how he eventually ended up crossing the country, how he met his wife Janet and ended up working for a small struggling network of radio stations whose owner Bill Paley dreamed to make it a national network.
Vitale selects the most pivotal events to reveal how Murrow eventually moved into radio journalism as a fluke during his early days, and how his accumulated experience as a radio broadcast journalist helped shape the times. Eventually his limpid and deep tones enthralled radio audiences as “the only free game in town” to sustain the them through the sorrow and privations of the depression.
A strength of the play is in its historical record of the depression, WWII and the aftershocks of the war with the panic of the Red Scare. Each of these Murrow experienced on the ground. The play’s high points represent the most vital, affecting aspects of his journalistic writing and soulful delivery of the news. We learn how as a London radio broadcaster he was one of the few, strong American voices to convey the plight and courage of the British during the nightly German bombing of London.
The playwright includes snatches of interesting insight into Edward and Janet Murrow’s life during that time. Both refused to seek sanctuary in the bomb shelters believing, that everywhere was unsafe–including the shelters.
Vitale’s characterization paints the impression that Murrow risked his life as a symbolic, empathetic stand with the British, so heartfelt was his response to their homelessness, their terror, and their mourning. These sections are powerful reminders of a time with which most of us are unfamiliar. Those who lived then and are in their 80s and 90s today will never forget that time and Murrow. His voice evoked pictures with his words so the listening public could understand and envision the events and eventually give support to the war effort to help the Allies.
The play views history through the prism of Murrow’s heart and it is an amazing vantage. We even witness what he saw at the liberation of the Concentration Camp Buchenwald, told in bleak, emotional, but restrained language accompanied black and white footage of the camp, the liberation and shots of the starving prisoners. The footage of Buchenwald and other camps were scenes General Dwight D. Eisenhower made sure to capture because he claimed (with quite a bit of foresight) that generations later, some might deny that such events at the camps ever took place.
By the time the war was over Murrow had become a star and was ready for broadcast TV news which he never was fond of, and which he believed would be a detriment to the audience who would become deaf to the words and brainwashed by the visuals. Indeed, though hearing is the last sense to go, radio activated the imagination which TV visuals replaced and for that reason, made the viewer a cold voyeur and non participant. Though seeing is the most dazzling sense, visuals can deceive and Murrow understood that danger. With TV, he knew he was on a different battlefield and he was prescient in his comments about its detriments and its dangers.
But by the time his country needed his efforts against McCarthy, Murrow was ready for the visuals. The play includes Murrow’s synopsis of his iconic program indicting and taking to task the bullying exploitation of Senator Joseph McCarthy and this gang at The House Un-American Activities Committee (Good Night and Good Luck is based on this event). As Murrow clarifies, this was no small feat; his and Friendly’s careers were at great risk unless the right measure of truth was given so that McCarthy was left hanging by his own words and actions and the audience saw him for what he truly was a fear monger, coward and bully.
Williams directs this segment of the play tightly with precision; Murrow’s (Menino is direct and inspiring), speech parts of which Vitale includes verbatim is directed to McCarthy. The audience gets to hear what listeners and viewers heard long ago in Murrow’s writing which is amongst his most trenchant and forceful. In his address to McCarthy, Murrow delivers the swift lightening strokes of irony and blunt truth calling down McCarthy’s disservice to the principles of national freedom. And after he is done with the “Junior Senator” he starkly closes the program with the same farewell used by British citizens during The Blitz, which he had referenced often in his wartime coverage of London: “Good Night and Good Luck.”
For the Brits it was a poignant “goodbye.” As they faced the long nights in shelters or in houses while bombs exploded and tore up the ground, they did not know if they would make it to the next day to again see the sunrise or their pals. Murrow’s use of that tagline becomes sardonic: the actions and behaviors of McCarthy are compared to the fascist bombs against which Murrow joins hands with his audience. The ironic implication is that they need “luck” against McCarthy’s vicious onslaught. And indeed, if McCarthy and others had their way into thinking that Murrow’s censure of him was a “communist plot,” Murrow would have been canned along with Friendly. However, we learn the audience response was overwhelming; the phone lines were at a meltdown-in today’s parlance, the site crashed. Murrow and Friendly went into history winning the war against McCarthy that no one then really understood the extent to which they were in a hazard and close to defeat.
The one good thing about TV which Murrow underestimated that went in his favor? You never scoff or ignore “good ratings success.” The response to the show skyrocketed and Murrow became more famous than ever. But it was not to last as TV news became an entertainment show commercially based and advertisers gained more control of programming decisions. The atmosphere of news programming and the news became like the network satirized in Sidney Lumet’s Network (brilliantly written by Paddy Chayefsky). The era of Murrow, journalistic ethics, news credibility and truth ended.
The play is beautifully written and kudos goes to Menino for his portrayal of Murrow and to Williams for recreating the historical elements. It is a must see to gain an understanding of the finest pieces of journalism and ethical behavior by an icon of the news industry. We shall never see his like again. Murrow is being presented by the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble at The Wild Project until May 22nd. You don’t want to miss it.