Beethoven. Chopin. Mozart. They are some of the greatest composers in the history of classical music. Yet they also received some of the worst reviews from critics when their works debuted.
This dichotomy is at the heart of the new play The Music Critic, which comes to the Chicago Theater on October 26 and stars John Malkovich in a return to the Chicago stage. It’s in which he reads some of the harshest words and biting criticisms of the Baroque masters in his extraordinary oratory, while an ensemble made up of the show’s creator Alexei Igudesman and his frequent partner Hyung-ki Joo, as well as cellist Antonio Lizi, violist Hsin-Yun Huang and violinist Claire Wells play from the musical suites.
Antonín Dvořák was noted as creating “ugly, unnatural music”, while Beethoven was described as knitting together “both pigeons and crocodiles” and Johannes Brahms was simply a “talentless bastard”.
The role is actually quite a match for Malkovich, whose 40-plus year history has been marked by strange, brilliant and unique portrayals, all of which have been loved and also reviled. In fact, the end of “The Music Critic” brazenly adds a brutal critique written about the actor himself in the grand finale number “The Malkovich Torment.”
But rather than simply pondering inexplicable prose or tritely lambasting criticism, there’s a point to the show, which seamlessly blends concert, theater and comedy into one. “When Alexei proposed [‘The Music Critic’] for me, which is 14 years ago, even then I felt this kind of movement, or let’s call it a new development in society, where criticism just can’t be accepted,” Malkovich said in a recent interview alongside Igudesman.
The two initially met through a mutual friend, the Lithuanian-born violinist Julian Rachlin, and first staged The Music Critic in Europe in more than a decade; it’s his first American tour since COVID derailed plans to bring him here in 2020, though the extension served to give the production time to “mature and become the powerful piece that we feel it is Igudesman said.
Perhaps no more relevant than in 2023, when the idea of critique strikes a chord at a more granular level. As Igudesman shares, the production’s universal and timeless subtext is “to show that some things that one person might think are terrible, someone else might think are beautiful… and to show that many things really are a matter of taste.”
Malkovich agreed, adding, “You know, the world is an unkind place sometimes, and so it’s really important to have a sense of self and know what you’ve done or do well and question what you’ve done or done wrong.” … I think it’s unwise to be devastated by the comments on the Internet or the review you got in 1997.”
It’s an aspect that Malkovich has certainly overcome in a “life of self-expression” — and, in fact, he’s come to appreciate the critics. He recalls the 2017 incident at his hometown company, Steppenwolf Theater, in which former Chicago Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss received backlash for his review of the production “Pass Over,” which led to the formation of the Chicago Theater Accountability Coalition and a petition to restrict her access to productions in response.
“It felt like the height of insanity,” Malkovich shared. “Critics say what they say and so what? You have to make a piece what you want it to be. If you did, be happy. If people like it, great. If they don’t, chances are you know what’s wrong with it. I’m old and I’ve made millions of pieces, I think all the ones that weren’t successful I knew what was wrong with them.
In fact, he believes local critics were instrumental in the very founding of Steppenwolf when it was founded in 1974 by friends Terry Kinney, Jeff Perry and Gary Sinise. (Malkovich joined in 1976 as a charter member.) “When Steppenwolf Theater started, our lives were actually made possible by [Chicago theater critics] Richard Christiansen and Glenna Saiz and Michael VerMeulen and Lenny Kleinfeld and on and on and on,” Malkovich said. “But that doesn’t mean they love everything a person does.”
Although Malkovich has retired from his active tenure with Steppenwolf, he remains a member of the ensemble and is still on good terms. In fact, he was scheduled to return to the Chicago stage in January with an Auditorium Theater production of “The Infernal Comedy” (presented by Steppenwolf), but it was canceled due to scheduling problems as the ongoing Screen Actors Guild strike put several productions on Malkovich set to be part of detention.
“My relationship [with Steppenwolf] it’s good, now I’m just doing other things,” Malkovich said. “A new generation of people is out there and I wish them luck.”