Explore Washington D.C.

My Washington: Murray Horwitz

Getting to know the special projects director of Washington Performing Arts

Horwitz took a circuitous—albeit illustrious—route to his current post as special projects director for Washington Performing Arts. After a stint as a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus clown, he co-wrote the award-winning musical “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” created NPR’s news quiz show “Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me!” and even acted on stage and screen. Here, he chats about his colorful past, WPA’s 50th season and what he loves about D.C.

Why did you want to be a circus clown?
The idea of making thousands of people laugh at once without saying a word—and getting paid for it—was irresistible.

How did your evolution from clown to arts administrator come about?
I’d always been interested in public service and in art, and Washington offers so many opportunities to combine the two. When I saw a chance to work at the National Endowment for the Arts, I leapt at it. It prepared me very well for positions at NPR, AFI, and now, Washington Performing Arts.

How did you come up with the show “Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me!”?
I always say that some of the best ideas are the dumbest. “Let’s have a news quiz for NPR listeners.” Duh! You don’t have to be a genius to come up with that. But I guess it became a comedy show because a clown thought of it.

Which of your many roles in the arts is your favorite?
I love them all, but there’s nothing like the feeling you get when you realize something you’ve written—a song or a show—may actually survive you. So, playwright and lyricist, especially when what you wrote is a hit.

Dionne Warwick at the Marian Anderson 75th Anniversary concert
Dionne Warwick at the Marian Anderson 75th Anniversary concert, one of Horwitz’s special projects (©Chris Burch, courtesy Washington Performing Arts)

How has D.C.’s arts scene changed since WPA started?
There’s been tremendous growth in the variety and number of performances in music, dance, theater, opera and film exhibition. That competition has brought an accompanying increase in artistic quality. Here, though—and all over the country—it’s become increasingly difficult to get audiences to even the best live performances.

How do you overcome that?
There’s a variety of audiences, and we reach out to them in many ways from grassroots campaigns to newspaper ads to social media. But it’s the excellence of the shows themselves, [offering] something audiences can’t get anywhere else in town, that attracts people.

Describe D.C.’s performing arts scene in three words.
Active, world class and improving

What special projects are you working on now?
WPA’s 50th anniversary activities; co-authoring a new play, “Freedom Rider”; and a children’s musical based on the songs of Peter, Paul and Mary at Washington’s Adventure Theater-MTC.

Wynton Marsalis rehearsing with Shenandoah Conservatory Orchestra at Strathmore
Wynton Marsalis (left) rehearsing with Shenandoah Conservatory Orchestra for his “Blues Symphony” at Strathmore (Courtesy Washington Performing Arts)

Who is your dream “get”?
Oh, my gosh! I’m fond of saying that life isn’t an all-star game. We get to work with the very best artists: Wynton Marsalis, Yo-Yo Ma, Roseanne Cash. We even got Jessye Norman and M.C. Hammer together on the same stage! So, amazingly, most of my dreams have come true. But if I had to pick one artist, it would be Wynton. We’ve worked together very closely over the years, but he still astonishes me. Somehow, we all become better people when we’re touched by him—in performance and in person.

Which act are you most excited about this season?
I’m going cheat and say “duos”: Pianists Jeremy Denk and Jason Moran, bassists Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer, and Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax playing Beethoven. But I’m tremendously excited about our “Deep River” project [from “The Art of the Spiritual,” Nov. 7], with our Men and Women of the Gospel Choir, the PostClassical Ensemble, and bass-baritone Kevin Deas.

What do you love most about Washington?
The people—the diversity and spirit of both natives and immigrants. As for the people who work in government and public policy, in my experience, nearly all—regardless of their politics—are sincere and well-motivated. Most are here because they want to make the country—and the world—better.

Where are you going next?
Kansas City, for the opening of “Freedom Rider”

Something you never leave home without?
Well, I try not to leave without my wife, Lisa. But I always take earphones—not earbuds! I have to have music.

If you could wake up anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would it be?
The obvious answer is “at home,” but Paris is a close second.