Riveting Books for Holiday Reading: Michael Riedel’s Theatrical Tell-All, and a Downton Abbey Souvenir
By: Ellis Nassour
Come in from the stress of all that rush, rush holiday shopping and theatergoing and nestle next to a blazing fireplace or into a plush sofa to enjoy some diverse reading. These books also make excellent stocking stuffers.
Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway
You know that famous Boston TV bar, Cheers, where everybody knows your name. In theater, that would be true of New York Post’s theater gossip maven Michael Riedel. Everyone who’s anyone and then some know his name. Some have praise for his gotcha journalism as long as it’s in praise of them. Others – well, you know. Riedel wields enormous power – as much as and maybe more than top critics. Producers take his calls and have his ear for any morsel of an exclusive.
Once, at a theater publication where he, I think, fresh out of university, was in a top editorial position, he was being vindictive in print toward an actor. I, a lowly contributor, politely castigated him, saying, "You’ll never get anywhere being cruel." He laughed. Did I bungle that! One of the many times I’ve been wrong. Of course, you can make a career out of it – if you don’t mind stepping on toes and hurting people.
Riedel’s come a long way. His columns are eagerly anticipated. He has a loyal TV following for almost two decades, as co-host with Susan Haskins, on THIRTEEN’s Theater Talk, engaging the crème de la crème of theater folk in insightful conversation. Turning aside from the occasional forays noted above, Riedel has a deep knowledge of the business of show. He digs to get the nitty gritty and manages to make it entertaining.
He can be nice, even charming, but he knows his way around a boiling pot, and how to stir and stir it. Riedel may be the only person who can get blood out of a turnip. Sometimes, you may not like what he writes – and he can be cruel, you can’t wait to read it – and he gets it right 99% of the time.
Anyone who’s followed Riedel knows he can write with beguiling naiveté and has a yen to act [there’s a slim chance he’ll ever be grasping a Tony and the probability I’ll be wrong again]. Now, he finally has his name in lights: on the cover of his theatrical tell-all, Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway (Simon & Schuster; 447 pages; hardcover/e-book; two notated B&W photo sections; B&W double-trunk endpapers of the Deuce before and after Disney; 10 pages of source notes; four-page bibliography; index; SRP $27).
There isn’t a lot or razzle dazzle for 63 pages, as Riedel he takes us through the creation of Broadway as we now know it, the moguls-that-were-and-are, their behind-the-scenes intrigue and power ploys, feather-bedding, and questionable business practices.
Readers may not be too shocked to find some legendary names were corrupt. A few noble ones certainly had more on their minds than ars gratia artis – as in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Latin slogan that translates "art for art’s sake."
Things start to pop with potboiler tales of Broadway’s so-called Golden Age and such important players as Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Porter, Lerner and Loewe, Bernstein, Comden and Green, and Robbins; death and rebirth of Broadway; players such as Merrick, Prince, Fosse, Bennett; the game-changer, A Chorus Line; and the Brit invasion.
It gets more riveting as New York declares war on drugs, massage parlors, and the derelicts of Times Square; then comes urban renewal as historic theatres are razed in the name of progress; and rivalries emerge among producing entities.
The most entertaining portion comes as Riedel builds suspense recounting the bitter battle for awards and audiences of two vastly different musicals, Nine and Dreamgirls. Both had troubled beginnings [one had a leading lady with rapturous reviews who knew how to get under her director’s skin ala antics worthy of Judy Garland], but ended up having huge box office.
Dreamgirls, with music by Henry Krieger and lyrics/book by Tom Eyen, was a fast-paced show biz musical with R&B overtones, about a trio of Chicago vocalists loosely based on The Supremes and Diana Ross’ solo stardom. Directed by Michael Bennett, it opened December 20, 1981 at the Imperial on West 45h Street; and was nominated for 13 Tonys, including Best Musical – and won six.
Nine, an adaption of Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film 8½ by Mario Fratti with a score by Maury Yeston, was an epic-staging with knock-out costumes and sex appeal. As the project developed, Arthur Kopit was hired to further develop the book. Set in a spa in the environs of 60’s Venice, it told of a famous director’s midlife crisis as he turns 40 – his addiction to women, and the loss of creativity. Directed by Tommy tune, it opened May 9, 1982, the absolute deadline for nomination consideration, at the 46th Street [now, Richard Rodgers]; and was nominated for 12 Tonys and, in a heated contest among producers and voters, took home five, including an upset as Best Musical.
Though the entrances are on different streets, the theatres abutted, which led to stories of trembling walls; fierce competition; name-calling; Bennett, recovering from the failure of Ballroom, turning to drugs and heavy drinking; rumors of Oscar-like canvassing for votes; and accusations of payoffs. Then came the error in judgment of a Broadway producer and the betrayal of NYTimes critic Frank Rich.
Subsequent chapters deal with the Brit invasion; the impact of AIDs; the sung-through Chess [a West End smash conceived by Bennett – after a bitter start due to relations with Tim Rice, and ABBA’s Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus; the cover-up of Bennett’s AIDS diagnosis; Trevor Nunn taking over after a blackmail megadeal for a tour of his Nicholas Nickleby – and the musical’s failure on Broadway, with a new concept directed by Nunn, but with the fatal mistake of adding a book.
Razzle Dazzle continues onward and upward with Sondheim’s critically-acclaimed works, the arrival of Les Miserables, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s phenomenons Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, Disney Theatricals’ emergence as a Broadway powerhouse, the world-wide success of Abba’s Mamma Mia!, right through to the changing of the guard at the Shubert Organization.
Downton Abbey: A Celebration
From that first moment in 2010 when we entered the gilded corridors of those born to the manor in Downton Abbey (ITV-UK/PBS/Carnival Films) and the April 1912 news of friends of Britian’s Crawley family going down with the Titanic, Oscar, Emmy, and Golden Globe-winning writer, producer, best-selling author, and actor Julian Fellowes [adaptor of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock] drew us into the evocative and intriguing world of the aristocracy and their servants.
In January, for its sixth season, it’s 1925 and the family is preparing to close its doors. Jessica Fellowes, niece of Julian and author of several Downton chronicles, has created a tribute more than worthy of this Emmy-winning MASTERPIECE phenomenon in – The Downton Abbey — A Celebration – The Official Companion to All Six Seasons (St. Martin’s Press; 320 pages; hardcover/coffee table size; stunning color photos – many full-page and with 11 standout double-trunks; cast profiles; episode guide; Foreword by Julian Fellows; SRP $30).
The book, through Nick Briggs’ magnificent photos and numerous interviews, travels with ease from WWI through suitors, engagements, weddings, heartbreak, death, scandals, snobbery, trials and tribulations, haute décor, and fashions as the Abbey emerges into the modern age.
The series with period drama at its very best is helped immensely by an excellent cast – Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Dame Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary), Jim Carter (Carson), Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes), Brendan Coyle (Bates), Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates) and Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith), Leslie Nicol (Mrs. Patmore), Penelope Wilton (Isobel Crawley); and, among so many others, Sophie McShera (Daisy).
It’s impossible not to credit production designer Donal Woods; costumes by Caroline McCall, Anna Robbins, Susannah Buxton, and Rosalind Ebbut; and cinematography mainly by Nigel Willoughby, Graham Frake, and Gavin Struthers.
Needless to say, Ms. Fellowes had full access to front-of-camera and behind-the-scenes and is an apt guide through the house – upstairs and downstairs.
Don’t miss Sundays A Salute to Downton Abbey (THIRTEEN/PBS; 8 P.M.), a 90-minute special hosted by Lord Crawley himself, Hugh Bonneville that will preview the new season previous ones with clips, interviews with Fellowes, executive producer Gareth Neame, and cast.
Enter the 2016 Downton Abbey Sweepstakes daily through March 15 for a chance to win a six-day/five night trip for two adults from the U.S. to U.K. via Delta Airlines to visit select Downton Abbey and Poldark locations, including Highclere Castle and Cornwall, arranged by VisitBritain; DVD sets of six seasons; and a copy of Downton Abbey: A Celebration. There’re also four monthly prizes. Visit www. Pbs.org/sweepstakes.