Michael Riedel’s Theatrical Tell-All Is Reissued in Trade Editio
By: Ellis Nassour
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, fresh out of university was in a top
editorial position, was being vindictive in print toward an actor, I, a lowly
contributor, politely castigated him, saying, “You’ll never get anywhere being
cruel.” He roared with laughter. He’s shown you can make a career out of it –
if you don’t mind stepping on toes and hurting people.
Not only are his columns eagerly devoured, but Riedel has a loyal TV following
for 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 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, but
you can’t wait to read it – however, 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]. Of his
columns, he has stated they are “snarky and sarcastic and sneering and preening
and full of silly jokes.” He notes that he’s never regretted a column, stating
that he’s devoid of “empathy, compassion, sympathy.”
Riedel’s come a long way, finally with 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/and new trade edition; two notated
B&W photo sections; B&W double-trunk endpapers of the Deuce before and
after Disney [in the hardcover]; 10 pages of source notes; four-page
bibliography; index; SRP $27; Trade, $17), formerly on the NYTimes
best-seller list. Throughout the book, are numerous footnotes, well worth
The book is not so much about theater as it is about how those in theater get
power, hold onto it, and what they do with it – “and, ultimately, how power
affects them.” To get the nitty gritty, Riedel digs and goes to the sources –
those who lived it. He has stated, “I was not there — so it was not my job to
comment on the decisions they made, why they made them.”
There isn’t a lot or razzle dazzle in 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
notable ones [for instance, the Shubert brothers) 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; the death
and rebirth of Broadway with players such as Merrick, Prince, Fosse, and
Bennett; the game-changing 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
The most entertaining portion of the book 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
Dreamgirls, with music by Henry Krieger and lyrics/book by om
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 Theatre
on West 45th Street, and was nominated for 13 Tonys, including Best Musical –
and won six.
Nine, an adaption of Fellini’s semi-autobioraphical 8½ by Mario
Fratti with a score by Maury Yeston, was an Tommy Tune 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. 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 abut, which led to
stories of trembling walls from amped music and fierce name-calling. There were
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
powerful critic Frank Rich. Sadly, Bennett, recovering from the failure of Ballroom,
returns to the drugs and heavy drinking that began during production of the
West End Chess.
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. The
musical’s failure on Broadway, which almost bankrupted Rice, was puzzling. It
had great actors, voices, and a stunning production. Many said the fatal
mistake was the addition of a book.
Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway continues onward and upward with
Sondheim’s critically-acclaimed works and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s phenomenon Cats.
Riedel digs deep to recount the creation of two of worldwide theater’s longest
running shows: Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera, both
of which suffered through birth pains and panic, with the latter having
revolving door director choices [first, Hal Prince, then Nunn, then a very
Both opened in the U.K. to blistering or mixed reviews, but had great appeal
with the public. Riedel’s tale of POTO‘s debut on Broadway, after Lloyd
Webber’s duel with Actors Equity over Sarah Brightman and a war among the
Shubert, Nederlander, and Jujamcyn entities to grab the show, aptly serves the
Times Square becomes family friendly after a clean-up and grind houses
returning to legit use. Disney’s entry into theater, not only changes The
Duece, with endless amounts of money and its emergence as a Broadway powerhouse via family entertainment.