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Review: How Broadway got to boom times, from a veteran theater gossip

A book jacket for "Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway," by Michael Riedel. Credit: Simon & Schuster
(Simon & Schuster)

On the Shelf

Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway

By Michael Riedel
Avid Reader: 352 pages, $28

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Michael Riedel, the New York Post’s mischief-making Broadway columnist for more than two decades, has chronicled with incendiary flamboyance the backstage dramas of megalomaniacal producers, peremptory divas and the cowering artists caught in the crossfire. His Walter Winchell radar is acutely attuned to upcoming flops, a prospect that never fails to get his tabloid juices flowing.

A British director on the receiving end of some unflattering ink once knocked Riedel to the floor at a popular Broadway watering hole. The news gleefully spread through the theater district, hastened by the question of how Riedel would take revenge in his next column.

Reading Riedel has long been mandatory for theater insiders. They may complain about his journalistic practices, his tendency to sensationalize and distort, his refusal to let a fair review of the facts get in the way of a good scoop, his speculative and often erroneous conclusions. But his copy is sinfully entertaining, full of dish and drama and delivered with the wicked wit Broadway pros can’t help but admire.

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He’s been on furlough during the pandemic, so it’s a pleasure to encounter his impish voice in “Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway.” Riedel’s latest book of Broadway history, as rich in conflict as a Shakespeare history play, is enlivened by his piercing eye for showbiz detail. But it’s also limited by a perspective more attuned to box office grosses than creative value.

Riedel picks up the story where he left off in “Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway,” his earlier chronicle tracing the resurrection of Broadway from the recessionary 1970s through the British mega-musical invasion of the 1980s and early ’90s. The new 42nd Street is dawning, and with it new financial burdens and possibilities. Riedel tells the story of how Broadway became a global brand in the 1990s, attracting high rollers with deep pockets and occasionally dubious ethics.

The downside of turning New York’s famed theater district into a theme park for tourist dollars is drowned out in the “triumph” of Riedel’s subtitle. “Singular Sensation” is written from the standpoint of producers and publicists, Broadway’s moneychangers. Artistic merit matters less than commercial success. These two value systems become confused — not just by the book’s cast of characters but also by the author himself. A lucrative run is seen as vindication from carping critics; a canny Tony campaign bears out a producer’s faith in his artistic acumen.

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An equal opportunity offender, Riedel is in no one’s pocket. His contrary streak makes his reporting essential even if his proximity to the material hampers his storytelling.

In “Razzle Dazzle,” he constructed a narrative around two titans of the Shubert Organization, Bernard Jacobs and Gerald Schoenfeld, to distill the history of a resurgent Broadway era he was for the most part too young to know firsthand. In “Singular Sensation,” which is focused on a period when he was a scrappy theater columnist at the New York Daily News and the New York Post, Riedel settles for an inventory of hits in a survey that reads at times like a compilation of magazine articles.

Michael Riedel, New York Post theater reporter and author of "Singular Sensation."
(Anne Wermiel/Anne Wermiel)

Fortunately, many of the shows — “Rent,” a galvanizing revival of “Chicago,” “Angels in America,” “The Lion King” and “The Producers” — have epochal heft. These productions track the changing zeitgeist of Broadway as it reacquainted itself with popular culture.

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A new breed of renegade producer was ascendant. Chapters are devoted to the creative accounting of Garth Drabinsky, the Canadian impresario who brought “Ragtime” to Broadway before serving time in Canada for defrauding the shareholders of his production company, Livent. Disney’s incursion into Times Square naturally receives its due, with “Beauty and the Beast” ushering in a battalion of storybook creatures.

Riedel recounts the way Broadway initially snubbed the obscenely expensive “Beauty and the Beast,” dismissing it “as a theme park show” and “giving the 1994 Tony for best musical to Stephen Sondheim’s short-lived ‘Passion.’” But — tellingly — he lets Michael Eisner, chief executive officer and chairman of the Walt Disney Co., have the last word: “But we won the Bank of America award, so it was okay.”

The plight of new plays on Broadway is intermittently lamented, but celebrity casting rides to the rescue. “The formula for attracting big stars to Broadway by offering them limited runs and a share of the profits reinvigorated the market,” Riedel writes, declining to probe beyond producers’ balance sheets. As he sees it, the Broadway play was on the rebound after a spate of largely forgettable British imports. (David Hare’s “The Blue Room,” starring Nicole Kidman, is commended for a marketing campaign that made the most of the blurb “pure theatrical Viagra.”)

As COVID-19 keeps theaters in prolonged darkness, Patti LuPone talks about career survival, the future of Broadway, Trump and Black Lives Matter.

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When he wants to paint a portrait of theatrical brilliance, Riedel is supremely adept. In re-creating Julie Taymor’s staging of “Circle of Life,” the opening number in “The Lion King,” he writes of the way the poetic stagecraft established the show’s unique mode of enchantment: “The orchestra began playing, slowly at first, Elton John’s theme as the giant sun, nothing but bamboo and silk, rose from the back of the stage. Two life-size giraffe puppets loped in from stage left. A cheetah puppet appeared from stage right, licking its paw.” By the end of the song, theatergoers at the first public performance, “stunned at the beauty of what they were seeing, began to cheer.”

Riedel, however, is at his best with backstabbing and betrayal. The opening chapter on “Sunset Boulevard” has all the drama of a Ryan Murphy limited series, and indeed while reliving the feud between composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and Patti LuPone, the musical’s original and (eventually axed) star, I secretly hoped Murphy would option Riedel’s book and let LuPone, Glenn Close, Faye Dunaway and Betty Buckley play themselves in the theatrical version of “Survivor” that some found more enthralling than the musical itself.

“Singular Sensation” ends stirringly at the curtain call of “The Producers” for the first performance after 9/11. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, the show’s stars, “joined hands with the cast and led fifteen hundred people in tears through ‘God Bless America.’”

Riedel tacks on an epilogue in which he argues that the last two decades have sprung from the commercial leaps and bounds the industry made in the ‘90s. “Broadway,” he concludes, “is in the midst of its new Golden Age.” It’s an optimistic thought, but Broadway at the moment is closed. The economic reality is more dire than it was after 9/11. No one knows what will be possible when we reopen. Many are dreaming not of a restart of the Disneyfied Broadway Riedel celebrates, but rather a reset — toward a more diverse, equitable and artistically emboldened Broadway culture.

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