Michael Riedel can be a jerk and a shill, but he’s also the most irresistible theater reporter alive.
The reason theater people loathe him is also what’s made him a great columnist since 1998. Every week in the New York Post, he talks trash, slings dirt, and nurses grudges in a smug persona that is a mix of Walter Winchell and the Iron Sheik. He writes about backstage gossip the way talk radio hosts discuss sports, which is to say, as if it’s the most important and dramatic thing in the world.
The first time I met him, I had just been named the writer of the now defunct Friday theater column at the New York Times, which meant we were competitors in an old newspaper war for scoops on the rialto. He invited me for a drink and when we met on 44th street, he extended his hand the way an imperious king might approach a subject, flashed a devilish smile, and said: “Kiss the ring.”
He’s just as fun on the page as he is in life. Riedel doesn’t so much write a column as perform it, making himself the main character, forever stirring the pot, consulting spies, predicting doom. No reporter calls a hit earlier (he first trumpeted the historic advance sales for Larry David’s Fish in the Dark) or a closing notice faster (he regularly taunted Spider-Man: Turn on the Dark and even predicted its closing prematurely). But Riedel is at his best as a vulture circling a troubled show (“I’m not your f--king puppet,” Al Pacino snaps at Pam McKinnon, director of his new play China Doll, in last week’s column) or a scold airing a grievance. His mockery of Bernadette Peters missing shows in Gypsy put focus on a key issue to a Broadway dependent on stars. The most damning quotes always come from “insiders” or other anonymous sources, which he uses so often that he does it out of habit more than necessity, like the time he quoted an unnamed source saying appearing on the Tonight Show is “good exposure.”
Riedel, who played himself on the NBC series Smash and co-hosts his own TV show Theater Talk with Susan Haskins, applies a different standard to seasoned producers, courting through brazen flattery (“Fran and Barry Weissler are as tough and as shrewd as they come”) or gentle pats on the back (such as his friendly support for Wicked producer David Stone’s If/Then, the kind of intimate musical he typically mocks). Riedel is also happy to be used as a weapon, such as when he warned British producers of Matilda before they transferred to New York that they could have problems if they didn’t partner with an experienced Broadway producer. Like many of his columns, it’s pushing an agenda, yet it’s inadvertently revealing of how the producing class truly thinks. When he fabricated a self-aggrandizing story about how he got a quote from David Mamet while a reporter sent from the Times—me—tried and failed, I never thought of asking for a correction, even though I was attending the event off the clock and wasn’t chasing Mamet down. What fool expects Michael Riedel to be accurate?
His most important deception is the one at the core of his persona. Riedel portrays himself as the scourge of the big guys, the producers and theater owners, when he is more often in their pocket. For instance, you will rarely read something negative by him about a show produced by Stone or Scott Rudin, and if you do, there’s a damn good story behind it. But that’s just the usual horse-trading. More damningly, his column purveys the prejudices of the people who bankroll Broadway shows. The distinction between financial and artistic success is blurry at best. Shows are either flops or hits, not good or bad. A bias toward a good story is forgivable in a columnist, but one toward the rich and powerful is not.
In his lively, entertaining, and lumpy first book Razzle Dazzle: The Battle For Broadway—blurbed, natch, by Rudin, along with Hugh Jackman and Kevin Spacey—Riedel brings the strengths and weaknesses of his column to an admirable project: a sweeping history of the business of Broadway. Instead of focusing on stars, composers, and playwrights, Riedel tells the less-trod story of the most powerful institution in the commercial theater over the past century: the Shubert Organization.*
Broadway is really a real estate business, and its biggest player is the Shuberts. Founded by three brothers at the end of the 19th century, the Shubert Organization owns 17 of the 40 theaters on Broadway (they also own Off-Broadway and regional stages), making them the biggest landlord in New York theater. Since many theaters are booked with long-running hits, space is precious, and the Shubert Organization, which once also produced shows, has a huge amount of leverage in deciding what musicals and plays get a home, and when.
Riedel’s book is roughly split in half. The first part is a fascinating rise-and-fall-and-rise story: The Shubert family builds their empire, the empire collapses during the Depression, and when the bank puts the theaters up for auction, Lee Shubert, one of the two brothers who ran the company, buys them—which is the reason modern Broadway exists, defining the heart of arguably the most famous neighborhood in the world, Times Square. This business story, though, may bore those looking for dish about stars and shows, which is perhaps why Riedel switches gears in the second half and focuses on a few signal Tony races, presenting marvelous portraits of larger-than-life characters like A Chorus Line director Michael Bennett and legendary producer David Merrick. But the real heroes of this more argumentative section are two lawyers who took over the Shubert Organization in the 1960s, Gerald Schoenfeld and Bernie Jacobs (both of whom have passed)—who, according to Riedel, saved the commercial theater from ruin.
Riedel’s modern history hinges on the questionable argument that the biggest problem facing Broadway in those years was the decline of Times Square. By the 1960s, crime rates soared, porn shops scared away audiences, and ticket sales plummeted. Schoenfeld made it his crusade to clean up the streets, building the League of American Theaters into a political force that put pressure on the city to police crime in midtown. Riedel does a nice job illustrating how Broadway was behind the “I ♥ New York” campaign. While most histories of the cleaning-up of the theater district focus on Disney and the policies of Rudy Giuliani, Riedel argues this process began with the Shubert Organization’s efforts decades earlier. “By the close of the 1970s,” Riedel writes. “Broadway was in better shape than ever.”
While books like Easy Riders, Raging Bulls suggest the scrappy economics of Hollywood in the 1970s allowed for more creativity, Riedel presents the opposite narrative. For Riedel, Broadway rises when its economy soars. As evidence that the cleaning-up of Broadway led to a new golden age, he presents Phantom of the Opera and the other English mega-musicals of the next decade. Riedel waves away the charge that spectacle-driven shows crowded out more ambitious work. “At the close of the eighties,” he writes, “Schoenfeld and Jacobs could, from their offices above the Shubert Theatre, look down on a thriving theatrical empire, much of which they built.”
In building the case for the Shubert heads as saviors, though, Riedel gives short shrift to some of the real factors that turned Broadway into an economically healthy, if culturally marginal tourist attraction. In Benedict Nightingale’s book Fifth Row Center, about the 1983-84 Broadway season, Nightingale diagnoses the dismal economics of Broadway this way: “Up go costs, so up must go prices, so down go audiences, so up must go prices again, along with those unceasing costs.” The transformation of the business of Broadway occurred when this vicious cycle was broken, starting in the 1980s and ’90s. Producers raised prices, down went the audience, so they just found a new one—outside of New York. Today’s Broadway is geared toward out-of-towners, including those who don’t speak English. In 1980, 70 percent of ticket-buyers lived in New York and 30 percent were tourists. Those numbers are now reversed. Today, Broadway theaters are usually filled, but that doesn’t mean it’s a golden age. Riedel’s worldview appears incapable of considering that what’s good for box office might be bad for the theater.
Riedel begins his book describing rampant corruption on Broadway in the first half of the 20th century. In those days, theaters withheld tickets to hit shows and charged marked-up prices, pocketing the difference, which was called ice. Schoenfeld, Riedel writes, provided information that helped the government crack down on Broadway, and in a dramatic opening vignette, decades later the assistant district attorney sends Schoenfeld a note saying, “You’re one of the people who helped save the theater in 1963.” Riedel seems to agree.
But that’s preposterous. The theater belongs to the artists more than the owners, and the best era for Broadway was hardly the one most free of corruption and flush with money. Take 1950, when the ice Riedel decries was prevalent, the number of productions were dwindling, and there was fierce new competition from movie houses and the rise of television. But it was also the year Guys and Dolls and South Pacific premiered, and Death of a Salesman finished its original run.
Moreover, ice didn’t go away. It essentially just became legal when producers started charging for premium tickets. (The Producers’ $480 ticket was the turning point.) It’s the kind of irony you wish Riedel appreciated. But he’s less interested in making historical connections, or in interrogating this notion that financial success trumps artistic success, than he is in clinging to a nostalgic vision of Broadway.
Luckily for us, that nostalgic vision includes embracing the nastiness and dirt that inevitably get produced when big personalities put on big shows. Starting with the early 1980s, Riedel turns his attention away from economics and toward the Tony battle for best musical between Dreamgirls and Nine. When Nine got a good review from a television critic, Michael Bennett, who directed Dreamgirls, silenced a party at his Central Park South penthouse, Riedel reports, shattering his TV screen by throwing a tumbler of vodka, then heading to the kitchen and returning with two bottles of Cristal to toast the rival show. His account of the Tony ceremony includes this classic Riedel aside: “There never was an explanation for why Cher sang and stripped with a bunch of gay polar bears.” This section, as well as his reporting on Tim Rice’s Chess (in which the giant mechanical chess pieces didn’t move, so they had to put actors inside them), and on the ferocious battle over destroying three Broadway theaters to put up a hotel, are like meatier versions of his column, packed full of juicy anecdotes of theater people behaving badly, delivered in punchy prose: “During Cats, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Trevor Nunn, and set designer John Napier all left their wives for younger women playing cats.”
As in his column, Riedel is at his best when he digs deep into the gossip and backstabbing, and is ultimately limited by a narrow perspective. That’s one reason why, in recent years, his column has lost a little of its buzz. Today the real home of important drama is Off-Broadway, and the Internet is where much gossip has migrated. In his column, Riedel never adjusted to either change, sticking narrowly to Broadway and spurning Twitter. While critics often come off as catty and powerful sadists in his reporting, Riedel doesn’t explore how this new era has decimated the theater press. Recently, Riedel himself became a victim, with his column being cut from twice a week to just once. For those of us who care about a vital, energetic theater press, it was sad if unsurprising news.
Most of the fights that Riedel was once in the middle of have moved online; while he’s recently been doing his damnedest to become an irritant to the celebrated blockbuster Hamilton, but he’s having trouble making anyone mad at him—in part because the best dirt he can get is petty Tony voters, annoyed their free tickets are for weeknight shows.
Riedel remains a wonderful character, but he has begun to seem like a slightly tragic one, clinging to old ways as the world shifts beneath his feet. Is the last larger-than-life Broadway columnist heading for his curtain call? My sources tell me it’s a possibility, but if it happens, the theater will be a far more boring place.
*Correction, Nov. 3, 2015: Due to an editing error, this article originally misspelled the name of the Shubert Organization and the Shubert family.
Razzle Dazzle: The Battle For Broadway by Michael Riedel. Simon & Schuster.