Michael Riedel, “Razzle Dazzle” and the Battle for Broadway

Photo by Anne Wermiel.

The boldface names who appear in Riedel’s column (or on the PBS Theater Talk series he co-hosts with Susan Haskins) know that he’s not only shrewd, but smart.

It’s the smart Riedel who’s written Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway, a thick, assiduously researched look at American theater as practiced in New York City. It’s a significant addition to the annals of theater books and, perhaps surprising for the author, it keeps self-aggrandizement off its pages.

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Riedel, whose bona fides go back to when he interned in the office of Broadway producer Elizabeth McCann as a 19-year-old Columbia undergrad, reports in many more words than his columns allow how the Shubert brothers, and later the Shubert Organization, shaped, if not completely controlled, The Great White Way.

It starts with stage-struck Lee, J.J. and Sam Shubert (the latter died early) acquiring theaters in Syracuse, where they were born and raised in poverty, and follows them to Manhattan and the theater empire J.J. and Lee built together, though not necessarily while brimming with brotherly love.

Razzle DazzleIt continues as David Clurman, assistant to then-New York State Attorney General Louis J. Lefkowitz, looked into “ice” schemes — box-office money kicked back to producers — that were prevalent then, and continues with what became of the Shuberts’ empire as a host of characters — Irving Goldman, Lawrence “Larry” Shubert Lawrence (senior and junior), Gerald “Jerry” Schoenfeld, Bernard B. “Bernie” Jacobs, Philip J. Smith and Robert Wankel — take center stage.

Much is made of the ways in which Jacobs and Schoenfeld decried those ice schemes and fought for their demise, and how the lawyers, promoted to lead the Shubert Organization in the 1970s — rescued the foundering domain and made bargains that established it as a singular power of Broadway — and New York City tourism. Riedel often uses a word to succinctly describe the Shuberts and their determined competitors, the Nederlanders: “landlord.” He presents the case (not that it hasn’t been made before) that real estate has been and remains the Shuberts’ primary interest.

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Moving forward chronologically, Riedel also details any number of deals with producers who, it’s hoped, are always preparing a supply of hit shows. One crucial accommodation of the Shuberts is with theater unions:

Producers had grumbled for years, mostly off the record for fear of retribution, that Schoenfeld and Jacobs were ‘giving away the store’ to avoid work stoppages. Generous contracts with the unions, the producers complained, were driving up production costs. Schoenfeld and Jacobs negotiated the deals — but the producers shoulder the costs. And they had little to say at the table.

There was some truth to the charge.

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He goes on to write that the Shuberts believed their workers should be well paid but also pointedly notes that Schoenfeld and Jacobs were averse to strikes that could hamper rent-paying productions.

While painstakingly covering the nuts and bolts of theater management, Riedel more or less alternates his chapters with the stories behind victorious shows in Shubert houses and how they got there.

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Some of them, like A Chorus Line, have been extensively examined elsewhere — in Ken Mandelbaum’s A Chorus Line and the Musicals of Michael Bennett, for example. But Riedel takes Bennett’s close friendship with Jacobs much further, filling in the tension that thickened when Bennett looked into buying the Mark Hellinger Theatre, a move that Jacobs saw as positioning his friend as a competitor. One of many interviews conducted for this volume quotes theatrical lawyer (and Bennett’s lawyer) John Breglio:

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The relationship deteriorated… By the end of his life, Michael didn’t want to see Bernie. He cut him out.

The alliance that earned the Shuberts such bundles — and the Public Theater, which developed, produced and transferred A Chorus Line to Broadway — is only one of many stories that Riedel, who knows how to ferret out juicy backstage snippets, tells. He doesn’t stick to hits like The Phantom of the Opera, over which there was a major kerfuffle with the Nederlanders, but also such flops as Chess, especially the unpleasant run-ins that the Shuberts had with director Trevor Nunn.

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Of Riedel’s myriad interviews (retired general manager Albert Poland quite prominent among them), he quotes Nunn about that musical’s depressing opening night:

I stood at the back of the theater and watched [New York Times critic] Frank Rich and his girlfriend talking and giggling through 70 percent of the show. So the writing was on the wall.

While Riedel puts his gossip-column hat on a peg for most of his book, he does reach for it when he thinks about Rich and that girlfriend, Alex Witchel, now his wife. He gives himself away when he describes Rich as having “slobbered over” Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Had he referred to other critics’ reviews — say, those of Jacques le Sourd, Michael Kuchwara and Martin Gottfried, to all of whom he dedicates Razzle Dazzle, along with his parents — he wouldn’t have designated “slobbered” the operative verb.

As for Witchel, here’s how Riedel describes the way she “clawed” her way to writing the “On Stage, and Off” column for the Friday Weekend section of the Times:

No more sweet interviews with up-and-coming performers. Witchel offered vicious — and delicious — backstage gossip written with a sting.

One could sum up Riedel’s column the same way.

It may be of interest that in more than a few of the book’s interviews, the words “fuck” and “fucking” crop up. Riedel is just recording his interviews verbatim, but the effect is that of showbiz habitués attempting to sound in tune with the going vernacular. Meantime, he gets facts wrong, such as identifying choreographer Onna White as “Oona,” The Rothschilds director Derek Goldby as “Godby,” and the late, lamented theatrical hangout Charlies’ as “Charlie’s.” Minor glitches, needless to say.

As thorough as Razzle Dazzle is, Riedel, having carefully depicted the Shuberts winning battle for Broadway, might have ventured a step or two further and ruminated on what Broadway is today. For many reasons — not the least of which are the Shubert Organization’s concessions to the unions — today’s Broadway may break yearly attendance and box-office records, but there is the sense that it’s a theme park for the well-heeled. Is it possible that the battlefield triumph isn’t quite as triumphant as is widely acknowledged?

Razzle Dazzle‘s book jacket is designed by Rex Bonomelli, who imagines title and author on a Times Square marquee. This no doubt delights Riedel, who so often gives the impression that his ultimate goal is to see his name in lights.