Gritty and Glittery

January 23, 2021   •   By Harrison Hill

Singular Sensation

Michael Riedel

THESE ARE DARK DAYS for theater people. Playhouses sit empty. Performers cash unemployment checks. Broadway remains closed and won’t reopen until May 2021 at the earliest. Many industries have found ways to accommodate our apocalyptic new reality, but commercial theater is not among them. There can be no “outdoor dining” equivalent of a $21 million musical.

Here to fill the void — and to remind us of a better time — is Michael Riedel’s Singular Sensation. This juicy, jaunty book is about Broadway in the 1990s, a period of great change that paved the way for the industry’s recent artistic and financial prosperity. Singular Sensation offers less an explanation of present-day abundance, however, than a reminder of all that has been lost. “I never intended the subtitle of this book — The Triumph of Broadway — to be ironic,” Riedel writes in his foreword. Ironic, alas, it is, though the author insists better times are on their way. “There will be a comeback,” he says, “and Broadway is good at comebacks.”

Riedel’s last book, Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway, tracked the demise and resurgence of New York City, Times Square, and Broadway in the 1970s. Starring two lawyers who took over the Shubert Organization, Broadway’s biggest theater chain, Razzle Dazzle was a relentlessly entertaining piece of cultural history. Riedel, who until his COVID-19 furlough was the much-feared theater columnist at the New York Post, brought his trademark voice — biting, loving — to an epic that was every bit as gritty as it was glittery. He showed how Gerald Schoenfeld and Bernard Jacobs, the hero-lawyers at the center of the book, steered Broadway through fiscal catastrophe and helped deliver New York City into its current affluence. More than just a dishy gossip compendium (though it was that), Razzle Dazzle illustrated just how mutually intertwined the destinies of cities and their arts sectors are.

Singular Sensation has a smaller case to make, and is accordingly a shorter, more narrowly focused book. Much like Razzle Dazzle, it unfolds through a series of show profiles that embody the significant shifts of the era: the decline of the British mega-musical, the reinvigoration of American playwrighting and musical comedy, and the increased corporatization of the producer class. Also like its predecessor, it’s a blast.

We begin with Sunset Boulevard, the musical that effectively ended Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway dominance. By 1993, the year of the show’s American premiere, Lloyd Webber had firmly established his commercial preeminence. The British composer’s productions, which included Cats (1982) and The Phantom of the Opera (1988), delivered unprecedented weekly grosses; Sunset Boulevard, adapted from the 1950 Billy Wilder film, seemed destined to join this run of hits. Production staffers referred to it as “The Female Phantom.”

But there were problems. Stage star Patti LuPone opened the show in London on the understanding that she’d follow it to New York. When Glenn Close won the favor of Lloyd Webber in another pre-Broadway tryout, however, LuPone was fired. On learning the news from a Liz Smith column in the Post, LuPone says she “started screaming […] I had batting practice in my dressing room. I threw a floor lamp out the window.”

This is just the kind of stuff Riedel was born to write about. No one gets a quote like him, or an anecdote that speaks to the alternately vicious and thrilling nature of Broadway. Even when the provenance or accuracy of an observation is hazy, you’re still happy to see it included. To cite one example: According to a production executive, LuPone said that Close “brays like a donkey” and that “her nickname is George Washington because if you look at her in profile her nose meets her chin.” LuPone disputes this account — “He made that up” — to which the executive says, “Given the way she was treated, I’ll let Patti have the last word. But how would I come up with a line like that?” Encountering exchanges like these, you feel a twinge of guilt: why should another person’s pain be my reading pleasure? But then you keep going, keep looking for another such moment to satisfy your showbiz prurience. And on that front, Singular Sensation always delivers.

In Riedel’s telling, the larger significance of Sunset Boulevard’s demise (it closed at a loss) is that it signaled the end of the Lloyd Webber era. Indeed, simultaneous with all the diva drama was a crop of stateside musicals that injected new vitality into the form. Foremost among them was Rent (1996), which brought a contemporary rock sound — and a new generation of theatergoers — to Broadway. Thanks to ticketing innovations now widely used, day-of cheap seats were made available to those willing to wait in line. These queues themselves became almost as famous as the show, even spawning their own press stories; Riedel reports that “[o]ne guard admitted to looking the other way as a young couple had sex in a Coleman tent.” More seriously, Rent attracted a fresh batch of writers to the theater, among them Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton), Robert Lopez (Avenue Q, The Book of Mormon), Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal), and many others.

The 1990s also saw the resurgence of American musical comedy, a genre that hadn’t had much to recommend it for years. Riedel gives an especially zippy account of 1992’s Guys and Dolls revival. Until then, most revivals of classic musicals had been cheap, tired affairs — the beginning or end of a national tour. But Jerry Zaks’s now-legendary staging was approached with the originality (and the budget) traditionally afforded to new productions. Watching the show come together is deeply satisfying — and very funny. When Nathan Lane auditioned for the lead role, there were concerns that he wasn’t Jewish, as was the original star. The director didn’t care: “If he had to perform a circumcision onstage then we might have had issues,” Zaks said. “But where is it written that Nathan Detroit is Jewish?” We watch breathlessly as little adjustments — a trimmed dance number, a nixed prop — collectively function to make the show succeed. You want to applaud when the musical opens and Frank Rich delivers “a review that buys country houses.”

In Riedel’s telling, Zaks’s Guys and Dolls was the ur-text for the musical comedy hits that followed, from The Producers (2001) to Hairspray (2002) to The Book of Mormon (2011). It reasserted a snappy American sensibility that had lain dormant through the mostly ponderous Lloyd Webber years.

It’s not just musicals that fill these pages, though. Riedel also devotes significant attention to playwrights like Edward Albee, Tony Kushner, and August Wilson. The chapter on Kushner’s 1993 epic Angels in America offers little that hasn’t been covered elsewhere (I recommend the 2018 book The World Only Spins Forward, an exquisite oral history of the show by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois), but the Albee profile is fascinating. After early career successes like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), the playwright fell into disfavor; particularly loathed was his 1983 play The Man Who Had Three Arms, which Frank Rich called “a temper tantrum in two acts.” Albee returned to popularity with 1994’s Three Tall Women, and though he kept the play off-Broadway (“They won’t do to me what they did to Tennessee,” he said, speaking of Tennessee Williams’s high-profile late-career evisceration), it did win Albee his third Pulitzer Prize. Interviewed shortly thereafter by The New York Times, Albee offered a customarily wry bit of reflection. “I suppose I will be very warm and cuddly and pleased with myself for a while,” he said. Albee went on to enjoy a period of great success, even winning a Tony Award for a play about a man who has sex with a goat. (Leaving the theater one night, an audience member noticed a police officer on a horse and was overheard asking her companion, “Do you find that horse attractive?”)

Notwithstanding its brush with bestiality, Broadway in the 1990s was an ever more commercial space. In 1995, advertising executive Jed Bernstein was hired to take over the trade organization representing Broadway producers and theater owners. Under his leadership, the group worked to “brand” Broadway as an essential New York City destination. The group staged high-profile industry promotions and entered a sponsorship deal with Continental Airlines that delivered $130 million in free publicity. (In one of many fabulous footnotes, Riedel writes, “There was talk of painting a Broadway plane, but the cost — $500,000 — was prohibitive. And if the plane crashed, well ‘that would be the worst possible thing that could have happened,’ Bernstein said.”)

At the same time, Rosie O’Donnell was giving Broadway a huge new platform on her popular talk show. Enthusiastic and approachable, O’Donnell made theater seem less elitist to the out-of-towners who were making up an ever more sizable portion of the Broadway audience. She invited producers to offer musical performances on her show and made full-throated recommendations to her viewers.

There was no show O’Donnell loved more than The Lion King (1997), Disney’s second foray onto Broadway. (Beauty and the Beast, in 1994, was the first.) Experimental theater-maker Julie Taymor was hired to direct the show — a risky but ultimately inspired choice. Taymor, who had studied masks, puppetry, and other theater forms all over the world, brought a bold and unique sensibility to the project. If Beauty and the Beast had been a relatively literal adaptation of its source material, The Lion King was, under Taymor’s direction, a kind of auteur-meets-pop-culture hybrid. (This was very much by design: Disney chairman Michael Eisner later said, “Putting an artist on a very commercial idea is something I’ve believed in my whole life.”)

The show’s advertising and Tony campaigns reflected this strategy: the musical was marketed not as kiddie entertainment but as high-class culture. According to creative director Rick Elice,

Our pitch was rather brilliant and very, very simple […] The ads say “Disney presents The Lion King.” Our premise was: What if it says “The Royal Shakespeare Company presents The Lion King”? What would the media buy be then? Who would we target? The cognoscenti, the tastemakers, the opinion makers, the people who wouldn’t go to see Beauty and the Beast, but who will go to see Julie Taymor’s brilliant artwork.

When it came time to mount a Tony campaign, Disney execs Peter Schneider and Thomas Schumacher worked to portray themselves as legit theater lovers (as indeed they were) rather than corporate minions. The gambit worked. The Lion King opened to great reviews and sensational box office, and won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It has generated some $8.2 billion worldwide, making it the most profitable piece of entertainment in all of human history.

What to make of The Lion King’s success? Among a certain class of theater types, Disney is Exhibit A in the destructive corporatization of Broadway. Once the domain of artists, Broadway is now just another theme-park outpost — or so the thinking goes. There is some truth to this argument: The Lion King was indeed at the vanguard of other movie-to-stage adaptations and “jukebox” musicals that ransack the song lists of famous boomer musicians. Still, criticisms like these ignore the fact that some “commercial” pieces work wonderfully, and feature the talents of sui generis figures like Julie Taymor. Broadway has furthermore always thrived on adaptation; even classics like My Fair Lady, Cabaret, and Oklahoma! were based on preexisting source materials. To the counterargument that these shows weren’t financed by the likes of Universal Pictures and Warner Bros., I’ll concede the point. Still, looking out at the Broadway landscape Disney helped create, no honest theater person can dismiss it outright. Some movie-studio adaptations are horrendous, and others are fantastic — just as some independent shows are horrendous, and others are fantastic. One always longs to see more productions that burn with originality, that keep you gasping in your seat long after the final ovation, but those who insist that exciting things don’t happen on Broadway are revealing only their failure to find them.

If Singular Sensation has a flaw, it is its reluctance to engage with these ideas; you long to see Riedel weigh the pros and cons of Broadway’s increasingly commercial culture. We may now indeed be in another theatrical golden age, as Riedel claims (and I think I agree), but it wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops out there even before the coronavirus came along. What does Riedel make of the astronomical rise in ticket prices that we’ve seen since the 1990s? What are the costs of becoming a more tourist-oriented industry? Have increasingly long-running shows stifled the creativity of new theater artists? Riedel doesn’t dig into these or other similar questions.

Then again, that’s not Riedel’s beat. You read him for the broadsheet prose, for the swashbuckling verdicts, for the searing quotes. I used to work at a Broadway advertising agency, and I always looked forward to Riedel’s twice-weekly columns. His was a dependably delicious escape from the day — unless of course your show was in his crosshairs, as mine sometimes were. Even then, however, you couldn’t help but delight in the zingers, the scoops, and even the errors. This was Broadway, baby!

Singular Sensation operates according to much the same emphatic, uncomplicated ethos as Riedel’s columns. Clichés abound, but they register as virtues, not irritants. When Riedel writes a sentence like “News of one of the most disastrous previews in Broadway history raced through Shubert Alley,” you roll your eyes, but you also smile, so very happy to be along for the ride. Who wouldn’t welcome such a tonic in these disastrous times? To read Singular Sensation is to feel oneself transported to a primo booth at Bar Centrale, sidecar in hand, with a full night of gossip and celebrity sightings ahead. This book would be a pleasure in any time; these days, it’s almost medicinal in its palliative effects. To put it more simply: the book made me feel better.

Cue applause.


Harrison Hill’s essays and criticism have appeared in The GuardianTravel + LeisureThe American Scholar, The Point, The Threepenny Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. He lives in New York City.