Michael Riedel's "Razzle Dazzle": Simply Sensational
I feel compelled to begin my review of Michael Riedel’s sensational book Razzle Dazzle (Simon & Schuster) by stating that many of the things I felt and observed and learned through reading this book have led me—as they will lead you—to some very strong opinions and outlooks about the Broadway theatre and the world in general. My opinions are likely not to be yours, which offers proof that Riedel has set the facts down, within some lapidary prose, as they are, clear and simple, and you can spot barons or bastards; high standards or high crimes; the best of times or the worst of times. This is a book that many of us will be talking about and revisiting for some time.
In a nutshell: Razzle Dazzle is the story of the Shuberts and how they grew; how they met and clashed with the Nederlanders, after which there was brief and bumpy détente; and how the same theatrical families had their moments to save, refurbish, or patch up the dowdy old mistress that is the Broadway theatre. That is the line that runs through Razzle Dazzle, but upon that line are draped some riveting tales of how the Broadway theatre flourished in the years 1940 to 1960, and then entered the longest period of rehab in the world’s history. Within these pages you’ll read of the ascent of Michael Bennett, arguably the greatest talent in our musical theatre in the past forty years, and you’ll shudder as you watch his talent descend into a paranoia fueled by both drug use and his justifiable fear of the Shuberts, who were not afraid to remind their boy wonder that they could be a terrible enemy: They could make and they could break. You’ll also read of the clashes with talents as mighty as that possessed by Bob Fosse and as mercurial as that possessed by Tommy Tune. There are stories of repainting and refiguring theatres and curtain times in order to lure audiences back into the filthy, unsafe side streets on which the plays and musicals were often fruitlessly doing their thing. Through it all are the great tales of the egotistical men, primarily lawyers, who wanted to rent their theatres and make some money and make some names.
Arthur Penn once told me that most producers were short men who wanted to produce great plays and musicals that would make them feel tall. Mike Nichols once told me that most producers were fairly uneducated, and they wanted to produce theatre that created the same feel as leather-bound books in their libraries. Most producers, according to Elia Kazan, are talent-free, and they like to be in the room with some of it, some time, and ogle it like tits on a showgirl. All of these models are in Razzle Dazzle, and in these insecurities many of the men bear some similarity to the men who made movies in what we now call the Golden Age of Hollywood, and Riedel is expert in regaling us with stories of their dealing and backbiting and then, almost always, the sentimentality and devotion to higher causes when an Equus or an Amadeus or a Nicholas Nickleby hit the stage; their elation when Dreamgirls or Cats broke hearts and box-office records.
I may be wrong, but what I feel in the pages of Razzle Dazzle is something mournful for those men and those days. Money was skimmed and people were often cheated and hurt, but the point, more often than not, was to get a good product on the stages they possessed and loved. To gain the money and the love, they invested in talented men and waited for the children (as Kermit Bloomgarden often called his plays) to show up and take care of them.
It was primarily about real estate—the full utilization of spaces owned by ambitious men—and this is often hard to grasp if you have a romantic love of the theatre, and you, like me, will cling to the glory that shone through the ledgers and the negotiations. The meatiest stories in Razzle Dazzle fall within the years 1975 to 1991, years we hardly thought were golden, but in comparison with what we see on today’s stages (very often the same plays and musicals that were produced in the years between 1975 and 1991), we see that we were in Valhalla, with Michael Bennett coaxing stories out of his dancers to give us A Chorus Line; Martin Charnin and Charles Strouse and Thomas Meehan twisting their maudlin Annie, with aid from Mike Nichols, into a hit; when a British psycho-sexual soap opera like Peter Shaffer’s Equus, full of pauses and heavy breathing and the brilliant staging of John Dexter, could run for more than three years and save the Shuberts. Those days are gone. These men, whatever their virtues and their vices, sat in rooms and made these things happen, then seduced people into seeing them, and one smiles at the prospect of them working the street today amid the epicene boosterism and ergonomic chairs and endless revivals of uplift (see a play and have proceeds go to cancer or a suicide hotline or transgender rights). The daring today is in self-promotion, not the creation of new works.
Nostalgia is the primary fuel that has always simmered beneath all work in the theatre, and it is wise to remember that nostalgia is a narcotic—one that enables us to forget, to revise, to see the past in a rosy glow. The next season will be the magical one; the next show will allow us to forget all the risible ones that came before; the next opening night will usher in a creative revolution; the ability to eat and drink at your chair and gay-dating nights will bring us young, affluent audiences who will feel justified in spending hundreds of dollars to see the extruded, pale work we have today. Dreams and delusions were the chief ingredients in the minds of the men who gave us the plays and the musicals, and while Riedel has proven himself a master (both in these pages and in his columns for the New York Post) with the financial machinations of Broadway, he is also a dazzler at re-creating the times in which these iconic shows were created and presented, and you remember the impact they had if you lived then, and the book becomes very nostalgic. If you are young and these titles and these men are merely names, the book may become a catalyst, a fire you can place beneath you to want more and contribute more. Hope is also a narcotic, and it is what writers and producers and directors and actors need, and Razzle Dazzle, even as it pulls aside curtains and reveals some unsavory men and acts, inspires hope. Our current theatre has blanched hope right out of us because so much of this valuable real estate is earmarked for shows that closed eight minutes ago and come with a history of happy audiences attached, but the theatre recounted here—corrupt and colorful and mean and funny and vibrant—may make for a scrappy generation of workers and audiences. May they use it as a guide.
And as bad as I insist things are in today’s theatre? I eagerly anticipate another book by Michael Riedel in about twenty years in which he reveals what was really going on, and I will understand. Perhaps not happily, but I’ll know what was going on.