By HARRY HAUN
“Frank Rich came through with a review that buys country houses.”
That one sentence, signaling blue skies ahead for the 1992 Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls, is the most undisguised echt-Riedel observation you’ll find in Michael Riedel’s zippy, entertaining tome, Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway, which Simon & Schuster’s Avid Reader Press just dropped in bookstores.
Riedel has been covering the Broadway-and-below beat in the tabloids for 27 of his 53 years—from the New York Daily News (1993-1998) to the New York Post (1998-kinda present, Covid-19 permitting), emerging from all that the only seasoned theater journalist who still looks like he’s battling puberty.
Because the theater community anticipated his newsy dish with twin measures of glee and dread, he has been dubbed “the enfant terrible of the New York press,” an appellation he wears with some degree of pride. But who better to be Broadway’s Boswell? His first attempt at covering the theatrical turf in book form, 2015’s Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway, relayed how a handful of theater titans reclaimed Broadway from the deep-seated sleaze that had seeped in from Times Square during the ‘70s and ‘80s. In his New Testament, Singular Sensation, he leap-frogs across the Broadway Everests of the ‘90s.
Phantom of the Opera has already begun Broadway’s longest run, as Riedel picks up the narrative with the forgotten corpse of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s next musical colossus. Amy Powers read she had been fired as his lyricist on Sunset Boulevard in Alex Witchel’s New York Times Friday column. That was the first head to roll down Sunset Boulevard. She was followed by a couple of litigious leading ladies. The lawsuits and the enormous overhead of running the show made it, as the aforementioned Frank Rich pointed out, Broadway’s longest-running flop. It finished out of the money in two years’ time.
“I don’t really believe that Andrew fundamentally had it in for Patti,” Riedel contends. “After she had been contracted to do the show in London and then in New York, the thinking shifted. Andrew kinda capriciously decided to have the American premiere of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, it being a Hollywood story. Christopher Hampton, the show’s book writer, thought a movie star should play the lead and suggested one: Glenn Close, who had just starred in his Dangerous Liaisons film.
“Patti got wind of this before she left Connecticut, felt they were setting up a competition between the two of them and turned in her London plane ticket. Andrew said he wished he’d have accepted it, but after a lot of back and forth, she proceeded to London—primarily, she told me, because she had already sent her trunks over. What really killed Patti was Frank Rich going to London and saying she was miscast in the part. You have to remember that Andrew was being killed by The New York Times all this time. Then Glenn opened to rave reviews, and that was the end of Patti.
“When time came for Glenn to go to Broadway, Faye Dunaway was tapped to take over the part. She could act it, but Trevor Nunn, the director, thought musically she sounded like Florence Foster Jenkins, the socialite and famously awful amateur soprano. Rather than put Los Angeles (and Faye) through that, Andrew decided to close the show in L.A., despite the advance. Inevitably, Faye had a conference call with Patti and asked what she should do. Patti didn’t hesitate. “Sue him.” Faye obeyed. Patti’s own settlement provided her Connecticut home with The Andrew Lloyd Webber Memorial Swimming Pool.”
In a funny way, Riedel thinks there wouldn’t have been a Jonathan Larson without Andrew Lloyd Webber. Phantom and Sunset Boulevard were the musical antitheses of what Larson brought to the party. He’s the guy who “brought rock ‘n’ roll to Broadway” with Rent—also hip-hop, pop and reggae.
“When I interviewed Jonathan’s sister, Julie, I asked her when she first realized her brother had musical talent,” Riedel remembers, “she told me, ‘I was listening in 1970-71 to the album, Jesus Christ Superstar, over and over again, and then one day Jonathan played the entire score—by ear—on the piano.”
It was Larson’s idea to transplant Puccini’s La Boheme to the East Village in the AIDS era, and he almost lived long enough to see that vision realized, dying of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm at 35 on Jan. 25, 1996, the morning of Rent’s first preview at New York Theater Workshop. Publicist Don Summa of the Richard Kornberg office phoned Riedel at the Daily News and gave him the news. “I’m sorry to hear that, but I can’t give you much space,” he quotes himself as saying. “Nobody’s ever heard of Jonathan Larson.”
They found out quick enough. The tragic timing sold out the NYTW run and made a Broadway transfer inevitable. “Had he lived, probably the critics would not have been so moved by the whole thing,” Riedel speculates. “If you look at Rent closely, it’s a flawed show. I think that his death contributed an emotional component to the show that probably would not have been there had he lived.”
A trio of producers (Kevin McCollum, Jeffrey Seller and Allan Gordon) took the show to Broadway and opened it at the dilapidated Nederlander on the seedy, Southern side of 42nd Street. The scheduled paint-job that the theater was to receive was canceled because it already had the look that worked for Rent. Ironically, it was a theater that Larson had already “sampled.” One summer afternoon in 1992, he and a friend broke into the empty Nederlander. Larson bounded on stage, sang a few notes and said he wished he had a theater like that for one of his shows. Indeed, and in deed, it came to pass.
“Rent had a 12-year run on Broadway and grossed $300 million,” Riedel points out, “but, more importantly, it opened up a new style of music for the next generation of Broadway composers. Lin-Manuel Miranda told me he saw the show 30 times. Then there’s Robert Lopez, who did Avenue Q, The Book of Mormon and Frozen—and the Dear Evan Hanson creators, Justin Paul and Benj Pasek.”
The Main Stem adventures of a gambling man from Missouri occupy a sizable portion of Riedel’s book. Rocco Landesman’s first big risk was believing that there was a musical in his favorite piece of literature, Huckleberry Finn. His second biggest risk was in entrusting the musicalizing to his favorite singer-songwriter, Roger Miller, who had never seen a Broadway show, let alone written one. Trunk songs saw him through, and Landesman’s gamble paid off with seven Tonys for Big River, including Best Musical.
When Landesman came to town, Broadway was ruled by two and half forces. The almighty Shuberts and Nederlanders didn’t even return his calls for a theater, but their weak sister, Jujamcyn, did and divvied up one of its five houses. By the end of the ‘90s, Landesman had elevated Jujamcyn to The Big Three.
“He didn’t set out to do that,” Riedel says. “He did Big River, and that was kind of a one-off for him because he liked the music of Roger Miller. But he got to know James Binger, who ran Jujamcyn. They were at the track one day, and Binger said, ‘I got this theater chain, and the only show I have in my theaters right now is yours. Everything else has closed. Do you want to run my theaters?’ And Rocco is, like, ‘Sure, why the hell not?’ That’s Rocco rolling the dice. That’s how Rocco got Jujamcyn.”
One of Jujamcyn’s biggest hits was the third time around for Guys and Dolls on Broadway. Everyone was careful not to use the word revival. “There’s always one key decision that you make with a show that sets you on your way, and that was the decision that made this show work,” says Riedel. “Jerry Zaks, the director, said, ‘Let’s not think of it as this old show from the ‘50s. Let’s imagine it as a script and a score that just came across our desk for the first time. Let’s think of it as a brand-new musical.’ That’s the way Michael David of The Dodgers pitched it to Frank Loesser’s widow, Jo Sullivan, and it convinced her. The smart thinking on the part of Jerry and Michael was to cast it with fresh faces, and those fresh faces turned out to be Nathan Lane and Faith Prince.”
Those particular fresh faces wound up on the front page of The New York Times the morning after the musical opened, heralding Frank Rich’s rave review inside. Prince’s Miss Adelaide won a Tony a few months later, but Lane was cheated out of his because the consensus was that he wasn’t Jewish enough. The only thing that made Nathan Detroit Jewish was the fact that Sam Levine originated the role. That consideration didn’t faze the movie’s Nathan, Frank Sinatra. Lane has since won three Tonys. Two of those roles were originated by a Jew, Zero Mostel (in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and The Producers), and the third role was Roy Cohn in Angels in America. Earlier this year, he played a tough Jewish detective in 1930s L.A., Lewis Michener, in the miniseries, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels.
This Guys and Dolls was one of the shows that left blood on the stage. Zaks had cast Sarah Brown with a friend who’d co-starred with him in Tintypes, Carolyn Mignini, but there was no chemistry between her and Peter Gallagher’s Sky Masterson, so he was compelled to recast the part. Her husband called an hour later and begged him to reconsider, but Zaks stood his ground. “The thing about putting on a show,” Riedel says, “if something is not working, you have to be ruthless. You have to be brutal. Show biz is not for sissies. You gotta make those tough, awful decisions. You gotta cut whatever it is and move on.”
Riedel admits an emotional involvement in writing Chapter Eight, it concerning an old college prof of his. It’s called “Who’s Afraid of Edward Albee?” When he took a theater course at Columbia taught by Albee, the playwright had plummeted from the good graces of the critics and was teaching to make a living.
“He was really in the woods back then, totally forgotten,” Riedel recalls. “No one would produce a play of his. That happens. The great playwrights of America in the 20th century—Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams—eventually fell out of favor with the critics. Eugene O’Neill’s second act was Long Day’s Journey into Night, but he was dead. Miller had some terrific revivals but did not write a hit play on Broadway after The Price. God love Tennessee, but, at the end of his life, his output was pathetic.”
Albee was spared that fate because he had a slow-to-resolve relationship with his mother, which inspired his third Pulitzer Prize play 30 years after his second. “But he couldn’t get it on anywhere,” remembers Riedel. “The world premiere of Three Tall Women was in Vienna! Then, it got up at a little theater up in Westchester. Finally, Doug Aibel at Vineyard Theater said, “I like this play. I’m going to open it here Off-Broadway.’ I remember interviewing Edward on Theater Talk and asking him about this play. He said, ‘You know, I always hated my mother, but, as she was dying, I tempered my hatred with a little something called pity.’ Then he began to kind of understand her. That’s what the play is about.”
There was pressure to move his new Pulitzer Prize winner to Broadway, but Albee parked it at the Promenade on the Upper West Side and there it stayed for the duration of the run. Albee was adamant: “I will not let the critics do to me what they did to Tennessee.” He did have two more Broadway successes in him, however. The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? won the 2002 Tony Award—the hard way (with a pretty unprecedented love triangle), and A Delicate Balance was successfully revived at the Plymouth, thanks to the superb, spot-on casting of Rosemary Harris, George Grizzard and Elaine Stritch.
Backstage, there was very little balance at A Delicate Balance, according to Riedel. “Producer Andre Bishop told me they cut a lot of slack for Elaine. She was playing a smoker and an alcoholic—two things she had turned her back on–and every day she had to play that part. It really worked on her psyche and made her nuts. George and Rosemary hated her diva antics and thought Gerald Gutierrez, the director, let her get away with too much. George couldn’t stand it and, one night, hauled off and slugged her. She got her curling iron and chased him around the theater. Andre said, ‘I don’t care how successful the show, I’ve got to close it. My stage manager is having a nervous breakdown. The only time you’re safe is when the curtain is up. It’s brilliant when the curtain is up. When it’s down, run for your life!’”
Like Durante, Michael Riedel has “got a million of ‘em” (in his case, stories to tell about Broadway), and it’s possible Singular Sensation will see sequels covering 21st century theater like Spamalot and Hamilton. He should because, as this book makes clear, he hasn’t sleepwalked his way through his privileged place on the periphery of show biz. He admits as much before beginning his ‘90s chronicle. On page xii of the Foreword, he says, “After spending hours with the people who created the shows, or who took part in key moments in Broadway history, I had to laugh at how much I missed, failed to understand, or got wrong. Columnists can be know-it-alls. I certainly was. Writing Singular Sensation was fun. It was also humbling.”