Singular Sensation: A feast for the theater-starved

By Beatrice Williams-Rude

Michael Riedel’s new book presents a buffet of delicacies with something for virtually everybody, whether pros, cognoscenti, wannabes or civilians. The array of those who populate its pages ranges from Diahann Carroll to Diana, Princess of Wales.

Accountants and other number crunchers should revel in reading about Garth Drabinsky’s creative bookkeeping.

There must be two Michael Riedels: one whose snarky wit we’ve seen on Theater Talk and the TV series, Smash, in which he played himself and was dubbed a “Napoleonic little Nazi;” the other, the meticulous, gimlet-eyed historian who sees all and puts the pieces in context.

Did Patti LuPone really say that about Glenn Close?  Riedel sets the scene in which this might have taken place, but did it? 

Riedel gives readers both a worm’s eye view and a bird’s eye view. Two examples of the former:  Barbara Walters’ failure to disclose that she was one of the backers of the show whose creator she was interviewing. Exposed, she apologized to the 20/20 audience.

Then there was the ouster of Alexander H. Cohen as producer of the Tonys. (Yes, his hands almost certainly were in the till. But to this observer, the awards presentation ceremony reached its apogee under Alex Cohen and has been declining ever since, including dwindling TV viewers.)

As to the latter: He takes the reader time traveling, tracing Broadway’s evolution.

 “Singular Sensation” is meticulously structured, well sourced, beautifully written and easily accessible.

While the boldface names appear on almost every page, Riedel doesn’t just drop names. Mayor Rudy Giuliani gets ink because how Broadway was going to deal with the aftermath of 9/11, was front and center.

 The sensitivity with which Riedel writes about director-choreographer Susan Stroman is touching. (She’d lost her husband.) His account of Mel Brooks’ antics brings chuckles. And if you didn’t already love Nathan Lane you will when you read this tome.

The analyses are enlightening and thought-provoking. While it’s generally agreed that there must be a love interest in a musical, in The Producers the focus is not on Leo and Ulla, but rather on the bond between Leo and Max.

Riedel’s account of Elaine Stritch’s behavior at the  all-star Broadway 9/11 concert could chill even her most devoted fans.

Riedel recounts the birth pangs and death throes of shows from the end of the Golden Age to the present—including the infamous Moose Murders.

Particular attention is paid to Rent, which Riedel sees as a pivotal point in Broadway history, embracing rock and pointing the way to a new era.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ascension, spearheading the British invasion, is covered at length as is his later decline.

A quibble:

Les Miz is based on a Victor Hugo novel and set in France in a specific period of French history; the book of the musical is by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg; the music is by Claude-Michel Schönberg; original French lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel.

·        English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer.       

·        The only non-Frenchman in the group is Kretzmer.

·        Part of the “British invasion”? Les Miz is about as British as Napoleon.

·        Michael Riedel says “Singular Sensation” was fun to write. This observer reports that it’s also fun to read.

·        It belongs in every theater-lover’s library. We can only hope that the book’s subtitle, The Triumph of Broadway, proves true.         

Published by Avid Reader Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, November 10, 2020. 352 pages. US price: $28.00