Michael Riedel and I had just sat down for lunch at Joseph Leonard in the West Village to talk about his new book, "Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway," and I said that I was about halfway through — in the midst of the chapter about how Michael Bennett's production of A Chorus Line changed the economic front of Broadway (and the Public Theater, where it originated) and the state of musical theatre (much like, in my opinion I said, Hamilton is doing now). But, more on his Hamilton opinions later…
In "Razzle Dazzle," unlike his New York Post columns that feature strong opinions strewn throughout, Riedel takes himself out of the writing to chart the rise, fall and rise again of Broadway — not artistically, rather financially. He begins with "The Ice Age," in which unaccounted cash (falling into the wrong hands by way of bribes) was melting away like ice, and ends in the late 90s when Disney took Broadway by storm.
But, where did Riedel begin? "I always wanted to have a piece, a theatre column," he explains, "and I studied all the right columnists like Walter Winchell and Dorothy Kilgallen and Ed Sullivan and Alex Witchel, and one of the things about being a columnist is that you have to have a strong personality. "A columnist has to take a stand on something — you're for it or against it. You like this person; you want to run that person down. You want to promote this show; you want to kill that show. And, by the nature of taking those strong positions, you are going to become a personality. I'm a bit of a ham. I'm certainly not afraid of the limelight. So, to me, it was just a natural trajectory of what I wanted to do in life. I make no claims to be an objective reporter or a fair reporter, a balanced reporter, but you know where my agendas are. You know that I'm against Hamilton. You know that I'm against Spider-Man. And I'm against it for…not for any personal reasons, but because I knew Spider-Man was going to be a disaster, and I think Hamilton is overrated, and I want to be the antidote in Hamilton for all the slobbering that the New York Times is doing over it all of the time.
"And, it's good to take a contrarian position. It does get you noticed, but I never minded all the feuds I got into and all that, and I never personalize it. I know that a lot of the people over the years did not like me because for them it was personal — they put a lot of time and effort and their emotional lives on the line for this show. For me, it's another show — it's good, it's bad, it's got good gossip behind it or it just bores me, and I flick it away like that, but I try never to personalize [it]. Funnily enough, most of the people I've had feuds with over the years wound up becoming friends of mine because the producer who has this year's gigantic flop, next year may have next season's biggest winner, and I'd like to be the first person to say, 'This show's going to be a smash!' Just like I like being the first person to say, 'This show's going to be a disaster.'"
So, although he doesn't steer himself away from the spotlight (aside from his column, the Broadway community knows him from the weekly talk show "Theater Talk" on PBS), I asked if he ever had any aspirations to become a performer before he picked up his pen.
"No," he says firmly, "although I thought I was quite good in 'Smash.'" Riedel was referred to as a "Napoleonic little Nazi" by Debra Messing's character on the show's premiere before guesting on three episodes as himself.
"I stole all those scenes right out from under Anjelica Huston," he says jokingly. "But, I think I have emerged as a performer because of 'Theater Talk.' Well, the column is a performance; it's like a performance… 'Theater Talk' is a performance. I do 'Imus in the Morning'; it's a performance with Don Imus."
But, he thinks theatre people have big egos and focus intently on themselves. He'd much rather capture their larger-than-life personalities in his now-weekly column (recently cut down from twice a week) and his new book, which pits the creatives such as Michael Bennett and impresarios such as the Shuberts center stage.
"My book is very much personality driven. I wanted all those people that I write about to really become dynamic characters in the narrative because theatre people are inherently theatrical, and you know they're passionate and devoted and extremely talented, but they're also egomaniacs," he explains. "They can be vicious, they can be bitchy, and they can be incredibly petty. My favorite time is the Tony Awards. The pettiness breaks out like a teenager with acne. They all have all this money, and they all have successful shows and their country houses, but my God…! They want that Tony Award more than anything else, and they'll claw each other's eyes out to get it."
Aptly titled "The Battle for Broadway," Riedel delves into some of the most gripping duels of all time, including the Tony race of 1982 when Dreamgirls was pit against Nine for the coveted Best Musical award — a chapter of his book that was inserted into the October issue of Vanity Fair. These anecdotes, he says, functioned as "ornaments" he hung on the Christmas tree of his book — the financial empire of Broadway, a unique entity that can only be found in New York City.
It was David Kuhn, brother to four-time Tony-nominated Judy, who talked Riedel into moving forward with a book — after reading one of his articles a few years back describing a "secret Broadway," where Riedel revealed hidden locations, offices and living spaces above theatrical houses on the Great White Way.
Kuhn called Riedel and said, "Have you ever thought about writing a book? … Let's meet for a drink… That article you wrote could be a book" and asked, "Do you have any other ideas?"
"Not really thinking about it, I said, 'Well, I was friendly with Jerry Schoenfeld, and he used to tell me the stories about how he and Bernie [B. Jacobs] took control of the Shubert empire,'" Riedel replied. "As I finished my little tale about…the boardroom coup, David Kuhn said, 'That's a book. That's a much bigger book than a coffee table book. There's a real story there. That's a real nonfiction book. It involves New York City and Times Square, so it broadens out from Broadway.' The key was to find a Broadway book that was bigger than Broadway, and the idea that I stumbled on was the importance of Broadway in really helping save New York City at a very dire time in the '70s."
But, how did Riedel get to be in those rooms with Gerald Schoenfeld — the rooms where it happened? Before he was a well-known columnist for the New York Post, Riedel attended Columbia University, was managing editor of the now-no-longer TheaterWeek magazine and wrote for the New York Daily News.
"When I started out in the Broadway business, I began to realize that power is really with the theatre artists who aren't really written about, so I just set about meeting them all," Riedel recalled. "Since I had no access back then at TheaterWeek Magazine, I would just go to every opening night, every charitable event, every American Theatre Wing-this or League of American Theatres-that event, and I would say, 'I want to meet Gerald Schoenfeld, the chairman of the Shubert Organization,' and I would go over and I would introduce myself. I want to meet Jimmy Nederlander…and I'd go over and introduce myself.
"They were old even then — now they're dead or really old — and I found that they responded to somebody my age — I was 21 or 22 or 23 — who was curious about their aspect of the business. I wasn't going up to Jerry Schoenfeld and saying, 'Hey, can we talk about Follies and Company?' I would say, 'Can you tell me about what the Shubert brothers were really like? Can you explain to me what a stop clause is? Can you explain to me the difference between the gross and the net?' All those kinds of things. Few reporters knew anything about that stuff or were curious to find out. So a lot of these guys, like Jerry and Jimmy, like Arthur Cantor who's no longer with us, and like Manny Azenberg, like Liz McCann… They taught me about the business, and then I discovered that as in any big business, if you keep your eye on the money, you're going to find good stories."
The stories poured in, and soon Riedel became the go-to theatre guy for scoops on the scene. He mainly focused on the backend of Broadway — what would sell, what wouldn't and what the future looked like. He admits that, over the years, he has steered clear of reporting on actors' personal lives and relationships (or lack thereof).
"I don't write about who's sleeping with whom, who's cheating on his wife, his boyfriend, his girlfriend, whatever," he says in fear of ending up like "the National Enquirer. And then nobody will talk to you. God knows we all have messy personal lives, and I don't want my personal life written about, so I'm not going to write about theirs."
Personal lives aside, there's always reporting to be done. And, over the years, Riedel put in the work.
"To me, reporting was going out to lunch with people, going to drinks with them, and not even doing a formal interview, but just getting to know them. And then they become sources because they get to know you — you get time together. Then there's always the little testy moment where they do give you something to see if they can trust you not to reveal who the source is, and that's when your journalism career, your reporting career, begins. But I don't want to send an email to someone and say, 'Tell me what's going on,' and they just email me back. I would rather meet you first and get to know you."
As Riedel says earlier on, readers of his column have, on occasion, taken his words to heart. Rosie O'Donnell, who produced Taboo, told New York Magazine, "I hope you eviscerate him"; and producer Rocco Landesman said, "He's nasty, he's cynical. He couldn't tell Ibsen from Strindberg." Legends like Stephen Sondheim, according to NY Magazine, ignore him.
In Riedel's defense, he says, "If people disagree with me, I give them their say in the column. Sometimes I turn my column over to people who have written stuff about me." One example occurred when he was tearing down 2002's Sweet Smell of Success, produced by David Brown. "I was attacking it," he admits, "and then, out of the blue, I got this letter from David Brown, who was one of the producers of the musical, and he said, 'You fancy yourself a modern-day Walter Winchell. Well, I knew Walter Winchell. You're not even close to being the kind of columnist Walter Winchell…' and just proceeded to obliterate everything that I was writing and the personality that I was trying to create.
"So I read the letter, and I thought, 'Wow, this is a really good attack on me. It's a really well-written attack,' so I called his office… The secretary picked up, and I said, 'Is Mr. Brown there?' She said, 'May I ask who's calling?' And, I said 'Michael Riedel from the New York Post.' and there was this silence. 'Hold on.' He comes up: 'Yes?' I said, 'Mr. Brown, Michael Riedel. I received your letter, which I think is extremely well written and very entertaining, and I would like to run it as my column on Friday, but I just wanted to confirm that you really are David Brown and it really is a letter from you.' He said, 'It is, and you want to run it?' I said, 'Yes. I've been making fun of your show; I think it's only fair that I let you have a chance to make fun of me.'
"So I ran it that Friday. First thing in the morning he calls me: 'Michael, everyone's calling me. They love my letter! This is great! Let's have lunch!' And then we became friends." Riedel laughs. "He was thrilled, and then we were friends ever since. He's dead now, sadly, but that's how we became friends. That was the most fun that I had."
For Riedel, this season's "attack" is targeted at Hamilton, a musical that audiences, critics and industry members are hailing as a Broadway groundbreaker — a hip-hopera, of sorts, that centers around America's Founding Father Alexander Hamilton portrayed by a songwriter of Latin descent, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
"I thought it was tedious and too long, but also I don't like hip-hop music," Riedel explains, not holding back and looking at the iPhone recording our conversation. "I like melody, and there are a couple of pretty ballads in there, but I don't like rhyming for the sake of rhyming. I hate a cascade of rhymes, rhymes, rhymes all the time. I think in hip-hop you're just rhyming everything in sight, so it's just uninteresting to me. And, I also find Hamilton not drunk dramatic, but presentational, where the characters come out, and they're hip-hopping where they tell you who they are, what they did and what they're going to do. It's a lot of information thrown at you in hip-hop; it's not dramatized and not for my tastes. I also think the history lesson is on a fifth-grade level. I mean, you have to explain who Alexander Hamilton was and had to explain who Lafayette was. Having been a history major in school, I don't need somebody to tell me who Lafayette was, especially in rhyme."
In a studio session YouTube video, Riedel once said, "The meaner I was, the more money I got paid." I ask him to elaborate on that.
"That was true," he says. "The nastier I was, the more money I got. I discovered that early on. I'll give you the answer, but I'll give you a little bit of doggerel that Richard Griffiths taught me, which sums it up. 'When they asked Helen in Hell, 'Were you pleased? Were you pleased that all Troy's towers fell and Priam's sons slain and such a bloody war was fought and fought for you alone? Were you pleased?' And she said, 'Was I pleased? That the greatest war in the history of mankind was fought over me? Was I pleased? I should say I was.'"
He laughs. "And that sums it up."
(Playbill.com features manager Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)