Riedel, Michael Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway
Theatre gossip is hard to turn down, so I was delighted to see Michael Riedel’s Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway in my Christmas stocking. In an earlier book (Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway), he covers the 1970’s and 80’s with a focus on a consortium of powerful theatre owners and two English giants Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh. As they take-back the Times Square area from the sex industry. There is no question that, as a long time theatre columnist for the New York Post, Riedel has had an insider’s look at the Great White Way for a lot of years. Singular Sensation treats the 1990’s and the compelling rise of home grown talents to take over the once foreign dominated Broadway scene. I’ve been a theatre guy for most of my life and this book tells me why I have loved it. It is informative, engrossing, and of course full of plenty of juicy insider theatrical gossip. What more can you ask for?
Riedel begins with the story of the rise and fall of the last of the big British produced musicals. “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” They are still running but Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Blvd.” is running into problems due to high stakes jockeying for its leading role by Glen Close, Patti LuPone, and Faye Dunnaway. That show is then pushed out of the spotlight by the new American wave with a detailed treatment of the creation of Johathan Larsen’s “Rent” and the story of the tragic demise of its author. One item I learned was that the title had a double meaning. The characters could not afford their “rent” and everyone around them was being “rent” by AIDS, drugs, poverty, gentrification, and alienation.”
Although we do get some treatment of the big “stars” who could make and break shows all by themselves, people like Nathan Lane and Patti LuPone do have to take a back seat. The emphasis of Riedel’s story is on the moguls who own the theatres, the producers who are searching for the “hit,” and the creators themselves who are writing the songs and the scenes. We are let in on the inside maneuverings to get the right property into the right theatre at the right time. You see up close the machinations of the Shubert and Nederlander organizations and follow the rise of the upstart on the block, Jujamcyn. As one wag said, the name seemed more like a prescription for an antibiotic than a theatrical organization. I did learn that the weird name was chosen by the original moneyed angel William McKnight, who was a theatre lover and the chairman of Minnnesota’s 3M company. Jujamcyn was actually just a combination of the beginnings of the names of his three grandchildren--Julie, James, and Cynthia. Mr. McKnight, by the way, was also an early supporter of Minneapolis’ Tyrone Guthrie Theatre. A group of talented young actors who were some of my fellow grad students at the U. of Minnesota in the sixties were called McKnight Fellows. A number of them went on to become long term and loved resident performers for the Guthrie company.
One of the larger than life producers who seemed to dominate the 90’s was Garth Drabinsky. He was tough, reckless, and rapacious and spent money with an abandon that would make King Midas look like skinflint. A theatre insider was quoted as saying about him, that “Garth was the only guy I knew who could overspend an unlimited budget.” Drabinsky created his movie and theatre empire on the back of receipts from the Canadian rights to “The Phantom of the Opera,” but finally lost his golden touch and ended up spending time behind bars for cooking his own books.
Nearing the end of the decade and the tragedy of 9/11, we are treated to the engrossing story of Julie Taymor and Disney’s “The Lion King.” That is followed closely by Mel Brooks and the saga of “The Producers.” It might seem that this entire volume is focused on musicals and it cannot be denied that musicals are the big ticket items that drive Broadway. On the other hand, fans of drama need not be too concerned. There is more than enough treatment in the book of the contributions of shows by Tony Kushner, Neil Simon, and Edward Albee to at least recognize that drama without music was still around.
In sum Riedel gives you the privilege of loitering in the back recesses of the green room in order to overhear the making of the most important theatrical endeavors of the decade. I was also reminded that the business of making theatre is tougher than a cheap steak and that picking a winner is as hard as picking the right murderer in an Agatha Christie mystery.