Michael Riedel: Broadway's most outspoken voice brings 'Razzle Dazzle' to Denver

In the history of Broadway, there have been few characters onstage as colorful and controversial as Michael Riedel, the self-made journalist whose skewering of Broadway gypsies, scamps and thieves in the New York dailies has made him one of the most feared and revered theatre personalities of the past quarter-century.

Riedel’s oversight has spanned gossip to hard-hitting investigative journalism. Acting as the proudly opinionated moral conscience of Broadway, he has never minced words when it has come to rooting out those he has perceived to be crooks. The theatre elite have both demanded and dreaded his attention.

Take, for example, what Riedel has to say about controversial producer Mitchell Maxwell. For a time, Maxwell ran Denver’s New Civic Theatre (now the Su Teatro Performing Arts Center), where he prepared Brooklyn The Musical for its Broadway run in 2004:

“I have a nose for things that smell badly, and from the moment I met him, Mitchell set my nose twitching. I just never trusted him. He was a walking oil slick.”

Or how about controversial Canadian producer Garth Drabinsky, who in 2009 was convicted and sentenced to prison for fraud and forgery:

“I had a great time torturing Garth Drabinsky,” said Riedel. “And in the end, I was proven right. Because Garth went to jail, and I’m enjoying a glass of Chablis with my oysters right now.”

While most New York theatre writers focus on what is happening onstage, Riedel has relentlessly chronicled all of the off-stage shenanigans for the New York Daily News and New York Post. But he is also a tireless champion for shows he has liked, such as The Lion King, Mamma Mia and Spring Awakening.

And for those he hasn’t?

“When shows are disasters,” he said, “I am the first one to get out my spade and start digging their graves.”

Riedel’s stranger-than-fiction real-life story starts with the then-new Columbia graduate’s plans for becoming a lawyer getting derailed when he was offered a job writing for TheatreWeek Magazine – when he was at a kegger.

Riedel will bring his colorful stories to the Denver Center on Thursday (Oct. 15) for what promises to be a fiery discussion and Q&A about his newly released debut book, Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway. He will talk about both the plays and power plays that make up his book, which serves as both a history and exposé of how theatre not only saved itself, but, in large part he believes, saved the city of New York.

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“Everybody talks about how it was (Mayor Rudy) Giuliani and Disney that saved Times Square,” Riedel said. “But I am going back further. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, nobody thought Times Square could be turned around. Nobody cared. The various mayors’ attitude toward Broadway was, ‘Where is Broadway going to go? New Jersey? You’re stuck here in this morass. Live with it.’ But guys like Gerry Schoenfeld, who was president of the Shubert Organization, were already working to clean up Times Square.

“And that cleanup could not have happened without great shows. If there had been no A Chorus Line … if there had been no 42nd Street … there would have been nothing there for people to go and see. If there had been no Annie, why would you ever take a family to Times Square in 1977?”

Riedel was hired by TheatreWeek Magazine in 1989, and he became the theater columnist for the New York Post in 1998. He worked at the New York Daily News for five years before returning to the Post. He is also co-host of Theater Talk for PBS.

The host of Thursday’s free discussion in the DCPA’s Conservatory Theatre in the Newman Center for Theatre Education will be David Stone. He’s the producer of both Wicked and If/Then, which launches its first national tour in Denver on Tuesday. Stone is proof that not every Broadway producer quakes in fear of Riedel. “He grew up in the business at the same time I did,” Riedel said, “and we have been friends since we both started out.”

Riedel will take questions from the audience and sign copies of his book, which will be available for purchase on Thursday.


Here are more excerpts from Michael Riedel’s conversation with DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore:

John Moore: So what did you really think of Brooklyn?

(Pause)

Michael Riedel: Brooklyn is a great borough. It’s really come up in the world. There are great restaurants there.

John Moore: Man, you really do not like Mitchell Maxwell, do you?

Michael Riedel: I hope you ran him out of town. He’s been thoroughly discredited on Broadway.

John Moore: You seem to have the goods on everyone. How did all of this happen?

Michael Riedel: To be honest with you, I just did it to have fun. I started out as a kid when I was 21. It was a lark. I got the job right out of college at a beer-keg party the weekend I was graduating. I was going to be a lawyer. I never thought I would have anything to do with the theatre, and certainly not journalism. If you read my column closely, you can still see I know nothing about the theatre or journalism. I just fell into it, and it turned out to be kind of fun.

John Moore: But you have brought some of Broadway’s most powerful to their knees.

Michael Riedel: But there was no grand plan. I was having such a good time interviewing colorful characters like Gerry Schoenfeld; Jimmy Nederlander; Fran and Barry Weissler; Cy Coleman and Charlie Strouse – and I think somehow the fun that I was having came across in my writing. This was at a time in the late ’80s and early ’90s when people really weren’t paying attention to Broadway. This was before we had Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King and Wicked and all the big shows that everyone around the world now loves on Broadway. There was that dip after the success of those Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber shows where Broadway seemed kind of sleepy and tired. When I look back now, I was just a public voice who said to people who read the Daily News and New York Post, “You know what? These characters who run Broadway are interesting.” David Stone has always said to me, “People may hate you, but you made this business sound interesting at a time when very few people were paying attention.”

John Moore: So you did a public service.

Michael Riedel: Well, I wouldn’t go that far. I feel, like all good columnists, I did what I did in service to my own burning ambition. But it worked.

John Moore: Tell us about the period of time you cover in Razzle Dazzle.

Michael Riedel: The premise of the book is that New York City, Times Square and Broadway were all down and out in the late 1960s and early ’70s. The city was going bankrupt. Times Square was seedy and dangerous – not a place where any tourist wanted to be. Broadway was in trouble. The Shubert Organization was on the verge of insolvency. Theatres were being torn down. They had more value as parking lots. What I try to show in the book is that a handful of people stuck by Broadway in its hour of need: The Shuberts and Bernie Jacobs and Gerry Schoenfeld and the Nederlanders were buying theatres for a dime back in those days. But it was also artists like Michael Bennett and Joe Papp creating A Chorus Line … David Merrick coming back with 42nd Street … Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber coming to New York with Cats. Those guys saved Broadway and, in so doing, lifted not only the theatre world, but also Times Square, and ultimately New York City itself. Because New York has one thing that no other city in the world has, and that’s Broadway. And when everything else was deserting New York in the 1970s, when New York was within hours of declaring bankruptcy, Broadway was still there for New York City. You still had Michael Bennett doing A Chorus Line. You still had Bob Fosse doing Chicago. You had Tom Meehan and Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin doing this little show called Annie that made Jimmy Nederlander and his empire.

John Moore: How important was that to the overall revival of the city?

Michael Riedel: I try get across in the book that the arts are crucial to the success of a city. We always hear about sports: “If we can get a baseball or a football or a basketball franchise, or build a new stadium, that’s the most important thing.” But people do not appreciate or understand the fundamental significance and importance of the arts to the health of a great city.

John Moore: All this championing is going to do nothing for your reputation.

Michael Riedel: Hey, I’ve always been a champion of Broadway. But I’ve also realized that to be a champion, you have to make it entertaining. And, yes, gossip is entertaining. But Broadway is a place where they have tremendous successes – and I’m the first person to celebrate those successes. I was one of the very first people to champion The Lion King when it played its first preview in Minneapolis and no one in New York knew anything about it. I was an early supporter of Mamma Mia, and I loved Spring Awakening at its very first performance. But that doesn’t mean that you cheerlead for everything.

John Moore: The story of Broadway has been told in many ways, but no one has really written it from this perspective, have they?

Michael Riedel: I don’t think so, because I am going back to guys like Gerry Schoenfeld as president of the Shubert Organization. Gerry was a one-man band promoting the resurgence of Times Square. But he was just trying to clean it up piecemeal. He formed the Midtown Citizens Committee. Gerry was running around and trying to shut down sex shops one by one by dragging the police in off the streets.

John Moore: Tell us one or two all-time favorite scoops.

Michael Riedel: I was on to Garth Drabinsky very early on. I had an old friend named Arthur Cantor (producer of On Golden Pond) and I took him to the opening night of Showboat on Broadway that Hal Prince directed and Garth Drabinsky produced (in 1994). Garth was telling us all that it was the biggest hit in the world. But Arthur knew the numbers of every show at his fingertips. And so when Garth brought out the entire crew from backstage and they all took a bow, Arthur leaned over to me and he said, ‘That show costs about $600,000 a week to run. There is no way it is going to make any money. This whole thing is a fraud.’ And so I began to look closely at Garth’s empire, and all the shows he was doing. Bit by bit, as I learned how the numbers work on Broadway, I realized that something was going on here that amounted to a Ponzi scheme. I confronted Garth after Ragtime opened on Broadway (in 1998), and I knew it was going to be overshadowed by The Lion King. I said, “Garth, I have to be honest with you: All the smart, savvy Broadway guys I know don’t believe your numbers. They don’t believe the grosses you are reporting. They don’t believe the profits you are reporting.” And I will never forget this: He banged his desk so hard, my tape recorder was jingling all over the place. He said, “I am the most investigated man in the theatre. I have the (Securities and Exchange Commission) on my back. I have the Canadian Stock Exchange on my back. Everything I do is an open book.” Well, it turned out he had one book that was open … and he had another book that was tightly closed that showed the magnitude of his losses.

John Moore: So you can’t really mean it when you say you know nothing about theatre or journalism.

Michael Riedel: No, but you have to understand: I never went to journalism school. I never really learned how to write. To me, it’s just curiosity and all the great old journalists that I got to know when I was a kid at the Daily News in the early ’90s. Not a single one of them was running around brandishing their Columbia journalism degree. My favorite reporters were the guys who reported about the mob. I just liked the way they worked. They had great sources. They had great curiosity about what was going on, and they were able to get people to tell them things that they shouldn’t be telling them, and I guess that was my crash course in journalism. To me, journalism is fundamentally about reporting something that the people in power don’t want people to know about.

John Moore: Any other favorite bylines?

Michael Riedel: I would have to say Spider-Man. I knew the players. I knew the early producers were not up to keeping spending under control. And I knew that Bono and The Edge had no experience on Broadway. I know how rock musicians work. They are never going to be around. I knew from my interviews with guys like Cy Coleman, Jule Styne and Charlie Strouse that when you are writing a musical, you have to be living it day and night to get it right. You can’t have Bono and The Edge in New Zealand making gazillions of dollars on a concert and occasionally Skyping in to see how the show is going. So I just knew all the elements there were going to amount to a disaster, and I think history shows that I was proved right.

John Moore: So you will be joining David Stone here in Denver on Thursday for your Q&A on Razzle Dazzle, which coincides with the launch of the If/Then national tour. What are your thoughts on If/Then?

Michael Riedel: David made a lot of money from Wicked, and he has produced that show brilliantly. But the thing I admire about David more is that instead of running around now and just doing corporate-produced shows, or just backing musicals based on famous titles of movies, David believes in the original American musical. He did that brilliantly with Next to Normal, which won the Pulitzer Prize and was a success on Broadway, and he is doing that again with If/Then. And even if If/Then was not as successful on Broadway as, say, Wicked, I would much rather have someone like David Stone out there committed to developing original American musicals than have a bunch of corporate executives who only want to mine the back catalog of movie studios.

John Moore: After chronicling the past 40 years on Broadway in Razzle Dazzle, what is your assessment of the state of the American theatre today?

Michael Riedel: Just to give you a brief idea of where the book begins and ends: I begin with a huge scandal that rocked Broadway in the early 1960s. It’s all about bribery and corruption, and the selling of tickets to hot shows illegally and pocketing the money from the scalpers market. I wanted to show that Broadway back then was a seedy, backwater, corrupt business. Well today, that seedy, backwater, corrupt business makes about $1.5 billion a year for itself, and then another billion in tourism dollars for New York City. This book shows how a business that was down and out has become one of the most lucrative parts of the entertainment industry. But I try to tell that story through the personalities of the people who did it.

John Moore: And what is your assessment of those people?

Michael Riedel: I would say theatre people are egomaniacal, they are narcissistic, they are ambitious, they are petty, they’re vindictive and they are backstabbing … but they are passionate about what they do.

John Moore: Hey, that’s what they say about journalists!

Michael Riedel: I can tell you this, and you can quote me: I have never made as much money as David Stone.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

A Conversation with Michael Riedel

  • 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct 15
  • Conservatory Theatre
  • Newman Center for Theatre Education, 13th and Arapahoe streets
  • Free discussion and Q&A about Riedel’s debut book, Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway
  • Moderated by David Stone, producer of Wicked, Next to Normal and Wicked
  • Tickets are free, but RSVP requested: Click here


If/Then
:
Ticket information
Oct. 13-25
At the Buell Theatre
Call 303-893-4100, buy in person at the Denver Center Ticket Office located at the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex lobby, or BUY ONLINE
ASL interpreted, Audio described & Open captioned performance: 2 p.m. Oct 25,
Groups: Call 303-446-4829
(Please be advised that the DCPA’s web site at denvercenter.org is the ONLY authorized online ticket provider for ‘If/Then’ performances in Denver)


Our previous NewsCenter coverage of If/Then and Idina Menzel:

Look for additional coverage of If/Then, including our expanded interviews with Idina Menzel, David Stone, Brian Yorkey, Tom Kitt and other members of the cast and crew, at denvercenter.org/news-center

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