Q&A: Michael Riedel on Razzle Dazzle

Q&A: Michael Riedel on Razzle Dazzle

From the brink of extinction to a multibillion-dollar industry, Michael Riedel charts the course of Broadway in Razzle Dazzle.

“Gossip is charming! History is merely gossip. But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality,” quips a character in Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan. For the past 17 years, New York theater fans have been fascinated or appalled (or both) by the backstage gossip dished regularly by Michael Riedel in the New York Post. Now, Riedel has expertly woven a trove of behind-the-scenes stories into a lively history of New York theater in the 1970s and 1980s called Razzle Dazzle.
Yes, there are plenty of scandals, not to mention outrageous behavior, but Riedel doesn’t waste time moralizing. He’s written a fast-paced, gripping tale about an era when the Broadway landscape we take for granted today came perilously close to being wiped out. It was a desperate time that called for remarkable players: Bernard P. Jacobs and Gerald S. Schoenfeld (“Bernie and Jerry”) of the Shubert Organization, James M. Nederlander (“Jimmy”), and the two men most associated with the advent of the mega-musical, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh. These are just some of the colorful characters who helped keep the lights burning bright on the Great White Way.

Broadway Direct talked recently with the gossip columnist turned historian, who begins his book with the story of the so-called “Ice” scandals that plagued the entire industry in the early 1960s. In a pre–credit card era, when sales at the box office were an unregulated cash-only business, prime seats to popular shows would routinely be resold while everyone in the supply chain got a piece of the action; all that floating cash would then just melt away — like ice. 

Why did you pick the ticket corruption scandals as the starting point for Razzle Dazzle?

Essentially this book is about how the business changed from a seedy backwater into a multibillion-dollar empire. I wanted to start the book with an example of just how seedy and grimy Broadway was back then, and show that there was a big battle to fix the business — to save this business, really — long before Disney ever imagined that they would come to Broadway. It really was just another sort of corrupt New York business, and I hadn’t realized the extent of that until I came across this guy David Clurman. He was assistant to the attorney general Louis J. Lefkowitz, and he investigated the whole Ice scandal. I was still trying to figure out exactly how the book was going to unfold when I interviewed him. Clurman said he could have indicted everybody and they would have all gone to jail for massive tax evasion and kickback schemes, but Lefkowitz said that Broadway was too important to New York to decimate it, so they decided to hold hearings and put everyone on notice. And that’s when I realized how crucial Broadway was to the revival of Times Square, and ultimately to New York City itself. If the Shubert organization had gone under, those theatres could have easily been sold off and turned into hotels and parking lots. It was Bernie Jacobs and Jerry Schoenfeld in the Shubert Organization who fought these battles to hold them together.

Is that why you set the Shubert Organization at the center of your story?

The book is full of anecdotes and full of crazy, insane people — as all theater people are. I knew a lot of those stories for years but you can’t just make a book from a collection of anecdotes. I needed a framework for it. Jerry would often tell me, “I saved Times Square,” and, after talking to people like Phil Smith [chairman of the Shubert Organization] and [producer] Liz McCann, I hit on the idea that the Shubert Organization could become, if you will, the Christmas tree on which I could hang all these ornaments: I could hang Michael Bennet and A Chorus Line, David Merrick, the story of Cats, the story behind Nine and Dreamgirls vying for the Tony Award. 

Once I hit on that idea — of the fortunes of New York and Broadway being completely intertwined from the beginning of Broadway — I had a scheme for the book. Then the fun part for me was researching the financial crisis of New York City, of which I knew absolutely nothing. Now I am an expert; I can tell you what the junk bonds were rated in 1975! I knew that the city was in trouble in the 1970s but I hadn’t realized how dire the finances of the city were back then. And, indeed, how dire the finances of the Shubert Organization were back then. I have a quote in the book from Bernie, which I got from a tape his widow gave me: He said that when he and Jerry took control of the company, they wanted a million-dollar line of credit from J.P. Morgan to get cash to pay bills. They were going to use 17 Shubert theatres as collateral, but Morgan turned them down. Those theatres were called specialty-use properties and not worth a million dollars in 1972 in this neighborhood. They were more valuable as parking lots.

So this was a time when everything came together to destroy Broadway — economic forces, the problems with the city, shifts in popular culture. I was interested in how it got out of that mess. The Shubert organization is really the geography and foundation of Broadway. They own the real estate, they own the theatres; Bernie and Jerry had to figure out how to fill those empty theatres. And they found Michael Bennet with A Chorus Line and Peter Shaffer with Equus.

You knew Schoenfeld well.  Were you thinking of this book when you had your frequent conversations with him?

Jerry was a great friend and a great source. He taught me a lot about the business and helped me to understand the bigger picture. He would take me around the Shubert offices and show me the books with the pages totally uncut on the shelves and say, “Look at these leather-bound volumes of Balzac, unread because the Shubert brothers were illiterate.” He would also regale me with tales of working for this tyrant J.J. Shubert. I do remember one day, quite vividly, when Jerry was telling me about J.J. He said there was one morning, after he and Bernie had just started working there, when J.J. called him into his office and asked him to fire Bernie; that same afternoon J.J. asked Bernie to fire Jerry.  I remember Jerry taking his glasses off and running his hand down his face, wincing at the memory of having your fate tied to this absolute tyrant who was pitting one against the other — for sport, really. I thought then there has got to be a great story about this whole place, but this is 20 years ago and I had no idea then that I would eventually write this book.  

How did you get interested in the movers and shakers behind the scenes of Broadway?

I was an undergrad studying history when, quite by accident, I got my first job at TheaterWeek magazine. I liked the theater and I knew something about it but I wasn’t, you know, in awe of Stephen Sondheim, and I never wanted to be an actor, playwright, director, or something like that. During my first or second week on the job, Laurence Olivier died and it was my job to call various people to get quotes. I had inherited this Rolodex from the previous editors and there were phone numbers in there for the Shubert and Nederlander organizations. I called the Schubert office and asked for Bernard B. Jacobs. I was this 21-year-old kid and he had never heard of me, but he picked up the phone. I called the Nederlanders and I got through directly to Jimmy Nederlander. Maybe six months later, I went to a UJA [United Jewish Appeal] benefit at which Bernie Jacobs was being honored; I remember watching this line of people go up to his table — it was exactly like the wedding scene in The Godfather. I went up and introduced myself and he said, “Yeah,” and that was it. Jerry, though, was very friendly: “Tell me, young man, what is it you do?” “TheaterWeek magazine.” “Yes, yes, I believe it has crossed my desk.”  

And then I read Goldman’s The Season and I started getting interested in the producers, the money, and the business. So as a kid reporter I would strategically be at the events where I knew Jerry Schoenfeld or Jimmy Nederlander would be, so I could remind them who I was and talk to them. To me, it was always more interesting to find out what shows they were putting into this theatre, what shows they were kicking out of that theatre, how much money they were going to invest in this show, and whether they liked this producer or hated that producer. That was more interesting to me than going to see a show and thinking, I liked it or I didn’t like it.

They loved talking about what they were doing — and what their rivals were up to.

Yeah, they would gleefully tell me who they were knifing in the back. Bernie was very canny with the press; he was certainly very close to all the people in The New York Times. But these were not guys who were written about very much. And also it was a time before everybody got press-agented up. They didn’t need talking points or media strategies. I think they were secure in their power. Bernie Jacobs didn’t need a press agent to tell him when he should speak to the press or not. As I say in the book, Bernie and Jerry fought unbelievable battles to get where they wanted — first of all, living under J.J.; then ousting the drunken nephew who was running the company and taking over the board; then fighting Lefkowitz, who was trying to indict them for corruption and put them in jail. So by the time I got to know them, there was not much in the world to throw at them that they couldn’t handle.

But I’m not the first person to come around to look behind the scenes. People like Walter Winchell and all the old gossip columnists, they wrote about the producers of their day. David Merrick was in the newspapers all the time, all of his stunts and exploits. And everything that I am today I learned from Alex Witchel, from when she had that Friday theater column in the Times. We were all riveted by it back then and I remember thinking, I’m going to get a column like that one day. I wanted to be really tough and find out all this stuff and needle people a little bit. . . .

What prompted your very public feud in TheaterWeek with Witchel and her husband-to-be, Times chief theater critic Frank Rich?

I saw the way Frank and Alex behaved — they had so much power back then. It is unthinkable now; Ben Brantley has nowhere near the power that Frank Rich had. Frank and Alex had it all sewn up when they were running things. People lived and died on what Frank said in his review and how they appeared in Alex’s column on Friday. And when they were challenged by me, they were like, “How dare you?” I remember thinking, If had that kind of power — which I have never had, quite frankly — I would always try to have a sense of humor about myself and let people fight back and mock and ridicule me. 

Would you say that power and how people wield it is the dominant theme in Razzle Dazzle?

Yes. My friend Patrick Pacheco said that my book is about the theater but it is also about how people get power, how they use it and what it does to them. I think that’s a fair assessment. Bernie and Jerry fought and struggled to save the Shubert Organization and Times Square, and then Jimmy Nederlander comes along. He’s doing what they cannot do, because there was an injunction at the time against the Shuberts buying theatres. And they go, “How dare this guy come into our turf!” Jimmy is the only one of them alive now, at 93. He certainly had his issues with Bernie and Jerry but wasn’t as driven by the pursuit of power as they were. But Bernie and Jerry really controlled every aspect of the business — the League, the Wing, the Tony Awards, the union negotiations — and in the end you see a lot of people begin to chafe under their thumbs.

Isn’t that the same thing that happened with the notorious Syndicate who controlled Broadway at the start of the last century?

And it is what happened with the Shubert brothers themselves when they controlled everything before the government broke them up. I would argue, however, that the Syndicate was pretty brutal. Whereas the Shubert brothers, Lee and J.J., when they had that power, because they had seen just how bad it was for relationships in the business to treat people the way the Syndicate treated people, they exercised their power more wisely, which is probably why they endured much longer. And I think, on the whole, Bernie and Jerry, who certainly could be petty and could be brutal if you crossed them, were on the whole wise in the way they administered their power.

Behind-the-scenes stories make for great history like Razzle Dazzle, but what would you say to those who feel that you can hurt current productions by reporting on stories that producers would prefer to keep under wraps?

You know what ruins shows? The fact that they aren’t very good. That’s a funny thing in this business: Bad shows tend not to last very long. Shows that the critics did not like could run because there is something about them that the public is responding to. The vast majority of the people who go to see shows like Mamma Mia or Phantom have never heard of me nor read my column, and they don’t care. I am writing about what powerful people are up to. Believe me, I’m no moralist for journalism and I don’t believe that I’m exposing things that must be told to the world — all that New York Times shit that they teach you at Columbia Journalism School! I just think it doesn’t hurt to have people who have a lot of power and a lot of money be poked from time to time. And I have fun doing it. If you look at my columns over the years, very rarely do I go after Off-Broadway stuff or small theater companies. But I do think that people who sit on the top of the hill can take it.

Is that why you have resumed your spat with Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood mogul currently represented by Finding Neverland, among other productions? Didn’t you guys just make up?

We did. Never trust a reporter! I always say I am only as good as my material, and there’s Harvey! He was funny because when I was first poking around his show, he called and threatened that he was going to sue, and that he was going to call Rupert Murdoch and that he was going to have my contract terminated. Now, you learn quickly that if some powerful person calls the editor-in-chief of the New York Post and complains about a reporter, gold star for the reporter! That’s the way the tabloid business works. So I calmed Harvey down and said, “You are not going to get me fired. Why don’t we talk candidly about what is going on?” And then he insults me. No problem there: If the ripostes are funny why wouldn’t I use them? I want people to read my column and laugh at the insanity of it all. 

What happens if you want to dish the dirt on one of your own sources?

Any reporter, if he’s being honest, will tell you: You don’t bite the hand that feeds you. So you don’t cavalierly turn on your best sources. But from time to time there are stories that involve them and you can’t ignore them. And so what you do is you call them and say, “I’ve got to write about this. You and I have a long relationship and you trust me. If you are going to tell your story, tell it to me and you can trust me to present it in a fair light.” I have to say, on the whole, that has worked. I’ve got a lot of good friends, sources, in this business who have had fiasco shows that I have had to deal with. I know the difference between what is off the record and what is on the record. I don’t think I could have survived in this business as long as I have if I had betrayed those kinds of confidences. The thing about this business that I did learn — and Bernie Jacobs understood this very well — is that the guy who has this season’s biggest flop could have next season’s biggest hit.

Finally, what are your plans for the future?  There were reports about the New York Post cutting down your columns to one a week. . . .

That was misinterpreted and I understand why: because the Daily News has laid off a lot of people. But in fact, I have the same amount of space that I always had, except instead of having it divided up into two columns, I have it on one page now. And the Post has been redesigned so that each day has a theme. Friday is entertainment, so I am part of that section. If there is breaking news I can always post it on the internet. The column, I hope, is still lively. I am happy to have more space. Now, with the Harvey thing, I can just pull the cord and let him go unhinged and I can put it all in the paper. I love it! And I do want to write another book. Having done this one, I am really interested in New York City in the 1970s because I’m a kid of the ’70s and I love the pop culture of the period.