Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway
Simon & Schuster, 447 pages I figure whenever you’re down and out, The only way is up.
— “Hey Look Me Over” by Cy Coleman & Carolyn Leigh from Wildcat
Broadway has been dead more times than Dracula; but like that resilient prince, it keeps rising from its coffin to rule the night. From its 19th-century beginnings, to its golden age in the 1940s and ’50s, to a low point in the early ’70s, through heights and hollows along the road, the Great White Way has held onto its perch as the Shangri-La of the American theater. From the ’60s scandal over ticket-scalping “ice” to the ’78 “I NY” campaign, from derelicts to Disney on 42nd Street, from mice in the basement to Cats on the stage, Broadway has proved, again and again, that there’s no business like show business, and the show must and will go on. Michael Riedel, a Broadway insider who for the past 17 years has plied his trade as the theater columnist for the New York Post, tells the tale of the striving, surviving, and thriving of “The Fabulous Invalid” (a nickname derived from the 1938 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart whose title has become synonymous with the Broadway theater).
Riedel’s frame of reference for his story is the Shubert Organization, which as a theatrical producing titan and owner of a major stable of Broadway houses, is one of the dominant powers of the New York theater scene. Much of the early part of his book is taken up with the Shuberts — the brothers Sam, Lee, and Jacob, who started off poor in Syracuse, New York, and wound up ruling the Broadway roost. It was a family business for many years; then, in 1972, with the company hemorrhaging money, and the Shubert blood running thin, Gerald Schoenfeld and Bernard Jacobs, a couple of lawyers who had been the powers behind the throne, staged a coup, ousted the remaining family heirs, and took over the store.
The Shubert history is the back story of this narrative, but it plays like the out-of-town tryout, the Philly-Boston period of anguish and adjustment as the show takes shape. We’re waiting for the show-biz personalities who stoke the gossip columns, the hit shows that build lines around the block to the box office. And once Riedel settles into that groove, it’s curtain up, light the lights!
There are a few identifiable villains in this melodrama. Frank Rich, for years the powerful theater critic for The New York Times, comes in for some lumps, as does maverick producer David Merrick. Riedel also has harsh words for John Lindsay, the liberal Republican who was elected mayor of New York in 1965: “He was as Broadway saw itself — rich, sophisticated, elegant, white but compassionate. He was also arguably one of the worst mayors in the history of the city. The damage he did New York — and Broadway — would not be repaired until the city elected Ed Koch in 1978 (he shored up the city’s finances) and Rudolph Giuliani in 1992 (he shored up its quality of life).”
During the down years, crime skyrocketed, Times Square descended into a pit of porn and vice, and theatergoers and tourists shunned the district after dark. From a robust 9.5 million tickets sold in 1968, sales dropped disastrously. “The bottom fell out in 1972. Only 5.4 million tickets were sold, the fewest in Broadway history. How, within just four years, did the theater industry lose nearly half its audience?”
Musical tastes were changing. Cole Porter and Lerner and Loewe were passé. After a flop with Mr.
President in ’62, Irving Berlin retired to his Beekman Place mansion and lived in semi-seclusion for the last years of his life. Then in 1975, along came a dancerchoreographer named Michael Bennett with a musical about Broadway gypsies called A Chorus Line. Soon hits like Annie (1977) and Evita (1979) were rolling up the avenue, and bet your bottom dollar, the sun came out again.
This is where Riedel hits his stride, with delicious inside stuff. During rehearsals of Annie, Dorothy Loudon, whose child-hating personality made her perfect for the role of Miss Hannigan, approached Andrea McArdle, who was playing the title orphan. “Listen to me, kid,” she snarled. “If you make one move on my laugh lines, you will not live to see the curtain call.”
The backstage stories, the accounts of the concept and birth of now-legendary shows, the flame-outs and the rivalries (the musicals Dreamgirls and Nine were locked in a take-no-prisoners feud), the breaks and the busts, all add up to irresistible reading for theater fans. These same readers will find themselves nostalgic for the old days when Broadway was within the budget of the average fan.
“When Schoenfeld and Jacobs took over the Shubert Organization in 1972, the top ticket price was fifteen dollars. By 1980, it was forty dollars.” Cats nudged it higher, Phantom higher still, for which “scalpers were getting $250 for a $50 ticket.” And onward and upward. Today, orchestra seats to the hit musical
Hamilton can set you back more than $700. Broadway, like Dracula, has risen triumphantly from its coffin. But it comes to drink your blood.
— Jonathan Richards