Raz­zle Daz­zle: The Bat­tle for Broad­way

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - by Michael Riedel

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

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