Pulling back the cur­tain on Broad­way

The be­hind-the-scenes drama of how New York theater saved it­self from obliv­ion — and maybe helped save New York

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY SARAH ARCHER book­world@wash­post.com Sarah Archer is a writer and cu­ra­tor based in Philadel­phia.

Re­mem­ber when an evening at a Broad­way mu­si­cal re­quired scur­ry­ing past seedy, adults-only shops and all man­ner of col­or­ful en­trepreneurs on the way to the theater? If your im­pres­sion of Times Square dances with Dis­ney char­ac­ters and shiny re­tail mec­cas, you prob­a­bly don’t re­mem­ber. But Michael Riedel’s new book, “Raz­zle Daz­zle,” brings this gritty world back to life. His his­tory of Broad­way in the 1970s and ’80s paints a can­did and thor­oughly en­ter­tain­ing por­trait of the pe­riod just af­ter New York theater’s golden age. Money for artis­tic en­deav­ors was scarce, and the city seemed adrift in eco­nomic and so­cial tur­moil. Broad­way, Riedel ar­gues, was both a ben­e­fi­ciary of and a crit­i­cal fac­tor in the city’s as­ton­ish­ing trans­for­ma­tion in the fol­low­ing decades.

Riedel is the theater critic for the New York Post and the co-host with Su­san Hask­ins of PBS’s “Theater Talk.” He’s also a for­mi­da­ble pres­ence in the Broad­way world, known as much for his way with words as for his with­er­ing cri­tiques of pro­duc­tions that miss the mark. But in this book, Riedel saves his bon mots for the off­stage drama: The sub­ject at hand in “Raz­zle Daz­zle” is the “busi­ness of show,” not the artis­tic merit of the pro­duc­tions them­selves. He draws on decades of in­ter­views, me­moirs, re­views and news­pa­per ar­ti­cles to re­con­struct the feuds, am­bi­tions, catas­tro­phes and suc­cesses of this fas­ci­nat­ing pe­riod.

The cen­tral nar­ra­tive of “Raz­zle Daz­zle” is the story of the Shu­bert Or­ga­ni­za­tion, es­tab­lished by three broth­ers from Syra­cuse, N.Y., in the late 19th cen­tury. The Shu­berts’ mod­est, early ef­forts were in vaude­ville, but by 1929, the Shu­bert Or­ga­ni­za­tion com­prised a net­work of the­aters across New York City, in­clud­ing the Im­pe­rial Theatre and the Win­ter Gar­den. As Riedel ex­plains, in the post­war years, Broad­way pro­duced a string of un­prece­dented smash hits, and the medium of the mu­si­cal hit its stride: “West Side Story,” “The Sound of Mu­sic,” “Damn Yan­kees,” “Kiss Me, Kate,” “The Pa­jama Game” and scores of other pro­duc­tions kept the­aters busy, with about 7 mil­lion pa­trons per year.

Riedel weaves to­gether the story of the di­verse forces that changed all that. The stock mar­ket crash of 1969, though not as calami­tous as that of 1929, sent a fis­cal chill through the coun­try. The pop­u­la­tion of New York had shrunk by a stag­ger­ing 800,000, fol­low­ing a pat­tern of white flight that swelled sub­urbs all over Amer­ica. By the early ’70s, theater at­ten­dance was halved. “The Broad­way au­di­ence has al­ways been white, mid­dle-aged, and up­per­mid­dle class,” Riedel notes, and with its core pop­u­la­tion dras­ti­cally re­duced, the mu­si­cal theater world was founder­ing.

Broad­way might have drifted into financial and cul­tural obliv­ion were it not for three men who in­ter­vened, set on sav­ing the industry they loved. Th­ese were Jimmy Ned­er­lan­der, whose theater-buy­ing habit made him a Shu­bert ri­val, and Ger­ald Schoen­feld and Bernie Ja­cobs, who took con­trol of the Shu­berts’ 17 the­aters. Both camps be­gan turn­ing out hits: In 1975, “A Cho­rus Line” opened at a Shu­bert theater, and Ned­er­lan­der had a smash with “An­nie” in 1977. Amid th­ese tri­umphs, Riedel has­tens to point out, com­pe­ti­tion was stiff and pro­duc­ers were forced to take sides. His de­scrip­tions of the vices and foibles of the pro­duc­ers, choreographers and di­rec­tors who shaped th­ese pro­duc­tions would not seem out of place in a page-turn­ing Hol­ly­wood tell-all.

Broad­way’s ex­tra­or­di­nary re­birth par­al­leled the trans­for­ma­tion of Times Square and New York City it­self. One es­pe­cially com­pelling ex­am­ple is the iconic “I Love New York” cam­paign, dreamed up by the ad­ver­tis­ing agency Wells Rich Greene in the late ’70s. The TV ad fea­tured a song by vet­eran jin­gle-writer Steve Kar­men, per­formed by cast mem­bers from “The Wiz,” “A Cho­rus Line,” “An­nie” and “Grease,” plus Yul Bryn­ner and pint-size chil­dren from the cast of “The King and I.” This be­came one of the orig­i­nal “brand videos,” to em­ploy an anachro­nism: The ac­tors were sell­ing the idea of Broad­way, not their in­di­vid­ual pro­duc­tions. The “I Love New York” cam­paign was a huge hit, and weall know what hap­pened next: “Les Misérables,” “The Phan­tom of the Opera” and—cue the furry jazz hands— “Cats.”

Broad­way and Times Square to­day would not be rec­og­niz­able to those who last saw them in the mid-’70s or, for that mat­ter, in the late ’20s. Broad­way mu­si­cals are as pop­u­lar as ever, but much of the grit and seed­i­ness has been washed clean, and the area is now more akin to a fam­ily-friendly theme park than a bawdy vaude­ville en­clave. Riedel un­earths trea­sures from the re­cent past and con­tex­tu­al­izes events that would oth­er­wise be too eas­ily for­got­ten. “Raz­zle Daz­zle” helps ex­plain how each of th­ese dis­tinct eras could un­fold in the same phys­i­cal place, each one a po­tent sign of its times.


TOP: Ger­ald Schoen­feld, left, Bernie Ja­cobs, cen­ter, and Philip J. Smith, right, of the Shu­bert Or­ga­ni­za­tion cel­e­brate an Amer­i­can Ex­press ad from the 1980s spot­light­ing Broad­way pro­duc­ers.

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