“Razzle Dazzle,” Michael Riedel’s book subtitled “The Battle for Broadway”, is lighting up the Great White Way like thousand suns. Rich with laugh-out-loud anecdotes, this meticulously researched history of Broadway and Times Square starts even before the latter acquired its present moniker, when it was Longacre Square. It’s a must-read not only for theater professionals and theater-goers, it’s for every reporter who ever covered Times Square, when it was grime/slime/crime square to the present. It goes from “The Black Crook” to “The Phantom of the Opera.”
The famous and infamous include mayors John Lindsay, Abe Beame, David Dinkins and Ed Koch, prosecutors Louis Lefkowitz and Maurice Nadjari, among others The book is peppered with pithy quotes, expletives NOT deleted. Historians, urbanologists, sociologists, psychologists, celebrity freaks and newspeople of every medium (some of whom are named) will find this tome enthralling. While there are many insider references, all are succinctly explained. The reader is always in the loop.
There are pages of photographs, some seemingly from private collections, and the text is rife with star performers. Those who know Michael Riedel from his New York Post column and Theater Talk appearances may be astonished at the comprehensiveness of the work and by its serious tone. No snarkiness—“the Beast of Broadway,” “that Napoleonic little Nazi”--can really write. I’d say this is a scholarly tome but I fear discouraging readers. It is, however, scholarly—and fun.
The cast of characters could have stepped off the pages of Damon Runyan. There’s John Shubert—was he or wasn’t he a bigamist?—and corrupt Judge di Falco who ruled for the first wife. There’s Lawrence Shubert Lawrence, always drinking at Sardi’s bar, and usually drunk. The founding Shuberts, Lee, JJ and saintly Sam, who died early, amassed a theater empire, having first crushed Abe Erlanger. Lee and JJ, joint emperors, didn’t speak to one another for decades. There were the “five o’clock girls” (think cinq à sept—more I will not say) and the various mayors, all wanting to “clean up Times Square.”
“Razzle Dazzle” is rich with details about the pols, porn, profits and payoffs. “Ice” is a major topic—illegal pricing and pocketing the difference—a plague for hit shows. The difference between the price on the ticket and that paid by the eager patron is pocketed by the seller, be it a ticket agency, box office personnel, or someone with access to house seats. The money doesn’t go to the creators, it doesn’t go the theater, it goes to the parasites.
Among the most colorful characters, and most nefarious, was Irving Goldman. His real job for the Shuberts was to look after the mayor (Abe Beame) but he was also named Cultural Affairs Commissioner of the city. Newspaperman Bob Williams, then TV columnist for the New York Post, was tapped to be Deputy Commissioner. It was understood that Goldman would be the figurehead and that Williams would do the work. At the first meeting, prior to Bob’s being confirmed, a group including Irving Goldman, “the Shuberts” and elegant producer Alex Cohen, considered what to do to make theater-goers feel safe in the crime-blighted Times Square area. More police on foot? No, couldn’t find them when needed. Ditto more patrol cars which would further congest the already congested streets. Bob Williams came up with the solution: mounted police! They’d tower above the crowds, be easy to see, and could move nimbly through the traffic. The plan was initiated and remains in force. However, scandal enveloped Irving Goldman and Bob Williams withdrew. (Full disclosure. I was married to Bob Williams.)
Even as “Razzle Dazzle” looks at the grunge, it also sees the glamour, although when viewed close-up glamour is not always what it’s cracked up to be. The reader is taken from hit to hit as well as through flops and shown how they came to be. How Betty Buckley was put through the wringer during rehearsals for “Cats.”
This book would be worth reading if it included nothing but “A Chorus Line” and the life of Michael Bennett, whom one comes to love. One wishes that the book included the revival of “A Chorus Line” and the bitterness it engendered, which almost certainly would not have been the case had Michael Bennett, not John Breglio, been in charge, if Michael Bennett had lived.
It’s somewhat baffling that in all the attention given to “Dreamgirls” and the rivalry with “Nine,” there’s not one word about The Supremes, considered by many to be the inspiration for “Dreamgirls.” The omission of any mention of “Man of La Mancha” was disappointing. It had been an honored straight play (“I, Don Quixote,” starring Lee J. Cobb, Eli Wallach and Colleen Dewhurst) and was one of the last heroic productions of Broadway’s golden age, winning five Tonys, running for years, being regularly revived on Broadway, and there’s always a production somewhere in the world. It’s not even mentioned in the section on Broadway’s global reach, although it’s particularly popular in Japan where it’s done every two or three years.
I’d thought—hoped—that “Razzle Dazzle” might successfully dispel the notion that “Man of La Mancha” is a musical version of “Don Quixote.” Emphatically it is not. Don Quixote is Cervantes’ man of La Mancha; it’s Cervantes himself who’s Dale Wasserman’s: Cervantes and his trial before the Inquisition. (Full disclosure: this writer was Dale Wasserman’s New York assistant the last seven years of his life.)
Although “Razzle Dazzle” is rich with anecdotes, some as footnotes at the bottom of pages, most require context. Here’s one that doesn’t: Bernie Jacobs, one of the post-Shubert Shuberts, was on good terms with the theatrical union people with whom he had to deal. This was particularly true of Robert McDonald of the stagehands union. Bernie Jacobs would phone McDonald periodically and say, “I hear you have an election coming up. Meet me in the alley [Shubert Alley] and we’ll yell at each other. It’ll look good for you front of your men.” One comes to feel great affection for Bernie Jacobs!
“Razzle Dazzle” has 403 pages but is brilliantly structured so it can be put down at the end of a chapter and picked up again for the next. It’s chronological and easy to follow. Despite its length, it’s easy reading and riveting. This reader wept, yes, wept, when Les Miz, about to be closed, was rescued by the box office.
“Razzle Dazzle,” published by Simon & Schuster, 445 page including acknowledgements and index, $27.