Gritty and Glittery

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

THESE ARE DARK DAYS for theater people. Playhouses sit empty. Performers cash unemployment checks. Broadway remains closed and won’t reopen until May 2021 at the earliest. Many industries have found ways to accommodate our apocalyptic new reality, but commercial theater is not among them. There can be no “outdoor dining” equivalent of a $21 million musical.

Here to fill the void — and to remind us of a better time — is Michael Riedel’s Singular Sensation. This juicy, jaunty book is about Broadway in the 1990s, a period of great change that paved the way for the industry’s recent artistic and financial prosperity. Singular Sensation offers less an explanation of present-day abundance, however, than a reminder of all that has been lost. “I never intended the subtitle of this book — The Triumph of Broadway — to be ironic,” Riedel writes in his foreword. Ironic, alas, it is, though the author insists better times are on their way. “There will be a comeback,” he says, “and Broadway is good at comebacks.”

Riedel’s last book, Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway, tracked the demise and resurgence of New York City, Times Square, and Broadway in the 1970s. Starring two lawyers who took over the Shubert Organization, Broadway’s biggest theater chain, Razzle Dazzle was a relentlessly entertaining piece of cultural history. Riedel, who until his COVID-19 furlough was the much-feared theater columnist at the New York Post, brought his trademark voice — biting, loving — to an epic that was every bit as gritty as it was glittery. He showed how Gerald Schoenfeld and Bernard Jacobs, the hero-lawyers at the center of the book, steered Broadway through fiscal catastrophe and helped deliver New York City into its current affluence. More than just a dishy gossip compendium (though it was that), Razzle Dazzle illustrated just how mutually intertwined the destinies of cities and their arts sectors are.

Singular Sensation has a smaller case to make, and is accordingly a shorter, more narrowly focused book. Much like Razzle Dazzle, it unfolds through a series of show profiles that embody the significant shifts of the era: the decline of the British mega-musical, the reinvigoration of American playwrighting and musical comedy, and the increased corporatization of the producer class. Also like its predecessor, it’s a blast.

We begin with Sunset Boulevard, the musical that effectively ended Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway dominance. By 1993, the year of the show’s American premiere, Lloyd Webber had firmly established his commercial preeminence. The British composer’s productions, which included Cats (1982) and The Phantom of the Opera (1988), delivered unprecedented weekly grosses; Sunset Boulevard, adapted from the 1950 Billy Wilder film, seemed destined to join this run of hits. Production staffers referred to it as “The Female Phantom.”

But there were problems. Stage star Patti LuPone opened the show in London on the understanding that she’d follow it to New York. When Glenn Close won the favor of Lloyd Webber in another pre-Broadway tryout, however, LuPone was fired. On learning the news from a Liz Smith column in the Post, LuPone says she “started screaming […] I had batting practice in my dressing room. I threw a floor lamp out the window.”

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books