Book review – Razzle Dazzle and Singular Sensation

Two books by the New York Post columnist reveal a Broadway run by charlatans, cheats and chancers, finds Mark Fisher

It’s the dawn of the 20th century and the competition between US theatre producers is hotting up. The established brand is the Syndicate, a conglomeration of five theatre managers who between them have cornered the Broadway market and sewn up the touring circuit. Across the country, it has the fanciest theatres and can insist on the most stringent terms.

From Syracuse in upstate New York, the Shubert brothers are the new kids on the block. They’re stuck with the second-best theatres but hungry enough to take risks. Sometimes they pay off.

The Syndicate is keen to see off this new competitor and knows exactly how to do it. As it pays vast amounts to advertise its shows in the newspapers, all it takes is a gentle word to the editors and any rival production will be trounced. Immediately come the negative headlines for Shubert shows – and indeed for the Shuberts themselves.

But that’s not the end of the story. The Shubert pockets are deep. The brothers decide to play the Syndicate at its own game. They do so not by paying off the odd journalist, but by launching a whole newspaper. With the New York Review on their side, the Shuberts have all the good publicity they could want. In time, they will see off the Syndicate and come to dominate Broadway.

The idea critical opinion could be so easily bought and sold seems preposterous today but it’s very much in keeping with the wild-west world Michael Riedel describes in Razzle Dazzle. In this survey of the rise of the Great White Way, the long-standing theatre columnist for the New York Post paints a picture not of the sophisticated marketing machine behind today’s mega-musicals, but of a fly-by-night industry forever on the brink of disaster.

Run by charlatans, cheats and chancers, this is a behind-the-scenes Broadway that’s less razzle dazzle than spit and sawdust.

Riedel turns this material into a cracking read. He writes not only with a newspaper man’s ear for snappy prose, but a journalist’s instinct for a compelling story. Rather than divide Razzle Dazzle into neat-and-tidy decades, he lets this history book take him wherever the action may be. Lurching from one escapade to another, he always finds the most colourful route to get from A to B.

Colourful though it is, the book is painstakingly researched. Like its sequel, Singular Sensation, which takes the Broadway story into the 1990s, Razzle Dazzle has a dense cast list of characters and it’s as much as you can do to keep track of them.

You make the effort because of Riedel’s gossipy feel for personality quirks and clashes of opinion. He relishes every tale of drinking, philandering and feuding that lurks behind Times Square’s bright lights. If a production was beset by artistic differences – and what production wasn’t? – he will lay out the conflict in blunt detail, just as he will reveal the power struggles, misjudgements and strokes of luck that made the shows happen in the first place.

Over the two books, he shows how Broadway dealt with wave after wave of threats: the Great Depression, the age of television, the rising seediness of Times Square, the British invasion and 9/11. It’s easy to take the cultural dominance of Broadway as a given; Riedel shows it is anything but. As he tells it, this is an industry almost permanently on a knife edge, with nothing inevitable about its money-spinning triumphs.

Neither book is about criticism, but critics do make entertaining bit-part appearances. There is the white-haired Stanley Kauffmann of the New York Times breaking convention to turn up at a preview only to find the performance cancelled after the supposed discovery of a “white rat”. There is the double threat posed by the New York Times when it hires the hard-hitting theatre reporter Alex Witchel who happens to be going out with the paper’s critic Frank Rich and shares many of his opinions. And there is the detail that Daily Telegraph critic Charles Spencer came up with the phrase “pure theatrical Viagra” to describe Nicole Kidman in The Blue Room only after his editor had called for an extra paragraph to fill up the space.

Beyond that, Riedel takes note of critical opinion but is not overly concerned with it. As befits an industry in which fortunes are won and lost, the author focuses more on business than on art. Although he writes grippingly about the long process of getting a musical to work, about placing the right song in the right place and casting exactly the right actor, he tends to leave us to imagine the mysterious alchemy that finally took place. Why, for example, do shows that have gone through long periods of development followed by lengthy out-of-town runs need further weeks of rehearsal for Broadway – weeks in which they can still go wrong or magically come together?

Perhaps if anyone knew the answer there’d be more hit shows. Instead of getting muddied up with art, Riedel keeps his critical hands clean, generally not commenting on a show’s meaning or cultural appeal where he can amuse us with a back-stage tiff or amaze us with a multimillion dollar box-office advance.

Especially in Singular Sensation which covers the era of Phantom of the Opera, Angels in America and The Lion King, he makes little distinction between artistic and commercial success. If a show runs for “only” ten months and fails to recoup its investment, he is likely to write it off as a failure. If it takes residence on Broadway for years and becomes a global franchise, it must be good. For this reason, the second book, for all its twists and turns, feels like a history written by the victors.

By contrast, Razzle Dazzle, with its maverick personalities and make-or-break deals, responds to the era’s wayward spirit with an anarchic energy of its own. Even in the modern era described in Singular Sensation there is no such thing as a guaranteed hit, but when the players are such assured professionals as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cameron Macintosh and the Walt Disney Company you lose some of the first book’s sense of jeopardy.

Both, though, are vibrant reads and valuable resources, reminding us that behind every glitzy Broadway smash lies a less glamorous tale of human frailty, endeavour and good luck.

How to Write About Theatre Online Workshops

First published in Critical Stages/Scènes critiques

The IATC journal/Revue de l’AICT – December/Décembre 2020: Issue No 22

It is October 2016, and I am sharing a stage at Trinity College Dublin with Peter Crawley of the Irish Times. We are talking about theatre criticism, and I want to make a point about the way every critic—and indeed every member of the audience—sees a show in a slightly different way.

To illustrate my argument, I leave my seat, climb the raked auditorium to the back row and sit next to a student. I expect her to cringe in embarrassment and everyone else to laugh. At that point, I plan to point out that this student’s experience is necessarily different from everyone else’s. For her, the performance would be uncomfortable; for everyone else, it would be fun.

Except she does nothing of the kind. She holds my gaze and remains relaxed. If she is uncomfortable, she is not showing it. I stumble on regardless, trusting my return trip down the aisle will demonstrate how a performer’s proximity can change the way we feel.

It is only after the event that Crawley explains my error. The student I had chosen to sit next to is actually an actor, Breffni Holahan. Her work includes VARDO by the brilliant site-specific company ANU. In that show, she played a sex worker in a real apartment in Dublin’s former red-light district. The role required her to get up-close and personal with one audience member at a time. She is not someone to be fazed by a wandering theatre critic with a poor sense of social distance. “I remember the moment well,” says Crawley today, “and seeing you pick the most utterly unflappable target in the room with what seemed like fated precision.”

Ah, the joys of live performance!

It is a memory that has returned to me now as I move my criticism workshops online and think about what I am missing. In the digital world, I can make the same argument as I did then. I can describe the difference between sitting in the stalls and perching in the gods. I can explain how every one of us is a product of so many influences and biases that objectivity is impossible, even if it were desirable. I can say that when someone writes to the editor to ask, “Did Mark Fisher see the same play as me?” the correct answer is, “No, I saw it with my eyes, you saw it with yours.” But what I cannot do is leap from my chair.

I can tell but I cannot show.

Since the publication of my book How to Write About Theatre (2015), I have visited universities, schools and theatres to run two-hour workshops about the craft of reviewing. In the U.K., I’ve talked in lecture halls, rehearsal rooms and theatre foyers. Further afield, I have appeared in a classroom in Valetta, a meeting room in Sao Paulo and a studio in Santiago. No two spaces are alike, and no two arrangements of participants is quite the same. I relish the unpredictability. I love the way, as with live performance itself, the tone and energy of a workshop is influenced by the room we are in and the architecture of the space, just as we are all subject to our moods, the weather and the politics of the day. These moment-by-moment shifts are what makes live theatre—and writing about live theatre—endlessly interesting.

Towards the start of a workshop, I will often prowl round the room or walk up the aisle, just as I did in Dublin, to draw attention to how much the meaning of a performance is locked into our spatial relationships. If the teacher stands in front of a whiteboard with the students sat in rows, it feels orthodox and hierarchical. If we arrange the chairs in a circle, it becomes egalitarian. If I sit behind a desk, I look defensive; if I sit on the desk, I seem open. By extension, a play performed in a proscenium-arch theatre has a different meaning from the same play staged in an abandoned factory. Even before a word is spoken, the setting establishes a distinct atmosphere, perhaps even a value system. We are not always good at articulating how that atmosphere affects us, but every time we go to the theatre, we instinctively adapt, critics and audiences alike.

I did one such workshop in February 2020 at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, where Dr Joel Anderson runs an MA course in theatre criticism and dramaturgy. I did not know it would be my last real-world session for some time. Within a month, the COVID-19 pandemic was forcing universities and theatres to close. I was out of a job. Like many, I took a while to adjust to the new normal, but as a freelance writer in need of an income, I realised I could take the workshops online.

I would have called them “How to Write About Theatre When There Isn’t Any Theatre to Write About” if it had not been too close to the truth.

For the same reason, I worried nobody would be interested. Wouldn’t they all be rethinking their careers? Being a theatre critic is a precarious business at the best of times and now . . . Who would want to learn more about such an endangered profession?

But, thanks to the reach of social media, I discovered they were interested. Putting a toe in the water, I ran three workshops in close succession at the start of May. They proved successful enough for me to continue more-or-less weekly since then. Some participants have returned for follow-on workshops, others for one-to-one sessions. I have also picked up a few high schools and youth groups.

But successful or not, I can no longer circle the room. Instead, I sit looking at the same arrangement of Zoom faces in their individual spaces, flat and two-dimensional. As with online theatre, you miss the depth of field and the sense of everyone breathing the same air. It works, it is practical, it just lacks that special dynamic of bodies together in a room.

Mark Fisher with Winchester young critics holding his book on criticism. Photo: Carl Woodward

Yet, even though we are not physically together, I quickly realised the workshops do capitalise on the human need to congregate. It almost does not matter that the subject under discussion is criticism; just as important is the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with like-minded people. With COVID-19 ruling out the possibility of theatre­—and, with it, the possibility of earning a living from theatre—the morale of many of the participants has been low. “I’ve been in a slump,” wrote one South African participant on Twitter later, “but after being part of one of his workshops, I’m excited to write about theatre again!” (@Varvara13)

Morale-raising had not been my intention, but she was not alone in expressing that sentiment. “I have been sorely missing theatre of late,” wrote another, “and an afternoon chatting about theatre and criticism was just the tonic” (@E_dayEccentric).

Spending two hours talking about criticism might sound an esoteric pursuit, but talking about criticism means talking about art. And talking about art means talking about yourself, your passions, your tastes, your values, the world at large. That must have been the thought on A.O. Scott’s mind when he called his 2016 book Better Living Through Criticism. In a free-wheeling contemplation of the form, he contended that thinking and judging are what we do as a species, making criticism fundamental. “This book is also, I hope, a celebration of art and imagination, an examination of our inborn drive to cultivate delight and of the various ways we refine that impulse,” he wrote (Scott 16). Maybe writing about theatre when there is not any theatre to write about is not such a crazy idea after all.

Another happy accident is that most of the workshops have become international forums. Free from geographical constraints, online discussions are global. In one session, the conversation bounced back and forth from my spare bedroom in Scotland to living rooms in Ireland, Italy and Canada. Participants have logged on from Bahrein, Singapore and Florida. This has two effects. One is to create a sense of shared experience, of theatre lovers all over the globe dealing with the lockdown in similar ways. That feels nourishing and supportive. The other, just as valuable, is the opposite: to learn about distinct features of local theatre cultures, be it embedded criticism in Manchester, voices of oppression in Cape Town or identity politics in Ottawa.

The conversations have ranged more broadly still. Some of the best workshops have been those attended by theatre professionals curious about the critic’s job. There was the U.K. artistic director who lamented the decline in regional critics and the failure of visiting national critics to understand the local context. Another director wondered whether critics showed enough care towards productions mounted at huge financial risk. Playwrights, press officers and actors have brought equally stimulating outside perspectives. Later in the summer, the workshops took on a tone of political urgency as several people, led by playwright Chinonyerem Odimba, paid for black critics to attend. In the months following the death of George Floyd and the global Black Lives Matter protests, the participants asked questions about whose voices were being heard in theatre and in writing about theatre.

Mark Fisher leads a criticism workshop at the Santiago a Mil festival, Chile. Photo: Web

There are technological bonuses too. My real-world workshops are avowedly lo-tech, requiring no more than a pen and paper. But seeing as everyone is sitting in front of a computer, I have found it to too tempting not to make use of the share-screen function and throw pictures, videos and websites into the mix. In the middle of the workshop, I usually ask the participants to spend ten minutes writing a mini-review. Previously, they would have had to read them out loud for me to comment on. That was before an online participant suggested we use Zoom’s chat function to share the reviews, allowing me to make a speedy assessment and keeping everyone else in the loop.

So, yes, I miss the uncertainty of finding myself in a new room in an unfamiliar town, searching for the moment of spontaneity that will give shape to a workshop, but so too will I miss the unintended consequences of the virus, the spirit of resilience, the easy internationalism and the meeting of online minds.

Works Cited

@E_dayEccentric. “Spent a lovely couple of hours at a theatre criticism workshop run by @WriteAboutTheat today. I have been sorely missing theatre of late, and an afternoon chatting about theatre and criticism was just the tonic. Check out Mark’s upcoming workshops at the twitter page above.” Twitter, 5 May 2020, 7:40 p.m.

@Varvara13. “What an amazing #LoveTheatre experience spending 2+ hrs soaking up the insight & knowledge of @guardian theatre critic &  @WriteAboutTheat author, @MarkFFisher. I’ve been in a slump, but after being part of one of his workshops, I’m excited to write about theatre again! Brilliant!” Twitter, 7 May 2020, 8:33 p.m.

Fisher, Mark. How to Write About Theatre. Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2015.

Scott, A. O. Better Living Through Criticism. Jonathan Cape, 2016.


*Mark Fisher is a theatre critic for the Guardian, a former editor of the List magazine and a freelance writer. He is the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide (Bloomsbury) and How to Write About Theatre (Bloomsbury). More information about his online criticism workshops can be found here.

Theatre Blogging: The Emergence of a Critical Culture

Mark Fisher

By Megan Vaughan
270 pp. Methuen Drama

Reviewed by Mark Fisher (first published by Critical Stages)

Scan your eyes over the footnotes in this timely survey of online criticism. You’ll spot a pattern. One says: “In 2009, all of JournalSpace’s data, including every single blog hosted on it, was deleted by a disgruntled employee.” Another reads: “This post is now lost,” and another: “No longer online.”

Elsewhere, talking about a provocative London blog called Encore, author Megan Vaughan writes: “Much of these later posts were lost when the hosting lapsed.”

As the tech-savvy Vaughan might have put it herself, the space where so much vital theatrical commentary once sat is now:

via GIPHY

For anyone concerned about the historical record, such disappearances are troubling. The internet is so pervasive we forget things could be deleted as quickly as they arrived. For the future archivist trying to piece together theatrical discussions from the start of the twenty-first century, our ultra-connected world might actually look more like a second dark age. All it takes is a hasty delete key, an unpaid ISP bill or a technological upgrade and the record is wiped.

This is one reason Vaughan’s book is so welcome. Her aim, to borrow her subtitle, is to mark “the emergence of a critical culture,” one made possible by online tools such as Blogger (1999) that allowed even those without coding skills to share their thoughts in online journals. She identifies 2003 as a theatre-blogging year zero. It was then that established blogger Laura Axelrod, a playwright and actor, was drawn into a circle of New York bloggers, including director Isaac Butler and playwright George Hunka, who began linking to each other and having theatre-related discussions in public. They created an online scene. Similar groupings emerged in London and Australia.

Vaughan is alive to the irony of commemorating the interactive internet, with its hyperlinks and embedded videos, in a boring old paper-and-ink book, but she also sees the value in taking a real-world snapshot, fixed in 270 pages, of an online culture that is as ephemeral as it is uncontainable. More than this, she correctly observes that this was a special moment in the history of theatre criticism, one that ushered in a new generation of voices, whose politics, aesthetics and even manner of writing has frequently stood in opposition to what Vaughan calls the “paternalistic and parochial” values of traditional newspaper criticism.

There’s room for debate here. On the one hand, not all mainstream media criticism is paternalistic and parochial. On the other, as Vaughan acknowledges, many of the supposedly radical new generation have come from much the same educated, privileged class as the old guard who were famously characterised by director Nicholas Hytner as “dead white men.” The internet might feel fresher, sharper and more democratic—and Vaughan does an excellent job at highlighting the areas where that is true—but it can be conservative too.

It is also in the nature of theatre to be local. Although the internet is global, the most dynamic blogging has been in response to very particular theatre scenes— especially those in London and New York. Take the example of the 2012 production of Three Kingdoms by Simon Stephens, which animated theatre bloggers even as it left many mainstream critics nonplussed. The online commentary Vaughan quotes makes it sounds like a thrilling occasion, but for me, living 400 miles from London’s Lyric Hammersmith where it was staged, it is just another show I didn’t see. Consequently, the claim made by former blogger Matt Trueman that Three Kingdoms would “change the course of British theatre” sounds as parochial as anything printed in a London-centric newspaper.

He’s not even necessarily wrong (although eight years later, I’m still waiting for the shockwaves to reach me in Scotland), it’s just that theatre blogging is not a mass-participation project. The best commentary has emerged when a small group of intelligent writers have talked among themselves about a shared experience that, by its nature, can only ever have had a limited audience. In theory, anyone can join in the discussion, but in practice most people are outside the charmed circle.

Inclusive or not, what’s important is that this kind of discussion was not possible before the twenty-first century. Two-thirds of Vaughan’s book is a compendium of exemplary blogs written by other people, a reflection of her belief in collaboration and non-hierarchical structures. You can imagine some of those blogs being published in the traditional media, but for the most part, they have a quality of their own. On a surface level, that might mean non-standard spelling, Twitter-friendly abbreviations and emojis, all of which defy the top-down authority of “proper” writing. There is no pretence at objectivity here; it is writing aware of its partiality, happy to be messy, emotional, human.

On a structural level, blogs have a degree of immediacy, responsiveness and reflexivity that old technology does not allow. In the case of Three Kingdoms, Trueman’s bright and breathless response sits alongside the thoughts of bloggers such as Andrew Haydon, Dan Rebellato and Catherine Love, each of them cross-referencing the other and building on a foundation of ideas. When Sarah Punshon joins in, questioning the production’s sexual politics, her perspective shifts the discussion, causing the others to reflect on an aspect they had glossed over. This is criticism as a collegial activity. The writers are no less assertive than their old-school peers, but they can compromise, change their minds and be open to nuance. A theatre blog doesn’t have to be the last word.

In her selection of blogs, Vaughan also shows how dynamic the internet can be. She focuses on the case of My Name is Rachel Corrie, a monologue about a pro-Palestinian activist, which was abruptly dropped from the schedule at New York Theatre Workshop in 2006. Where once you would have expected the city’s arts reporters to expose this apparent act of censorship, here it was the bloggers, spearheaded by Garrett Eisler, who kept up the more-than-daily pressure on the theatre. Within a single month Eisler alone had published over 100 posts on the subject. Even the fast-paced world of daily newspaper journalism could not match that level of scrutiny.

Vaughan highlights too some of the political voices who might have been marginalised were it not for the internet. Anyone who wants to rail against misogyny, racism and institutional bias can set up a blog today, just like the theatremakers who have gone online to discuss their creative practices without recourse to specialist theatre magazines.

As well as speed, interactivity and access, blogging can break free of the conventions of theatre criticism. Although too much online writing simply apes the format of newspaper reviews, the medium allows creative thinkers—Vaughan included—not only to break the rules but to respond to theatre in a more apposite way. She gives examples of critics using Venn diagrams, rhyming verse and her own Kafkaesque venture into bureaucratic form-filling criticism.

That’s a clue to Vaughan’s bigger interest in what she calls “outsider criticism”. Although the bulk of the book is given over to people who would otherwise be regarded as insiders, she is drawn to the voice of the “unedited, the informal, the amateur and the autonomous.” In the DIY spirit of the punk fanzine, the internet upturns the hierarchy of writer and reader and makes space for bottom-up criticism. We should be grateful to Vaughan for being on hand to take such a stimulating snapshot before the bits and bytes melt into techno-oblivion.