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.

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.

Fictional theatre critics: captured!

THEATRE Criticism: Changing Landscapes is an excellent anthology of essays put together by Duska Radosavljevic. It includes lots of illuminating commentaries from around the world on subjects ranging from the unreliability of criticism in the old Soviet Union to the newly emerging history of internet criticism. 

The essays are intelligent, engaging and serious. With one exception. I confess to writing quite the silliest chapter in the book – an overview of fictional theatre critics in films, plays and novels. 

Silly it may be, but I don’t think I’ve enjoyed writing anything more. It was a fantastic excuse to read and watch all kinds of things, ranging from pulp-fiction romances to devastating studies of the critical mindset (everyone should read Wilfrid Sheed’s The Critic).


After consuming more of this than could possibly be healthy, I came up with a bit of a theory about people’s misconceptions of theatre critics. You can read that in the book. The fun part, though, was doing the research, so here for your entertainment are a few examples you can find online.

Odd to find a theatre critic in a video game, but we’ll start with this one from Psychonauts, which typifies the way the job is perceived:

The purple-headed amphibian is a crude caricature who could be a descendent of Frederick Skeates in the 1936 movie Men Are Not Gods, an imperious, pipe-smoking autocrat, who dictates his review to his secretary and refuses to say good evening or even to answer the phone (his high-handed manner makes it easier for his secretary to justify rewriting the review to the benefit of the lead actor):

Here’s a remake of A Piano in the House, a 1962 episode of The Twilight Zone. Fitzgerald Fortune is a ‘theatre critic and cynic at large’ who gains sadomasochistic pleasure in hearing his wife say how much she hates him and his friend confessing to being in love with her. ‘You just need someone to bully and torture when you feel like it,’ says his wife, framing him as a critic with a psychological desire to ‘hurt people’: 

Even songwriters seem to hold a grudge against theatre critics. Here’s Jimmy Webb’s 1970 song Dorothy Chandler Blues. Like many fictional critics, this one is wearing a bow tie, is angry with his wife and appears hell-bent on destruction. ‘Good evening Mr Critic/ How many shows did you close?’ demands Webb, implying that a man who hasn’t written any ‘songs of love’ should not have the right to ‘destroy’ them: 

Lightening the tone, here’s clown Bill Irwin in The Regard of Flight being interrupted by Michael O’Connor, playing a comically pedantic critic, missing the point about what’s going on:

Finally, more laughs here as Alfred Molina stars as a children’s theatre critic:

 

Better Living Through Criticism

AT INTERVALS through Better Living Through Criticism, a free-wheeling meditation on how we talk about art, critic AO Scott changes the pace with a series of imagined interviews. Hold on, says his alter ego every couple of chapters, you’ve been saying this, that and the other, but have you considered this other thing? 

He may be asking his own questions, but the format forces Scott to focus. In a book that can be airy, discursive and tangential, these chapters are the most rooted. (They also have none of the coyness of the imaginary interviews in Michael Billington’s 101 Greatest Plays, but that’s another story.)

In the last of these dialogues, Scott effectively reviews his own book. In the voice of the questioner, he writes: “To be frank I’m still not sure I know what criticism is, unless it is whatever a critic happens to be doing. And in that case what is a critic?”

It’s a pretty fundamental question to be asking after 250 pages. Should it really take this long to get to the point? The answer Scott provides is that “criticism is both paradoxical and tautological. It’s whatever a critic does.” 

And if it’s not too paradoxical and tautological to say so, herein lies the strength and weakness of his book. Reading it is like watching a kite on a blustery day. It dazzles and delights, dips and dives, loops round itself, gets tied in knots, untangles itself and returns to surprise you. Sometimes, though, it disappears from view. Frequently you lose sight of the thin cord connecting it to the ground. At such moments, to paraphrase Scott himself, I’m not sure I know what this book is.

Should I say what it isn’t? Well, it’s not a practical guide to being a critic, nor is it a historical overview of critical thinking, although Scott shows great breath of knowledge and understanding on that subject. Although I love the title, I’m not sure this book actually does offer better living through criticism.

Rather, it is a philosophical meander through the questions and contradictions that criticism presents. How can a review be a subjective expression that also aspires to universal truth? What’s the point of an activity that comes in between the artist and the audience and yet, strictly, is not required by either? Is criticism a creative act that has artistic value in itself or is it tomorrow’s chip paper? 

At its most worthwhile, criticism sets itself above the shallowness and hype of the market, so why is it so often treated as a mere consumer guide? Isn’t it true to say a work of art is itself a piece of criticism in that it reflects and comments on the world around it? Is the critic friend or enemy? Or both?

Scott has no shortage of opinions (he’s a critic; how could he not?) but he is more interested in the questions than the answers. That’s his point. The more you consider the act of criticism, the more conundrums it throws up. They are what make it infinitely interesting. 

This is an activity that not only provokes self-reflection in the critic (why am I doing this?) but also a similar line of questioning from everyone else (why are you doing this – and who gave you the right?) Despite the uncertainty, despite the animosity and despite the multiplicity of answers, criticism keeps on happening – and for as long as people keep thinking, it always will.

And here I am, criticising Scott’s book and here you are, reading about it and now you’ll go away with an opinion of my piece of writing about his piece of writing and maybe you’ll even write down your opinion . . . and the process is never ending. So should you read his book? Of course you should. Only then will I be able to ask you the questions Scott says are the “origin of criticism”: “Did you feel that? Was it good for you? Tell the truth.” (Mark Fisher)

Better Living Through Criticism, AO Scott (Jonathan Cape)