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.