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Review: Singular Sensation - The Triumph of Broadway by Michael Riedel

Passion and perspective make for a vivid history of The Great White Way
Reviewed by Jarlath O’Connell
Published on December 4, 2020

Singular Sensation by Michael Riedel

Since the dawn of showbusiness gossip has oiled the wheels. It makes people, it breaks people but more importantly it creates that all important ‘buzz’, which sells the tickets. To haughtily dismiss it as an unfortunate side effect of the theatre business kind of misses the point.

Michael Riedel knows Broadway like no other, having been the theatre columnist of the New York Post since 1998 and in this rollicking page-turner he tells the extraordinary story of the transformative decades of the ‘90s and the noughties, when Broadway went global, records were broken every year and shows were created which shaped our popular culture. It’s a follow up to his 2015 book Razzle Dazzle which told the story from the ‘70s to the ‘90s. That covered Broadway at its lowest ebb, when the theatre district was ridden with pimps, porn and drug addicts, business was dying, and theatres were being demolished for parking lots.

The ‘90s were important because the British invasion (Les Mis, Cats, Phantom of the Opera), which he covered in the previous book, was beginning to ebb. Sunset Boulevard spelled the end of that era and ushered in a new, more confident, American one.

This is no plodding history though. Riedel soberly corroborates his stories and focuses on a few of the key shows and the key creators which he vividly brings to life. There’s the tragic gestation of Jonathan Larson’s Rent, Mel Brooks’ blockbuster The Producers, Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America, the great reinvention of Chicago and the game changer that was Julie Taymor’s The Lion King. Michael Eisner of Disney was struck by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s bonanza and realised Disney had to get in the game. The Lion King has since grossed $8bn internationally.

Riedel has a fan’s passion but he isn’t partisan and be brings perspective (which nobody seems to have at the time) to the craziness of what he reported on daily. His prose has the zip of a great detective novel and he’s managed to win the key players trust and gives them a fair hearing. There are great stories and larger than life characters.

You learn about the economics as well as the art and you witness the madness of that pressure cooker existence caused by throwing together nervous investors, multiple interfering producers, grandiose directors and insecure actors in order to make art and money. You see anxious movie stars brutally exposed too early because of social media gossip.

The impact of social media theatre gossip sites (who preview shows) and the importance of daytime TV shows (like Rosie O’Donnell) has shifted the power away from the big critics but they’ve opened a hornet’s nest. The other area he touches on, too briefly, are the scalpers and how they adapt so readily to new technology. Would any other industry tolerate such siphoning off of revenue streams? And yet they do. They need them to big up the struggling shows early on, and late on.

Speaking of beefing up, the king of all its variations was the disgraced Canadian producer Garth Drabinsky whose Livent went bust landing him a 7-year jail sentence. This was after the most astonishing run of bloated excess and chicanery that should have alarmed anyone with eyes in their heads. During his tyrannical and despotic reign (think a Baddie from a Ryan Murphy miniseries) he kept two sets of accounts. Like many conmen he got away with it not because people particularly were dupes, but rather because they thought they’d be able to jump off the rollercoaster before it crashed. He’s a wonderful metaphor for the bombast and delusion which made Broadway. William Goldman said about Hollywood “Nobody knows anything” which is even more true about Broadway, but if you sweep into town and lie big enough you’ll get away with it ...for a while.

Sadly, Broadway has been dark since March, the longest period ever, but no doubt it will bounce back even bigger. When it does, let’s hope Riedel has a third book in him telling that tale and including a big section on Hamilton, which he deliberately avoided in this one.

Singular Sensation – The Triumph of Broadway by Michael Riedel is published on December 10th, 2020 by Simon and Shuster, ISBN 978-1501166631, hardback, 352 pages, £20


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