Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway (book review)

It's difficult to review Michael Riedel's Razzle Dazzle because it's difficult to figure out exactly what he's trying to accomplish. In the author's note, he writes that the book is about the struggle by the Shuberts and the Nederlanders to save Broadway in the 1970s. In the first chapter, where nonfiction generally sets the stage for the rest of the book, he focuses on "ice," or the money box office treasurers made in the 1960s by selling tickets, above list price, to brokers. The book then dips into the history of the Shuberts and Nederlanders, the takeover of the Shuberts by Bernard Jacobs and Gerald Schoenfeld, the rivalry between Nine and Dreamgirls, Michael Bennett's prodigious drug use, the effect of AIDS on Broadway, David Merrick's tricks, the development of A Chorus Line, the English invasion of Broadway, the Disneyification of Broadway, and so on.

In other hands, this breadth of content could be a selling point. But the chronology is random and awkward, and Riedel does not handle the transitions with a sure hand. Even worse, Razzle Dazzle lacks an overall theme. Nor does it have the sort of insight that can make reading nonfiction worthwhile.

Instead, the book is a haphazard collection of gossip that Riedel has collected over the years and in various interviews, with his signature focus on the petty, the nasty, and the mean. As I was reading it, I kept thinking, "Was everyone on Broadway really this juvenile, this stupid, this unforgiving, this narrow-minded?" And I kept reminding myself, "It's Riedel. This is what he likes to write about." And I also kept wondering, as I often do when I read his column or watch his TV show, "Does this guy even like theatre?"

It's also worth noting that Razzle Dazzle is over 400 pages long but has barely more than 200 notes. Knowing Riedel's sources for particular stories would make it possible to judge their veracity. The lack of notes is not a good sign.

Though, in fairness to Riedel, a good editor could have helped. Beside offering guidance on structure and sourcing, a good editor could have caught the dozens and dozens of examples of sloppiness and bad writing. A sampling:
  • Page 25: "Sam went on another buying spree, acquiring leases."
    --You don't buy leases.
  • Page 32: "Lee worked through the night and never got up before noon."
    --Later, on the same page: "...on summer mornings, Lee could be found in Central Park."
  • Page 82: "The theater would be nothing without gay men. They are its creators..."
    --Tell that to (off the top of my head) both Gershwins, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Harold Prince, Dorothy Fields, Mary Rodgers, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Lisa Kron, Jeanine Tesori, and Adam Guettal.
  • Page 209: Refers to Your Arms Are Too Short to Box With God.
    --The actual title is Your Arms Too Short to Box With God.
  • Page 221: "That fall, the talk on Broadway was the ticket price to [Nicholas Nickleby]--one hundred dollars, the highest in Broadway history."
    --It was actually a two-part show, with each part costing $50. Its a distinction worth making.
  • Page 254: "[Nine] came to Tune's attention in the form of a cassette tape pushed through his mail slot. He was living at 145 West Fifty-Fifth Street, 13A."
    --Okay, this may actually be true, but it's hard to imagine a mail slot big enough to permit a cassette tape in a Manhattan apartment in the late '70s, early '80s. Was it in the bank of mailboxes in the lobby? They generally didn't have slots. Was it in Tune's apartment door? I suppose it's possible, but in those days people's apartments were sealed up tight to deter criminals. This is not a big deal, granted, but it's a nonfiction book, so accuracy would be nice. It would help if the story was sourced...
  • Page 264: In reference to a costume fitting for Nine: "Off came the bra and thong, and for the next two and a half hours Long and his assistants pinned the fabric to her naked body."
  • Page 318: Michael Bennett is quoted as saying "You're going to get two points of the show, right? It's going to gross $2 million a week. That's $200,000 a week for you."
    --A point is 1%. Two percent of $2 million is $40,000. Was Bennett just wrong? (Seems unlikely, but you never know.) Was he lying to impress the person he was talking to? (Very possibly, and it would have been worth mentioning.) Was he misquoted? (Possibly, of course. Riedel has John Heilpern telling the story, but it's not clear if Heilpern told it to Riedel directly.)
  • Page 368: "Rich was the most powerful critic in the paper's history. But that was because he was a lively writer, had the taste of his readers, and was generally on the mark with his judgments."
    --It might have been worth mentioning the newspapers that had folded in the previous decades, leaving only the Post and Daily News (neither well-known for arts coverage) as competitors.
  • Page 377: "...when the company backed Stephen Sondheim's Passion, about an ugly woman who falls in love with a stud."
    --Really? If this is supposed to be humor, it's out of place in a nonfiction book that is supposedly providing information to the reader. And, uh, it's not funny.
  • Page 363: Riedel writes that Jacobs still had "flashes of his old, cunning self." He then gives as an example Jacob's telling someone to continue doing good work so she doesn't lose her gig.
    --Cunning? How about basic good advice? This would matter less if Riedel's descriptions weren't so snarky, negative. overdone, and/or inappropriate.
  • Page 378: "[Angels in America,] ... which Frank Rich slobbered over--'miraculous,' 'revolutionary,' 'mind-exploding.'"
    --Again, Riedel points toward the negative with "slobbered over." Of course, it may be hard for him to understand how exciting theater can be to people who actually love theater. 
If I seem to be picking nits, keep in mind that this book is lousy with them. It's a sloppy compendium of dubious dirt that deserves neither the label "nonfiction" nor the handsome hardcover edition it has received. If you want to read a good book about theatre, this isn't it.--Wendy Caster

(reviewer copy)


Holly said...

Wow! Thanks for saving me a lot of time. Each example speaks volumes.

Kathy said...

in my Eddie Izzard/Angus McIndough days, I used to hang at the bar, not far down from where Ridel would sit smugly and ALONE. None of the actors up there for a drink would come near him. The waiters I befriended hated him. Wasn't planning on reading the book. Your review confirms what I suspected it would be like.