EXCLUSIVE: It doesn’t go on sale until October, but I’ve read an advance copy of the New York Post Broadway columnist’s 400-page tale of Broadway, from the British invasion of the 1970s and ’80s (think Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Cats, The Phantom Of The Opera, Les Misérables and Miss Saigon) through the present. It’s an intensely detailed backstage story about the Street’s rise from near bankruptcy and squalor in the Midnight Cowboy era of Times Square sleaze through the turnaround that began with A Chorus Line in 1975 and continued with the arrival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and his producing partner Cameron Mackintosh. That would be followed by the eventual Disneyfication of Times Square and Hollywood’s return to the 42nd Street fold when producers like Marc Platt and Robert Greenblatt realized there were millions — indeed billions — to be made in the live theater business.
Riedel, as expected, brings a caustic sensibility to the seismic changes that turned a cottage industry into a global entertainment phenomenon. And there’s no shortage of gleeful recountings of the backstabbing, two-timing, gold-digging, prevaricating, eye-gouging, tear-jerking, self-dramatizing, myth-making and myth-busting that, by contrast, make All About Eve and even William Goldman’s The Season seem like child’s play. But Razzle Dazzle has a more sober voice than the carefully snarked columns that have made Riedel the reporter Broadway denizens love to hate.
It will be most interesting to see how The New York Times deals with the book, since the Paper of Record plays at least as important a role in the story as any Shubert executive, Mickey Mouse, Michael Bennett, Lloyd Webber, Hal Prince or Stephen Sondheim. (Full disclosure: I play a supporting role in the book because I was the Times‘ Broadway reporter in the late 1980s; I read early versions of sections that had to do with my stories.) Razzle Dazzle‘s attitude toward Frank Rich, the Times‘s chief drama critic throughout much of the period, is somewhat, let’s call it multifaceted.
“The first time I ever met Frank Rich was at Fred Nathan’s apartment. Oh my god, they were very close. Very,” Jersey Boys writer Rick Elice told Riedel. “Frank Rich may not have known it at the time, but whatever he told Fred Nathan went straight to [Shubert president] Bernie Jacobs.”
On the one hand, Riedel is sympathetic to the idea that Broadway powers scapegoated Rich, blaming a lot of its own problems on the perceived power of the Times critic — any Times critic. On the other hand, the book is likely to make waves for debunking the Times‘ fervently promoted dogma that its critics don’t mix with the folks they cover. A case in point is what Riedel reports as Rich’s friendship with Fred Nathan, a publicist for many of the blockbusters mentioned and at one time an intimate of both Mackintosh and legendary Shubert president Bernard B. Jacobs:
“Much of Jacobs’ power stemmed from his vast industry grapevine,” Riedel writes. “He had informants everywhere. He knew what was going on at every show, production office and theatrical agency. One of his best sources was Fred Nathan, the powerful press agent. Nathan was also close to Frank Rich, a power on Broadway, of course, but also a power at the Times.” Riedel quotes two people saying that Nathan often bragged about his closeness to Rich, and then quotes Rick Elice, an ad man who later wrote the books for the musicals Jersey Boys, The Addams Family, and Peter And The Starcatcher: “The first time I ever met Frank Rich was at Fred Nathan’s apartment,” Elice told Riedel. “Oh my god, they were very close. Very.”
Nathan, Riedel reports, regularly traded theater gossip with Rich in late-night telephone conversations. “In the morning, at 8:30, Nathan would call Bernie Jacobs with the ‘morning report’ — some of it from Rich.” Nathan, Riedel continues, “had more than a touch of Sweet Smell Of Success’s Sidney Falco about him…Frank Rich may not have known it at the time, but whatever he told Fred Nathan went straight to Bernie Jacobs.” In a juicy footnote, Riedel adds that “[T]he flow of gossip went both ways. Sometimes, when Nathan was on the phone with Jacobs he would conference in Rich without telling Jacobs. ‘He’d tell Frank not to make a sound,’ said one of Nathan’s associates. ‘Bernie had no idea Frank was on the line.'” (Nathan died of complications from AIDS in 1994; he was 38 years old and had been, briefly, the most powerful press agent on Broadway. Jacobs died in 1996.)
I asked Rich, now a writer at New York magazine and executive producer of HBO’s Veep, about this section of Razzle Dazzle. His answer, via email, was: “I haven’t seen the book, wasn’t interviewed for it or contacted by any fact-checkers for it. I imagine it’s the same stuff [Riedel] wrote (I think in Theater Week) at the time of Sunday In The Park With George and my (fact-checked) response to that can be found in ‘Exit the Critic,’ my farewell essay in the Times magazine.”
The essay Rich referred to doesn’t mention Fred Nathan, although it does address “scurrilous” gossip the critic often encountered. I offered to send him the pages quoted above, if he was interested in seeing them. “Thanks, but I’m not,” he replied.
Razzle Dazzle already boasts laudatory quotes from Riedel’s own stable of fans, including producer Scott Rudin (“…every bit the equal of books that those of us who love Broadway can recite by heart”) and actor Hugh Jackman (“A must-read”). Simon & Schuster has set a publication date of October.