Reviews

A Love Letter to Capitalism in “Singular Sensation”

A review of Michael Riedel's new book, "Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway."


Michael Riedel writes his sequel to Razzle Dazzle kicking off where he ended with his well-received history of Broadway. Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway carries on in a similar way as this first book. Both books mention, and seem to be influenced by, William Goldman’s The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway (1969). While The Season is out of print, Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade (about filmmaking, instead) is easier to buy, and it certainly matches the formula that Riedel uses in his narratives – making use of unbelievable, juicy, and generally dramatic accounts of industry professionals to tell stories about how shows were made. 

By comparison, Riedel is not nearly as witty and lyrical as Goldman. Nonetheless, Riedel certainly has a flare for drama, as evidenced  by his chapter titles, such as “I’m Ready For My Close-up, Mr. Lloyd Webber” and “Everything’s Coming Up Rosie.” Like Goldman, Riedel also includes bits about creative processes, as well as what one might call “the sauce” for what makes successful Broadway shows. These moments, along with big personalities and the tremendous hurdle-jumping that it takes to get a show produced, make for some enjoyable page-turning. Unfortunately, the fun with Singular Sensation, not unlike Razzle Dazzle, is quickly spoiled. 

In Adventures in the Screen Trade, Goldman makes a point about how his all-time favorite movie did not but should have had a shot at winning best picture. That film happens to be Gunga Din. Gunga Din is an extremely racist and nationalistic movie, complete with a cast donned in blackface. It is a damaging moment to say the least, but even for the most lighthearted book, telling a history, no matter how well-intended, is difficult to do from perspectives that are outside one’s own – the person with the pen in hand (usually white, usually male). 

The problem with Riedel’s works is that they are told through his own power, wealth, and whiteness and do not make an effort toward a critical history. Singular Sensation – ignoring the political implications thrust onto the reader through Riedel’s use of language – uses the pretense of scrumptious anecdotes to maneuver a very specific and political history of Broadway – one that is biased and reeks of the tenets of American conservatism. Riedel’s narrative upholds privilege, capitalism, and fraught notions of the American dream.

As a past history major at Columbia, it is striking to see Riedel catalogue history with the care and precision of a Walking Dead zombie clamoring for flesh. The best example of this is in Razzle Dazzle, when he cavalierly states:

“The Great Depression ushered in what, in the 1970’s, would become an emblem of Forty-Second Street: the male hustler. With the unemployment rate at nearly 30 percent in the city, many young men were forced to sell their bodies in and around the grinders. By the 1970’s Forty-Second Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues was almost exclusively a male domain.” 

The sloppiness by which he connects the two characteristics of these disparate periods not only demonstrates his lack of expertise but, also, his willingness to pigeon-hole history to fit his narrative. It would be a mistake to classify Riedel’s books as a history of anything, let alone Broadway.

The most repeated “history” that Riedel tells in Singular Sensation (Razzle Dazzle, too) is the problem of “seedy” Times Square. However, the irony seems to be lost on him. That is, that the Broadway theaters and producers in his narrative are consistently committing crimes on the very same street. But seedy is not a word he uses for the ticket brokers taking ice. Nor the producers fudging books. It’s a word he reserves for certain people. For Riedel, some crimes are crimes and other crimes are, after all, part of the game. And he is with those who demand that the game must be played, meanwhile, all the cards are stacked in their favor. Riedel’s history of Broadway, then, continues to praise Rudy Giuliani for cleaning up Times Square. “They got results.” As if that’s the end of the story. 

If Riedel’s infinite cynicism and disdain for community wealth –  in Razzle Dazzle he mocks government, “tax, tax, tax, and then spend, spend, spend, and –voila!–Utopia” – is only outmatched by the second most common narrative, personal wealth. Razzle Dazzle told the history of the battle for Broadway, competition over theater ownership. It was a different era, with money grabbing, mafia ties, and cruel men that the early 20th Century presupposes. But this less aged history, Singular Sensation, demands a modern perspective – one that is nuanced and provides a more responsible insight into what is happening. After all, it was not that long ago, and what is written either launches Broadway into the future or chains it to the past. As far as one can tell from Riedel, though, “The Triumph of Broadway” refers to how much money Broadway makes and not much more.

Chapter upon chapter, the emotions and humanity of all those who kill themselves to make productions are reduced to how much money any one show makes. Every summation of a musical or play amounts to a line Riedel must have copied and pasted over and over – how long the show ran and how much it made. It is not a love letter to Broadway; it is a love letter to capitalism. Always giving money the last word, Reidel privileges it over the theater community, not giving enough attention to what a show did for the culture and non-profit theaters, and lacking insight into how a show changed or subverted Broadway and theatergoing. The Triumph of Broadway reads more like The Mess of Greed in an Industry of Privilege

Riedel makes clear that Broadway always was and continues to be a space for the privileged. Tickets continue to be unaffordable for most Americans, and there is rarely a person of note in the book who hasn’t attended Oberlin, Yale, Columbia, Dartmouth, Harvard, or made a connection from their friend in the Hamptons. Riedel is in no way critical of that fact. Instead, he relishes in it. By his own account, Riedel was accepted into an elite inner-circle with Gerald Schoenfield – “privy to everything,”– and found himself in a position of power at a young age. And as a theater columnist, he likes that he gets to decide who makes it into the club. He writes, “Heads Are Rolling in Whoville,” adding “I gleefully (italics mine) noted in the New York Post,” about the firing of creatives working on the Seussical. Riedel delights in being the one to announce firings or sink a show before it even opens. He can’t seem to help but be amused when what he writes is harmful to others. At one point, he writes about an artistic director who had lost the rights to The Normal Heart, “He wanted his own AIDS play,” like he’s talking about a city wanting to build its own tallest skyscraper. If Riedel thinks Broadway is that cynical, should we be celebrating its “triumph?”

While it is interesting that Riedel credits Rosie O’donnell for bringing Broadway to mass audiences and for being more powerful than the New York Times, he can’t help but employ a demeaning trope about her “flashed claws” behind the scenes of the Tony’s. Something he never would have said about Bernie Jacobs or Rocco Landesman, Riedel makes sure to draw a distinction, gendering Rosie’s power. And, although it is simply in poor taste, it is also harmful to include what Harvey Weinstein says about anything. Yet, there it is – a direct quote from the convicted rapist on page 268. 

During this time, when the American experiment is failing in plain sight, Riedel’s narrative achieves sensational tone deafness. His history is so much in tow with the traditional American story that it is difficult not to interpret his theme of the American dream and his worship of the institution of Broadway as some sort of misplaced patriotism. The ending of the book is a gushing description of how Giuliani inserted himself after the tragedy of 9/11 to keep Broadway going. One must wonder, why must such a hate-filled figure be so highlighted in the history of Broadway? And if he must be in the story, shouldn’t there be a more critical look at what that means for Broadway’s legacy? Being a Broadway fan is great. But for some reason, Riedel feels that it is necessary to paint over Broadway’s history with stars and stripes. If you’re a fan of Broadway, by all means, read Singular Sensation and Razzle Dazzle, too. But don’t give Michael Riedel a dime. Check them out at the library.

NONFICTION
Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway
By Michael Riedel
Avid Reader Press
Published November 10, 2020

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