Remember when an evening at a Broadway musical required scurrying past seedy, adults-only shops and all manner of colorful entrepreneurs on the way to the theater? If your impression of Times Square dances with Disney characters and shiny retail meccas, you probably don’t remember. But Michael Riedel’s new book, “Razzle Dazzle,” brings this gritty world back to life. His history of Broadway in the 1970s and ’80s paints a candid and thoroughly entertaining portrait of the period just after New York theater’s golden age. Money for artistic endeavors was scarce, and the city seemed adrift in economic and social turmoil. Broadway, Riedel argues, was both a beneficiary of and a critical factor in the city’s astonishing transformation in the following decades.
Riedel is the theater critic for the New York Post and the co-host with Susan Haskins of PBS’s “Theater Talk.” He’s also a formidable presence in the Broadway world, known as much for his way with words as for his withering critiques of productions that miss the mark. But in this book, Riedel saves his bon mots for the offstage drama: The subject at hand in “Razzle Dazzle” is the “business of show,” not the artistic merit of the productions themselves. He draws on decades of interviews, memoirs, reviews and newspaper articles to reconstruct the feuds, ambitions, catastrophes and successes of this fascinating period.
The central narrative of “Razzle Dazzle” is the story of the Shubert Organization, established by three brothers from Syracuse, N.Y., in the late 19th century. The Shuberts’ modest, early efforts were in vaudeville, but by 1929, the Shubert Organization comprised a network of theaters across New York City, including the Imperial Theatre and the Winter Garden. As Riedel explains, in the postwar years, Broadway produced a string of unprecedented smash hits, and the medium of the musical hit its stride: “West Side Story,” “The Sound of Music,” “Damn Yankees,” “Kiss Me, Kate,” “The Pajama Game” and scores of other productions kept theaters busy, with about 7 million patrons per year.
Riedel weaves together the story of the diverse forces that changed all that. The stock market crash of 1969, though not as calamitous as that of 1929, sent a fiscal chill through the country. The population of New York had shrunk by a staggering 800,000, following a pattern of white flight that swelled suburbs all over America. By the early ’70s, theater attendance was halved. “The Broadway audience has always been white, middle-aged, and upper-middle class,” Riedel notes, and with its core population drastically reduced, the musical theater world was foundering.
Broadway might have drifted into financial and cultural oblivion were it not for three men who intervened, set on saving the industry they loved. These were Jimmy Nederlander, whose theater-buying habit made him a Shubert rival, and Gerald Schoenfeld and Bernie Jacobs, who took control of the Shuberts’ 17 theaters. Both camps began turning out hits: In 1975, “A Chorus Line” opened at a Shubert theater, and Nederlander had a smash with “Annie” in 1977. Amid these triumphs, Riedel hastens to point out, competition was stiff and producers were forced to take sides. His descriptions of the vices and foibles of the producers, choreographers and directors who shaped these productions would not seem out of place in a page-turning Hollywood tell-all.
Broadway’s extraordinary rebirth paralleled the transformation of Times Square and New York City itself. One especially compelling example is the iconic “I Love New York” campaign, dreamed up by the advertising agency Wells Rich Greene in the late ’70s. The TV ad featured a song by veteran jingle-writer Steve Karmen, performed by cast members from “The Wiz,” “A Chorus Line,” “Annie” and “Grease,” plus Yul Brynner and pint-size children from the cast of “The King and I.” This became one of the original “brand videos,” to employ an anachronism: The actors were selling the idea of Broadway, not their individual productions. The “I Love New York” campaign was a huge hit, and we all know what happened next: “Les Misérables,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and — cue the furry jazz hands — “Cats.”
Broadway and Times Square today would not be recognizable to those who last saw them in the mid-’70s or, for that matter, in the late ’20s. Broadway musicals are as popular as ever, but much of the grit and seediness has been washed clean, and the area is now more akin to a family-friendly theme park than a bawdy vaudeville enclave. Riedel unearths treasures from the recent past and contextualizes events that would otherwise be too easily forgotten. “Razzle Dazzle” helps explain how each of these distinct eras could unfold in the same physical place, each one a potent sign of its times.