Theater gossip Michael Riedel writes a history of Broadway

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Posted: Oct 05, 2015 10:33 AM
Theater gossip Michael Riedel writes a history of Broadway

NEW YORK (AP) — When you read New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel, there's no mistaking whom the writer is. He's snarky and skewering and gleeful. That makes his latest project all the more interesting.

The acid-tongued stage gossip has written a book about Broadway's history and he's not opinionated or snarky at all. There's no Michael Riedel.

"I try to make my columns kind of punchy, light and breezy — bim, boom, rat-a-tat-tat. The old gossip style, I like that. The jangle of the town, the jangle of Broadway," he said. "But I knew that I couldn't sustain a 400-page book with that style because it would become incredibly tedious."

The result is "Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway," a very entertaining look at how the Great White Way has been shaped over the past century. To write it, the 48-year-old conducted some 70 interviews and read 40 books.

"I never thought about writing a book in my life," he said. "As a writer, I'm a sprinter. I do 750 words and I go have drinks with my friends. That's my life."

Riedel, who by some is feared and even loathed, in person is charming and eloquent. His modest apartment in the West Village reveals a Columbia University history major's love of books — titles on everything from Hafez Assad to Saki and Willem de Kooning.

To write his history of the Great White Way, he decided to interview all the key players, set scenes and let the story be told through the characters. "I tried to take myself out of it and let them do the talking," he said.

The book explores the rivalry between the two big theatrical dynasties — the Nederlanders and the Shuberts — as well as the transformation of Broadway from a seedy, scary place to family-friendly tourist trap.

He deals with the devastation wreaked by AIDS, the controversial decision to build the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square, the creation of key shows like "A Chorus Line" and the British invasion led by Andrew Lloyd Webber. His backroom stories are fascinating.

"A lot of writers, certainly people writing their first books, feel this need to impress on every line how smart they are," said Ben Loehnen, Riedel's editor at Simon & Schuster. "Not with Michael. There's not this sense that he's tripping over himself to impress you. He is just telling you what he knows."

While writing, Riedel would lean on three books he admires — Gay Talese's "The Kingdom and the Power," David Halberstam's "The Powers That Be" and Robert Caro's "The Power Broker."

"I thought, 'Well, I'm never going to be the kind of writer those guys are, but I'm going to try to do what they did and the way they let their history unfold — dramatic, compelling and character-driven,'" said Riedel.

"Look, I'm a literary thief, like all writers. And if you're going to steal, you might as well steal from ones that got the goods."

He usually typed away cross-legged on his laptop resting on his coffee table, starting work every day in the midafternoon and ending hours later. "I knew when it was working when I would start writing and I had no sense of time," he said.

Riedel, who is also a co-host of PBS' "Theater Talk," has been a fixture on Broadway for more than two decades. He spoke to producers, actors, press agents, union honchos and anyone who had something juicy. (He said only two people turned him down — mogul David Geffen and former theater critic Frank Rich.)

"As with everything in life, timing — especially for a book like this — is everything. People were still around but enough time had gone by that they could be open and candid," said Riedel. "It's probably arrogant to say, but I don't think anyone could have written this book but me because I was there at the right time."

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Online:

http://authors.simonandschuster.com/Michael-Riedel/401139019

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Mark Kennedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits