What's New on the Rialto
Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway
by Michael Riedel
Book Review by Wendy Caster
Riedel's latest book, Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway, focuses on the 1990s and how Americans reclaimed the Broadway musical from the Brits who dominated the '80s.
The first couple of chapters focus on Sunset Boulevard, about which Riedel writes, "[The British Invasion] came to an abrupt end with the collapse of Sunset Boulevard." Since Cats and Phantom of the Opera continued to run for years, that's not totally true, but l get his point. And writing about Sunset Boulevard lets him tell some great stories. While most of them will be familiar to readers of Talkin' Broadway, the Patti LuPone vs. Andrew Lloyd Webber feud never gets old. (Perhaps Ryan Murphy will cover it in one of his "Feud" series. I'd watch!)
Next, Riedel goes into the rebirth of the American musical, starting with the exciting and heartbreaking story of Rent, which he covers in great detail. After the Rent chapters, he goes back to the beginning of the '90s and somewhat chronologically covers the entire decade on Broadway, including musicals and plays, new and revived. Highlights for me include the chapter on Edward Albee, the bizarre story of Garth Drabinsky and Ragtime, and the behind-the-scenes machinations that resulted in the wonderful revival of Chicago. Riedel also covers the development of Titanic, Angels in America, The Producers, The Lion King, and the revival of Guys and Dolls, as well as Rosie O'Donnell's importance to and influence on Broadway.
Singular Sensation features all of Riedel's signature traits. The good: it is crammed with great stories. The bad: many of his anecdotes don't ring true. For example, more than once he writes of people being so excited by a show that they stood on their seats. I have seen possibly two thousand shows, and I have never seen anyone stand on a seat. In most Broadway theatres, space is tight and seats flip up. Standing on them would not be a good idea.
Similarly, some of his stories are only half-told. For example, he covers the adventures of Amy Powers, the original lyricist for Sunset Boulevard. I had never heard of her, and I found her story fascinating. And then she just disappears from the book. I looked her up on Wikipedia; it turns out that she went on to write lyrics for TV, movies, and musicals; she cowrote the lyrics (with Michael Korie) for 2015's Broadway musical Doctor Zhivago. It would have improved the book to include that information.
Similarly, Riedel tells an anecdote about Terrence McNally not realizing that Edward Albee was gay, yet he fails to mention that they went on to be involved for four or so years.
When Riedel writes of LaChanze's husband Calvin J. Gooding working at the World Trade Center in 2001, he says that Gooding worked on the floor above where the plane hit, and that LaChanze was pregnant and had a toddler. And then he lets the story go. Was her husband at work that day? I guess we're supposed to assume that he died, and many of us know that already, but, if you're writing the book, tell the story.
When Riedel writes about the murder of Lana Turner's boyfriend, he says, "Turner and her teenage daughter, Cheryl Crane, were exonerated of all charges." Well, not exactly. 1. The largely accepted conclusion was that Crane had killed the boyfriend. 2. The killing was ruled justifiable homicide; Crane wasn't charged because she was defending her mother. 3. Many people believe that it was Turner who wielded the knife and that Crane took the blame to protect her. (One way or another, she was taking care of her mother!).
Other examples are smaller. Riedel writes that Ann Reinking played herself in the movie All That Jazz. No, she played Kate Jagger, a character based on her. In a discussion of Miss Saigon, Riedel mentions co-lyricist Richard Maltby Jr., but fails to mention composers/writers Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil.
Riedel often cites records for tickets sold, money made, etc., but again he isn't clear. For example, he says that Angels in America, at $3 million, was the most expensive play in Broadway history. Is that still true? Not according to the Los Angeles Times: "Plays typically range between $2 million to $5 million [to produce]." Similarly, he refers to The Lion King as the highest grossing animated film of all time, but he doesn't say "up until then." (It's now in 12th place.) However, he does write that Amy's View had an advance sale of $5 million, "then a record for a nonmusical play" [italics mine].
And then there's the lack of sources. The book runs just short of 300 pages, but the notes barely fill seven. Where, for example, did he get this: lyricist Don Black's motto was, "If you start at ten o'clock in the morning and haven't finished by six o'clock, you're an idiot." After listening to Black's lyrics, it's easy to believe that this quote is real (okay, I can be smug and snarky too), but it would still be interesting to know its provenance.
More seriously, Riedel tells a story of Cosmopolitan trying to turn down Fredi Walker as one of the women to be included in a Rent photograph, because she's black. That's the sort of story that really should have a source.
Riedel also makes dumb and/or incorrect word choices. He says that at the first Tony Awards, women were given "compact powder." No, they were given compacts. Fourteen-carat-gold compacts. Riedel writes, "The Broadway crowd snubbed [Beauty and the Beast] by giving the 1994 Tony for Best Musical to Stephen Sondheim's short-lived Passion." It's hardly being snubbed to lose a Best Musical Tony to arguably the finest and most important musical composer-lyricist who has ever lived!
How much do these weaknesses matter? I think it depends on whether you're looking for a gossipy book or a factual one. Perhaps I am greedy, but I wanted both.
Three more quick details:
Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway