Episode 6 Transcript – Michael Riedel
Ken: Hello everyone, this is Ken Davenport. Welcome to The Producer’s Perspective Podcast, episode number six. This one is going to be juicy. We’re actually recording this podcast in a secure, undisclosed location for the protection of my guest because this week’s guest is none other than Michael Riedel, one of Broadway’s most controversial figures. Welcome, Michael Riedel.
Michael: It’s good to be with you, Ken. I like your little Matt Lauer imitation there. Are you auditioning to host the Today program at one point?
Ken: I’ll take it. It pays better than what I do.
Michael: It certainly does. Just about anything pays better than the theater.
Ken: Michael, for those of you who may not know, is the New York Post theatrical gossip columnist as well as the host of one of my favorite shows and one of, what, two television shows dedicated solely to Broadway? Theater Talk on PBS.
Michael: We cover Off-Broadway too, if it’s good. But, we can talk about this, Off-Broadway has changed dramatically in the course of my career. All of the interesting stuff used to be Off-Broadway and now very seldom do I go to Off-Broadway that’s not non-profit theaters.
Ken: That’s very interesting. I just wrote a blog two days ago about the lack of commercial productions in the Off-Broadway season. Playbill did an article about what’s coming and there was like one commercial Off-Broadway show.
Michael: I think commercial Off-Broadway can’t exist financially anymore because of the costs, and you don’t have enough seats to sell. I remember theaters like the Promenade on the Upper West Side where they showed wonderful things like The Common Pursuit and Terrence McNally’s The Lisbon Traviata, a lot of great AR Gurney plays back in the day, and they were all for-profit productions, major playwrights. They would do very well Off-Broadway and then, of course, they would have this big life in all the regional theaters around the country. And all those theaters are gone now, so it’s really only the non-profits that can have smaller, 199, 299, 499 seat theaters.
Ken: So, just riffing off this a bit, where do you think those writers can go? Because now I’m hearing from a lot of writers, “I can’t get access to those non-profits because they have their writers that they work with.”
Michael: Well that’s the problem. The non-profits have become these, I think, bloated bureaucracies where people who work there are paid extravagant sums of money. It’s public record, so we know people like Todd Haimes and Andre Bishop, who are talented producers, but they’ve been at this job a long time and you see their salaries are $500,000, $600,000, $700,000 a year and they tend to use their in-house writers, whether the play is good, bad or indifferent. If you’re Terrence McNally you’re going to be done by Lynne Meadow because they have a long standing relationship, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of room for new young playwrights and I’m not even so sure that the non-profits, especially the ones that are interested in being on Broadway, really want to take on the risks of an unknown playwright because they have this very large subscriber base to cater to that they can’t afford to alienate with a play that has no star in it or is not by a tried and true playwright. They will argue, “We’ve done this play, we’ve done that play,” but on the whole, I think they have moved much more into the mainstream commercial mentality with casting stars, pursuing Tony Awards and building these big theaters on Broadway, which of course have to be paid for, which is why you see Todd Haimes is basically a mini Shubert now. He’s four-walling Beautiful at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.
Ken: It’s fascinating and this is what I love. Every time we sit down and chat a little bit, this is not what, probably, my listeners think you would talk about in your day-to-day. I’m not sure if you remember this but we first met at the opening night party of Movin’ Out and I had been the company manager of Gypsy with Bernadette Peters.
Michael: One of my favorite shows.
Ken: And it was my first time meeting the guy who was very public. Bernadette was ill the first few performances.
Michael: And as much as I admire her in certain roles, I must say I never thought she was right for Mama Rose.
Ken: My favorite column of yours featured the milk carton with her on the side – “Missing.”
Michael: Well, you remember she was really struggling in previews. I had gone to the first preview of the show and I’ll never forget seeing that nasty little Raisinet, Arthur Laurents, charging up the aisle at the end of the show, making a beeline right for poor old Sam Mendes, and he said, “Well, you’ve done something I didn’t think anyone could – you’ve ruined Gypsy.”
Ken: Yes, he told that to just about everyone working on the show, including me. I would call him about his house seats or something and he would say, “Let me tell you what I think about Sam. I’m tired of people kissing the ass of the flavor of the month.” That was my favorite quote.
Michael: Apparently he submitted a War and Peace-sized list of notes the day after the first performance.
Ken: Oh, he did. In his defense, I will tell you we adopted a huge amount of them and a lot of them were right on the money. One of my favorites was we had opened the show staring at this black wall, there was a ghost light, it was very dark and gothic and Arthur said, “This is Gypsy, it’s a beautiful Broadway musical, you can’t have the audience come in . . .”
Michael: And be depressed from the moment it starts.
Ken: That’s it.
Michael: There was the period where Sam and David Leveaux and Johnathan, he did Man of La Mancha for David Stone, I can’t remember his name now, but he ran the Almeida Theatre for a while, and they had this idea that they wanted to explore, an awful cliché word, but the “underbelly” of the great American musical, which is boring because Gypsy is about a psychotic woman who basically abuses her children, but the power of the show comes from the fact that it’s in the guise of a big, old fashioned, bright musical comedy and it lures you in that way and only midway through do you realize, “Wow, I’m actually getting involved with a woman who’s capable of doing the most horrendous things to her children,” and that’s where the power of the musical comes from and what Sam and those other guys were doing was, “We’re just going to give you the darkness right away,” and then there’s no place to go and it becomes kind of one-note. I remember it had a weird Brechtian feel to it. People would come on, carrying vaudeville sides, announcing the scene and all that kind of stuff and they would move very slowly across the stage. The one thing I always faulted Arthur on – he and I had many discussions over the years about this – I did not think Bernadette Peters was right for that part but that’s not something Arthur ever admitted, at least to me, because he chose her and he said to me once, “The real Mama Rose was small and pretty,” and I said, “I’m sure she was, but that’s not that character that you’ve written. You’ve found the monster inside of her and that’s the character you’ve put on stage, and that’s just not who Bernadette is to play that part.” Then you saw Arthur do his production years later with Patti LuPone and the grotesque monstrosity was there.
Ken: A writing teacher once told me you can’t sit by the side of your audience member and whisper in their ear why you made a choice.
Michael: Exactly. I remember talking to poor old Jessica Lange when she was in David Leveaux’s terrible production of The Glass Menagerie and Jessica objected to a number of things I was saying in a column, particularly about her performance. She was just far too beautiful to be this grotesque Amanda Wingfield. She brought pictures in to Theater Talk, she came on to defend her performance. She brought all these pictures of the real Amanda Wingfield, and Amanda Wingfield was a very attractive southern woman and my point to her was, “That may be the case in real life, but in her son’s mind, in Tennessee Williams’ mind, she was a grotesque, frightening, smothering lunatic and that’s what he’s created in the play and you, who are so beautiful, just cannot convey that.”
Ken: You obviously love the theater. You love it.
Michael: Let’s not get carried away!
Ken: Certain types of theater.
Michael: I have to make a living.
Ken: Well that’s a great question to start with. How did you end up being this guy who obviously has a huge affinity for this business – and sometimes we that throw barbs at it, including me, are the ones who love it the most – how did you go from being such a big fan to being a guy who is skewering it twice a week in the Post?
Michael: I was never what I would call a “big fan.” I was not a theatre kid really. I majored in history and was going to be a lawyer. But I had friends in the theater department at Columbia, where I went, and I was friendly with them. I think I did one play, The Zoo Story, but that was it, I would go to see them in all their little shows that they did. In fact one of my friends back then was Dan Futterman who went on to become an actor and write the screenplay for Capote and I became very close to an older woman who was a soap opera actress at the time and she loved to go to every Off-Off-Broadway she could find and I would often go with her so I would see Rosmersholm and all of these obscure Scandinavian and Norwegian plays. It was interesting. Then, really what happened was one of her friends got a job as the editor of a now-defunct magazine called Theater Week and at a party one night he offered me the job of managing editor because he knew I just hung out with these theater people. I really had no plans other than eventually going to law school so I took the job. It paid, I think, $18,000 a year so I thought I’d last maybe the summer and then I’d get my life together and do something else, but it was fun and I got to interview some great old theatrical people, many of whom are now dead. I remember one of my first interviews was with this guy, I didn’t even know who he was, to be honest with you, and I had to go and meet him in his office which was this rabbit warren of a space above the Mark Hellinger Theatre, which is now a church. You would go up these creaky staircases. I heard this banging on the piano coming from the room and I went in and there was this guy with these big 1972 sunglasses and a cigar, he was at this piano, and banging away at the piano. He had a new show out called The Red Shoes and I was interviewing him about that, he was playing music from The Red Shoes. I said, “Could you play me something I might have heard of?” and he said, “How’s this for you, kid?” and he played, “People, people who need people . . .” and it was Jule Styne. I really had no idea who he was. Then he proceeded to play practically the entire score of Gypsy for me and I spent four hours with him and I thought, “Yeah, this is fun.” Through him I met Charlie Strouse and Cy Coleman and John Kander, and I did a series back then on the great Broadway composers, so I would go to their houses and they would play all their stuff for me, so it was a crash course into musical theater. You have to remember that, at the time – we now think of musical theater as being very, very popular. It takes in nearly $2 million a year, but this was back in 1989 and Broadway was pretty dead then and a lot of these guys were yesterday’s news. Charlie Strouse, Cy Coleman, Jule Syne, these were guys who had not had a hit in a long, long time and they were considered very old fashioned. Jerry Herman, for example. And here I was, this young kid, and I was interested in their lives and their music so they were very kind to me and gave me a lot of time and I guess through those interviews and really spending time with them at the piano, listening to them explain their music, that’s what made me fall in love with musical theater. The old musical theater, I’m not really into the new stuff. And it gave me a sense of how exciting theater at its best can really be. So it was really a crash course. That was my showbiz education, if you will. Then I had another education, again just through luck really. I had no money so I needed a place to live cheaply and I knew from college, I had taken a class on modern drama and I had read a lot of books that were either by or edited by a guy named Eric Bentley, who famously translated Brecht into English, a brilliant critic and scholar, and he wrote a couple of articles for Theater Week for me and we became friendly and he lived in this rambling old apartment on Riverside Drive on the Upper West Side, divorced and his kids were older and had long since moved out. And he offered me one of the rooms in the apartment for $500 a month, so I lived there for three years, and through Eric I learned all about Brecht and Shaw and Pierangelo and Shakespeare and Chekov. We would meet for dinner two or three times a week and we would talk about Shaw and then I would go to his library and I would read all of the Shaw, talk about Brecht and I would read all of the Brecht, so I had a real masterclass, if you will, in the great playwrights in the classical theater, so those were the two strands that came together early on in my life.
Ken: I was the biggest fan of Theater Week, first of all, I loved that, and actually one of my favorite parts was the first couple of pages. There was a page or two of blind items, if you will.
Michael: Ken Mandelbaum did it, yes.
Ken: I used to get that at Summer Stock. We would all wait for it to arrive.
Michael: It was incredibly cheaply made, though. I remember the paper was the cheapest stock paper that you could have. I think there were pieces of wood still floating around in it. The pictures were always kind of off-kilter and captions were off-center and it was full of typos, but we had a lot of fun putting it out. It never made any money whatsoever and it was eventually going to collapse sooner or later but it was fun. John Harris and I took it over from the guys who had been there before and we brought a little more showbiz-y quality to it, because I, early on, became interested in what was going on behind the scenes, where the money was, how the money was deployed, some of the fights and feuds that were going on backstage, because I often think, with most of the shows that I see, what’s happening offstage is far more interesting than what’s happening onstage. So we injected that into the magazine and we were also able to get quite big writers to do pieces for us. I remember Arthur Miller used to review books for us and Edward Albee would write essays for us and Martin Godfrey would weigh in on Andrew Lloyd Webber. Eric Bentley wrote a beautiful, beautiful obituary for Laurence Olivier and another one for Samuel Beckett. Again, these were people who, because the theater was not thriving back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, they weren’t being asked to do a lot of stuff. I just got Arthur Miller’s home phone number in Roxbury, Connecticut and said, “Mr. Miller, there’s this book on the history of drama criticism in England. Would you review it?” I thought it would be fun to have a playwright review a critic – it was Irving Wardle, a very famous British critic, and the book’s actually quite good – and he said, “Sure.” That was it. He was my book reviewer.
Ken: That’s a pretty good staff you had working for you back then.
Michael: He had one funny grammatical problem, though. Whenever it was “who’s,” as in, “Who is going to the theater tonight?” he always wrote “whose,” the possessive version. I thought that was interesting. Here’s one of America’s greatest writers and he couldn’t distinguish between “who’s” and “whose.”
Ken: The only thing better than that would be if you told me he used the wrong “your.”
Michael: It was one of those things. I would say, “Everything’s fine. Any changes you want to make before we go to press?” “No.” I said, “I hope I can count on you again for another review,” and he would say, “Righto!”
Ken: So you jumped over to the Post.
Michael: I went to the Daily News first.
Ken: You went to the Daily News, that’s right. Was it that you wanted to write a gossip column or did they need a gossip column for Broadway?
Michael: I had gotten a bit of notoriety because at this time, in the early ‘90s, Frank Rich was the drama critic for the New York Times and he was the most powerful critic in the world and at the time he had his girlfriend, Alex Witchel, now his wife, installed as the theater columnist. They used to do a Friday theater column at the Times. And Alex was very tough and mean and not afraid to put the knife in and she started writing this very bitchy, catty behind the scenes column and the theater world was shocked because they were used to very sweet Enid Nemy, who wrote a very nice piece about, “Nathan Lane will be starring in this show and this nice benefit is happening on Friday and here’s how you can get your tickets,” and there would be a sweet little interview with a new actor on the scene, it was all very gentile. Then Alex came in. “Amanda Plummer hates her wigs backstage at the Manhattan Theatre Club.” I went back and looked at it and it’s petty, picky stuff when you look back at it now, because gossip is everywhere, it’s prevalent now, but it was a shock to see that kind of gossip in the New York Times which, of course, disdained gossip and there it was and, really, her best stuff was on Arthur Laurents on Nick & Nora which was a disaster for Charlie Strouse and Alex had very good sources there, and she wrote a couple of very, very funny columns. In any case, as much as I enjoyed her work, I felt that because of her relationship with Frank and his power, that the theater wasn’t getting a fair shake from this incredibly powerful newspaper – which, by the way, is not nearly as powerful in the theater as it was then. Brantley and Pat Healey just don’t have the kind of power that Frank and Alex did. There was definitely a sense – and people were saying this but they were afraid to speak openly about it for fear that you would be blackballed by the Times, which Alex and Frank Alex were quite capable of doing. I mean they kept a friends and enemies list, believe me, I’m on the enemies list, have been for 25 years, I’m proud to say. And there was a sense that, if Frank gave you a good review, then Alex wrote lovely thing about your show or you in the column, whereas if he had given you a bad review, then she went after you, and the real egregious case was poor old JoAnne Akalaitis at the Public Theater. JoAnne had been handpicked by Joe Papp to take over, and I’m not saying JoAnne is the greatest director in the world but she was avant garde and she had her fans. Frank didn’t like her stuff, which is his prerogative. He never gave her very good reviews. But then Alex enters the picture and suddenly, in the column, on a regular basis, “Nobody can work with JoAnne Akalaitis down at the Public Theater. She has a brusque attitude, she doesn’t know how to run the theater.” And so you really felt there was this pincer movement against poor old JoAnne Akalaitis. She would do a show and Frank would kill it and then Alex would come along and say, “Basically say she’s a bitch to work with.” Frank then made some suggestion, I think it was in a Sunday piece, that his favorite director at the time, George C. Wolfe, should be running the Public Theater – and a few months later the board of directors fired JoAnne Akalaitis and hired George C. Wolfe. I thought that was really unfair to her, that she was not being given a fair shake by this very, very important paper, and I started writing articles about that. Of course Alex supplied material because she’s not exactly the friendliest person in the world. I remember the famous line when my dear old friend, Arthur Cantor, a wonderful producer, called her up because he was going to do, I think, Eileen Atkins’ A Room of One’s Own and he asked her if she would mention it in her column and her response was, “Take out an ad!” I remember her press agent was representing Imogene Coca and Sid Caesar – they had this Off-Broadway show reliving the old shows, all skits and routines, and this press agent called her up and said, “We’d like you to announce in your column that Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca are coming to Off-Broadway,” and she said, “Well, I’m glad they’re alive but it isn’t news.” Click! So I would write this column about what a bitch this woman was, and then Frank and Alex got mad at me and they tried to sue me which was their mistake because that drew more attention to the situation, and all of a sudden I found out that I was being written about in New York Magazine and Page Six and by Liz Smith as the only one willing to take on the two bullies of Broadway so it was good publicity for me. I remember Walter Winchell once saying, ”If you’re a nobody in this town, the way to become a somebody is to take a big brick and hurl it at somebody at the top,” and that’s pretty much what I did. Through that, the Daily News people got to know me and they were starting a new gossip column and I got hired as the, old fashioned term is a “leg man,” which meant I ran around all night long going to premieres of movies and plays and night clubs and all of that, just gathering bits of gossip to throw into the column. It was a general column but I had the theater background by now because I had done three years of theater and a lot of my best stuff was coming from the theater. The column life, for me, the daily gossip column, was not something that I wanted to do for very long because it was really a grind, and I wasn’t interested in most of the personalities that I was writing about so I started to write Sunday feature stories about the theater and I was able to write about the financial side of the theater and make it interesting because I knew a lot of producers. The one story I wrote that really got my career going at the Daily News was that I had friends who were investors in Sunset Boulevard in England and that was supposed to be Andrew Lloyd Webber’s next gigantic hit, but they were very concerned with how the costs were spiraling out of control, because this was back when Andrew would spend money on anything. I remember Billy Wilder saw Sunset Boulevard in LA and in the scene where Norma Desmond drives into the Paramount Lot they had half of a Isotta Fraschini and Billy Wilder said, “Andrew, you need the whole car,” and the next day $500,000 was spent on the whole car because Billy Wilder told Andrew, “You need the whole car.” $500,000 just to drive it once across the stage. I wrote this big feature story that said that Sunset Boulevard was supposed to be the next big Andrew Lloyd Webber hit coming to New York, but people with money in it were concerned that the costs are spiraling out of control.
Ken: Dun, dun, dun!
Michael: Exactly right. And in the end I was right, because Sunset Boulevard collapsed. It ran several years on Broadway but it didn’t make any money, it lost everything – it lost a lot of money in London, New York, Australia, all over the place and it almost brought down Andrew’s empire back in the day.
Ken: It was the beginning of the end of that type of musical.
Michael: It was the last of the big, bloated British shows. Actually now, and I’ve talked to Andrew about this, I think Sunset Boulevard is one of his best scores. “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” ‘”With One Look,” “Ring in the New Year” – those are wonderful songs and the story is great, but it didn’t have to be bloated. The house didn’t have to fly. This is the era where everything had to fly. Every time we went to a British show things were flying around for no reason. A house can’t fly, so why is the house flying? I understand that you need a big staircase, that’s fine – but it doesn’t have to fly. It’s like when you went to see Aspects of Love – another good score, a very good score by Andrew and Don Black – but an intimate show. It’s about three people, a ménage à trois or something like that, four people maybe, and Maria Björnson built the entire Alp mountain range.
Ken: And the train – the train was my favorite.
Michael: And the train, right. But the Alps flew! They fly around. I said to Andrew, “Why does everything have to fucking fly in this day and age?” They were doing that and the chandelier and there was a helicopter in Miss Saigon and all that kind of stuff. I think, looking back on it now, Andrew would love to see a production of Aspects of Love done very intimately, sort of like in this secret little tiny space we’re in now. I think Sunset Boulevard is another show, because if you look at it, it’s really very intimate. It’s just about the butler, the old diva and the writer. Just the three of them. It doesn’t have to have a 40 ton house that flew.
Ken: Back to Frank Rich – do you have relationships with the critics now?
Michael: Yeah, I’m friends with most of them now.
Ken: You’re friendly with them.
Michael: Most of my good friends are all dead, though. Jacques le Sourd, Mike Kuchwara, Donald Lyons – they’re all dead. John Simon is a good friend of mine but he’s sort of semi-retired now, I guess. I’m very close to Charles Isherwood, he’s a good friend, Elisabeth Vincentelli, my colleague at the Post, I like Joe Dziemianowicz over at the Daily News, so yeah, I have a good relationship with them.
Ken: Did you ever want to be a critic?
Michael: No, never.
Michael: Absolute torture. To have to go and see everything, first of all. And second of all, then to have to sit there in the dark, night after night, and then scurry home and write little book reports. Deadly, no way.
Ken: I think you’d be a very good one. You have the knowledge.
Michael: I like being with theater people too much. I like hanging out with them, I like having lunch with them, I like having drinks with them, I like gossiping with them, I like writing about them, I like having them on my TV show, and I really think, as a critic, you can’t really traffic among theater people, you do have to keep them at arm’s length.
Ken: You probably wouldn’t have a job either, because the theater critics seem to be shrinking, the world seems to be shrinking. What are your thoughts about that? Unfortunately we have had a number of great critics pass away but others have just been laid off. The number of theater reviews being done weekly seems to be decreasing, in print anyway. There’s no word about the New York Post getting rid of Michael Riedel.
Michael: I try to make the news of the theater lively and interesting and I think I was lucky in the sense that I caught this tidal wave of gossip when it was just beginning, and so I’ve been able to ride that. I just think you have to remember, back in those days, when the critics were big names, there were only newspapers and there were only five or six that really mattered. I’m not the first to observe this but certainly the internet has exploded that. These guys just don’t have the power anymore. You can find out what you want to know about a show at the first preview by jesse21 on All That Chat. I’m sure there are many bloggers of theater out there that will have things to say. People have their own websites now, and shows have their own websites and they can promote themselves in a way they never could before. It used to be we had to give the Times $500,000 to take out an ad, and we don’t have to do that anymore. So that has certainly diluted the power of the critics. We don’t really have anyone now, especially in Ben’s spot at the Times . . . Ben has, I would say, rather peculiar tastes, they’re not mainstream, and the general reader of the Times likes something intellectual and intelligent, but not too bizarre, and Ben can go for the bizarre. And so can Charles. Charles can go for the Thom Pains of the world and I think when the New York Times sends audiences to those kinds of plays and the audiences walk away thinking, “What the hell was that about?” scratching their heads, I think then they begin to discount what the critics have to say. Whereas Frank had power one, because the paper had power, of course, but two, in the ‘80s, when Frank was at his height, he had perfect pitch for the readers of the New York Times. He was the New York Times reader – Upper West Side, liberal, loved show business, could write the rave for Crazy For You and for a good revival of Gypsy, 42nd Street, he loved all of that stuff, and then he could also draw your attention to a Richard Greenberg play called Eastern Standard that wasn’t too weird or strange. And then he could overpraise things like Angels in America which, to me, is the most overrated contemporary classic. He sent people to the theater and they thought, “I’m going to see this Richard Greenberg play. It’s about rich people in the Hamptons and a homeless woman comes in. Oh, homeless people, what an issue.” But then he’d send them to Crazy For You and they would love it. Whereas Ben will send you to some eight hour Scandinavian production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. There’s a great story – maybe apocryphal but I like to tell it anyway – Ben loved this unbelievably incomprehensible play by David Mamet called The Old Neighborhood. I saw it and had no fucking clue what was going on. Neither did anyone else who saw it, except for Ben, and he wrote this rave review and the story goes that this couple went to see the play and as they were leaving the conversation overheard was . . . the husband says, “What the fuck was that?” and the wife says, “Well the New York Times liked it,” and he says, “Well I’m cancelling our subscription in the morning.” So I really don’t think Ben has the taste of the Times readers – and that’s okay, critics have to have their own taste and clearly the Times likes what he does because he’s been there a long, long time. But I think also it’s that Ben doesn’t come from, and a lot of critics today don’t come from your old fashioned newspaperman reporter background – which Frank came from, he was a reporter. As a reporter you have to convey information in your lead and make it exciting and interesting and grab the reader. A newspaper is not a place for an essay, really, and Frank covered Broadway shows as if they were news events and he brought that muscularity of writing to his reviews and made things seem important. And Ben, I just don’t think he’s that kind of a writer.
Ken: So the critics, I think everyone agrees, have lost power over the years. You’re obviously a real fan of the theater but at the same time you write a populist, more gossipy column. Do you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing that the critics have lost power, for the future and health of the Broadway theater?
Michael: I’m ambivalent about that because I certainly think that people should make their own decisions and they should do their own research. There’s plenty out there now about shows that you can find. On the other hand, I’m sort of sad that we’ve lost the idea of the critic as a star. I used to race to New York Magazine to see what John Simon had to say, you’d race to the New Yorker to see what Pauline Kael had to say about the movies or Rex Reed in his heyday or Frank Rich at the New York Times and there was a kind of excitement when those reviews came out. You would find the critic you trusted, whose opinion you often agreed with, and they would be kind of your guidepost. And I liked the writing, which was lively and fun, insightful, and sometimes vicious, and I liked the critics as being real forces of personality in the theater world because what interests me most about the theater world are the crazy personalities swirling around it, and the critics used to be part of it and I don’t think they are as much anymore so I’m a bit nostalgic for that. But on the other hand, was it good for the theater that one man, Frank Rich, had that much power? Probably not. Although I’ll tell you this. There are a lot of producers who suffered at the hands of Frank, who railed against the power of the New York Times, and now they’re like, “Jesus Christ, I got a good review from Ben Brantley and nobody’s coming!” That’s what’s killing everybody now. They’re getting good reviews, they’re getting these big, feature-length stories in the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times and they’re not selling any tickets.
Ken: It’s quite shocking. There’s a handful of those shows.
Michael: Look at Side Show. Charles Isherwood raved about Side Show and it lost $12 million or whatever.
Ken: The other one for me was Finian’s Rainbow from a number of years ago, which was very similar – revival, no stars – across the board raves, everybody loved that show, couldn’t sell a ticket.
Michael: Years ago, if you think back, Crazy For You. No real stars, certainly Susan Stroman wasn’t who she is today, no one knew who Mike Ockrent was. It was a Gershwin musical, Harry Groener – charming guy but he wasn’t Hugh Jackman – but it was the Frank Rich review that said, “This is the most enjoyable musical comedy I’ve seen in years,” and it was a smash. And here’s Charles saying, “Side Show is the undiscovered classic of the American musical theater,” and it’s a flop.
Ken: The people want to see what the people want to see at the end of the day. More so now than ever before.
Michael: I always think word of mouth was always the ultimate arbiter. As powerful as a critic is – was, back in those days – if 1,500 people are leaving the theater and each of them are telling four friends that they didn’t like it, ultimately that’s going to doom the show. Whereas, on the other hand, there were shows that Frank didn’t like – not as many as there might be today that can survive bad reviews. Andrew Lloyd Webber – Frank was no fan of The Phantom of the Opera and it still ran for 25 years! I remember there was a wonderful play by Jerry Sterner called Other People’s Money, which was at one of those Off-Broadway theaters that doesn’t exist anymore, and it was one of the funniest plays I ever saw, I loved it. Mel Gussow – lovely man, God rest his soul – went to see it and just didn’t get it. He just thought this old, schticky humor wasn’t any good and he gave it a bad review and they thought they’d have to close, but people loved the play. Then the next week, John Simon came along with a rave in New York Magazine and that really turned the play around. As much as I like Jesse Green – I think he’s a fine writer – I don’t think Jesse Green could save a show in this world today.
Ken: You’ve obviously teased a whole bunch of producers in town over the years – the Harvey Weinstein thing you guys have got going on right now I just love. Which ones are your favorites? Do you have favorite producers?
Michael: A lot of them are friends of mine now because I’ve covered them for so long. I always get a kick out of Fran and Barry Weissler. They’re not as active as they used to be – they used to do a lot of shows and you could always get them on the phone and they would talk to you about everything. They were fun, they were characters and personalities. They always had funny quotes and they were up to funny tricks and gags and all that kind of stuff and I became friendly with them early on because they were sort of being dismissed as doing these cheap revivals with a star and everything they did was cheap, they were the cheap producers and I wrote an article once saying, “They may be cheap but here’s the track record – if you invested with Fran and Barry Weissler, nine out of ten productions would have made a profit. So if that’s cheap, I’m all for cheap,” and they appreciated that because the Times was like, “Rocco Landesman, he went to Yale and he’s an intellectual and we love Rocco but Fran and Barry Weissler, they’re rug traders practically.” So I always identified with people who weren’t part of the New York Times club. I liked people who were outside of that, scrappier kinds of people. And of course I’ve been very friendly with David Stone over the years because I knew him when he was general managing little Off-Broadway shows.
Ken: Out of the Weisslers’ office.
Michael: Out of the Weisslers’ office.
Ken: Because I was an intern and an assistant to Charlotte Wilcox who was also working in the office at the time. I started my career with the Weisslers and I used to say the same thing – I was a PA for them – say what you want, they’re one of the few mom and pop organizations still doing it year after year and making lots of money.
Michael: Then, of course, when they hit it with Chicago, it was no longer a mom and pop organization. I think they owned 75% of the show. I remember a friend telling me a great story about when that show was at Encores – and we all loved it – and she and Barry, I think they saw the last performance, and they had a relationship with John and Fred because they had done Zorba with Anthony Quinn. So Fran called Fred and she said, “Fred, darling, Barry and I would just love to be an investor in the show. We loved it so much, if you could just find a little place for us,” and Fred said, “Fran, no one’s called,” because everyone thought it was a concert, and a concert was never going to work at Broadway prices. So Fran and Barry decided, “We’ll do it.” They called Sam Cohn, Sam said, “You’re the only enquiry we’ve gotten,” so they did it. I think their original production cost was something like $2.5 million, maybe $3 million, I can’t remember now. They had trouble raising money for it. They went to their bank and the bank wouldn’t give them a loan and Fran said, “Barry and I were in bed one night and we looked at each other,” and they probably had a couple million in the bank from Grease and they said, ‘We might as well do it ourselves,” so they took their money and took a flyer on Chicago and I have been up to the house it bought them, and let me tell you, the bet has paid off rather handsomely.
Ken: I was the company manager for the Vegas production of Chicago and I signed a lot of checks so, yes, I can say first-hand the bet paid off and I love that about them, that they took that big risk, and Barry has told that story at a couple of events I’ve been to myself.
Michael: And I’m very friendly, and I admire him greatly, with Scott Rudin because his boyfriend John Barlow, who used to be a press agent, and I grew up in the business together. Scott is a throwback to David Merrick and Kermit Bloomgarden. He does everything on his own terms, makes all the decisions himself, there’s no committee, no 15 people sitting around a conference table. If it’s a Scott Rudin production, you put your money in and you shut up. He makes the decisions. And he has tremendous taste too.
Ken: What do you think about the change in how theater owners operate now versus before? Obviously they used to be very involved in producing a lot of these shows.
Michael: Well I can tell you a lot about that because I’ve just completed a book for Simon & Schuster that will be out in November which is about Broadway and New York City in the ‘60s and ‘70s when things were really unravelling. The city was bankrupt, Times Square was a disaster, the Shubert Organization was almost bankrupt, Jimmy Nederlander was just coming on the scene but he really had no money, the theaters were in disrepair, there were no shows and Bernie Jacobs and Gerry Schoenfeld took over the Shubert Organization from Lawrence Shubert Lawrence, who was the great nephew of JJ Shubert – he was a total drunk and he was running the company into the ground. Things were really, really bad – this was about 1972 – and they had no shows. And Bernie and Gerry, in a boardroom coup, which I tell in the book, ousted the Shubert family, basically, and got control of this empire for themselves, but they were then faced with an empire that had a cash flow problem and a lot of empty theaters and I remember I do have this in the book because it’s a tape recording that Betty Jacobs, Bernie’s widow, gave me that he made for the family before he died that she’s allowed me to use in the book and he and Gerry went to JP Morgan, who had been the Shuberts’ banker back when JP Morgan was alive and the Shubert brothers were alive, and they needed cash so they wanted a $1 million line of credit in 1972, and they used as collateral the 17 Schubert theaters and JP Morgan turned them down because they said 17 Broadway theaters in Times Square in 1972 were not worth $1 million.
Michael: That’s the state the business was in back then. Today, to build a theater, I know the Shuberts have been looking to build one and the minimum cost is $150 million – that’s for the building. The Shuberts can do it because they own the land. If you have to buy the land, you’re talking $300 million and that is just not an investment anyone is going to make. But in 1972, 17 Shubert theaters were not worth, in the estimation of JP Morgan, $1 million.
Ken: The air rights to one of those theaters is worth more than that now.
Michael: Absolutely. But Bernie and Gerry were not producers, they were lawyers, but by necessity they had to become producers because they had to fill their theaters. Jimmy Nederlander was a producer because he had to fill his theaters. That’s why they became producers. Today, they don’t have to be producers because there are plenty of people like you who will fill their theaters for them and they will take no risk.
Ken: Predictions for this year – what do you think about the current year that we’re in? The current season?
Michael: It’s certainly been an odd one for musicals. Nothing has really become the big, big hit. I do think that every two or three years the business needs a really big, big musical that just makes the industry seem exciting and Broadway a place you want to be. The last one we had was Book of Mormon but that’s going on four years and we haven’t really had anything like that in a while. I think everyone is looking around, trying to figure out where that next musical that’s going to get everybody talking about Broadway is going to come from. I hear this thing called Hamilton is supposed to be quite good. Jeffrey Seller’s got it and it’s the guy who did In the Heights, which I didn’t like so I’m a little skeptical. The all-rap version of Hamilton’s life may not appeal to me but if it’s a hit, fine, I don’t argue with hits. We’re certainly at a very weird place where there’s nothing that strikes me, even in London, in the pipeline, which looks like it’s really gaining momentum as a Matilda or a Billy Elliot – both excellent shows but neither of which will ever achieve the level of a Wicked or a Book of Mormon or anything like that, although Matilda, which I love, I thought was going to be in trouble a while ago but it seems to have found its mark. But there isn’t a mega musical and the industry needs that – it can’t just survive on 12 week runs with stars. And the road needs these big shows to survive because the whole infrastructure of the road was built on the Cats and the Phantoms and the Les Mis. Well those things are yesterday’s news and I know the road guys are like, “We’ll do alright with The Lion King and Wicked,” but they’ve come to our market now ten times and our audiences want the next big one and a lot of these big theater chains have been built – Broadway Across America was all predicated on the idea of there being these big hits in the pipeline that would keep coming through and that well seems to be dry for now. And you can’t survive on the plays because the plays won’t tour unless there’s a star in them and the stars won’t tour.
Ken: We’ve been talking about how a lot of these markets just won’t take plays anymore, thy just won’t do it. There isn’t an appetite from these audiences.
Michael: I think if, let’s say, Hugh Jackman decided, “I’ll do six months in The River,” or if Nathan Lane said, “I’ll do It’s Only a Play for three or four months,” I’m sure it would be booked and people would go see it.
Ken: We’re making that request, funnily enough, but I don’t know if that one’s going to go through. One last question for you. I want you to imagine that you wake up tomorrow morning and the Aladdin genie says to you, “Michael, I’m going to grant you one wish, one wish only. You can change anything you want about Broadway. Anything. You get one wish to change it.” What would be the one thing that you would change?
Michael: Every play should be 90 minutes.
Ken: Very well said.
Michael: On a more serious note – I’m a capitalist and a Republican and I’m not against making money, but I do think ticket prices on Broadway have reached an obscene level and I think, like all of New York, Broadway is basically telling people you have to be rich to be here and I don’t think, in the long run, that that’s very healthy for the theater. If you talk to people like the Scott Rudins of the world – they didn’t have the kind of money when they were kids growing up to spend $495 to see Book of Mormon, and where’s the next generation of producers and actors and writers who are going to come to New York – if they can, because where are they going to live? They can’t afford to live here. And how are they going to see these kinds of shows? So how are they ever going to learn the business and get a foot in the door? They will – if somebody wants to do it badly enough they’ll do it – but I do think $450 for an 80 minute play with a star in it is really kind of unconscionable.
Ken: Well that’s a wrap. Thank you very much.
Michael: I think that’s an expression they use in the movie business, Ken.
Ken: I know. Well, it’s also in the podcast business. A big thank you to Michael for doing this podcast, for taking time away from the Post and Theater Talk. Do tune in to watch Theater Talk, it’s fantastic. It’s a much different side to Michael – the same side you’re hearing now – than you do read in the Post, although reading the Post is a lot of fun, I will admit it, even when my shows have been mentioned in it negatively.
Michael: I’ll come back when my book is out and give you the inside story of the Shubert Organization.
Ken: Yes, fun.
Michael: And if you want to see me get yelled at by Don Imus you can always check out Tuesday mornings – I’m a regular on Imus in the Morning and he constantly makes fun of me and the theater business.
Ken: That’s great, so Tuesday mornings on Imus you can listen to Michael as well. Please subscribe to the podcast. We have very exciting guests coming up and we’ll see you then. Thanks!