The theater is pretty much on the brink of catastrophe since the ancient Greeks cut off their subsidies. It has suffered everything from epidemics and Puritans to wars and even the battle of Patti LuPone and Andrew Lloyd Webber, which some feared would require intervention by the Atomic Energy Commission, the United Nations and Dr. Phil. At this last point in theater history, Michael Riedel’s riveting new book Singular Sensation (Avid Reader Press) begins from the right side of the stage.
Hardcore theater fans should not be fooled: The title may come from A Chorus Line, but this is the story of Broadway in the 1990s, from the British invasion that saw Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, among others, to The Producers. Riedel sheds light on the highlights, the faint lights and some ghost lights of a time that saw, among other things, the height of Webber’s popularity, the resurgence of Edward Albee, the successes of Terrence McNally, the story of Rent, the Weislers and, of course, one or two sightings of Stephen Sondheim. There is indeed something for everyone.
If some of these names are less well known to non-theater audiences, you can be sure that Riedel can fill in enough background stories to keep everyone up to date. And if they’re too familiar to the theater addicts who crowd the theaters (if that’s legal), Times Square (if that’s safe) and chat rooms, Riedel has plenty of juicy new facts, gossip and backstories to keep you interested. He is a great storyteller of stories, even if some people don’t like the stories he tells. And Riedel has always had a few sources in high positions that you can rely on when it comes to adding spice to the stories.
In his often remorseful columns for the New York Post, Riedel has staged behind-the-scenes dramas with news, gossip and pompous names, some of which have told the world some pretty outrageous lies. His style was and is airy and legible, and his tongue was and is sharp, but it was and is often firmly planted in his cheek. This style is subdued, but only a little, in Singular Sensation, which in the early 1990s took up where Razzle Dazzle left off, Riedel’s previous book on Broadway theater.
The book covers some of the more famous stories, some like LuPone’s struggle with Webber, which has been moved from the arts and entertainment pages to page six and beyond. The feud, which lasted from 1994 to about 2018, began when LuPone was ready to play Norma Desmond in the musical version of Sunset Boulevard on Broadway – she played it in London – until producers Glenn Close saw the role in Los Angeles. Then, as they say, chaos ensued. Close got the role; LuPone got the wave; and the world got a soap opera. It was a bare-clawed catfight between LuPone and Webber that was almost everything Tennessee Williams could have dreamed of in his prime. And in black and white Riedel tells the episode in all its four-color splendor.
Singular Sensation is full of stories that will be like catnip to the theater-hungry readers. From the demise of British jewels to the rise and premature demise of Jonathan Larson. Here Stephen Sondheim gives the stressed creator of Rent advice that should be above the desk of any theatrical artist: “You’ve chosen your staff and now you need to work with them. This advice helped Larson create one of the greatest hits of the 1990s.
Probably the lowest light of the book, theatrically speaking, is the story of Garth Drabinsky, the head of the Live Entertainment Corporation of Canada (Livent), who apparently taught Bernie Madoff a few things about the business. Drabinsky was found guilty of fraud and forgery. The Livent saga was not real theater, but it was a high drama of the lowest category. People could not believe the extent of deception that was going on. But that was the 1990s, and we have seen a lot since then.
Finally, the story of The Producers takes us into 2001, into the truly modern era of Broadway with its premium awards and star cast. The musical won 12 of its 15 Tony nominations, and in the three lost nominations the actors competed against other cast members. While the success of the musical looked like a foregone conclusion in hindsight, there were some speed bumps along the way.
The pandemic may have put the theater on hold for the time being, but Singular Sensation will eat the theater rats alive