Broadway might be all multi-billion dollar babies these days, but back around the mid-1970’s – says author Michael Riedel, in Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway – it wasn’t even a million dollar baby.
That’s when the Shubert Organization, Broadway’s largest landlord (at a time when Broadway was in serious decline), found itself with liquidity problems.
Times Square, in the late sixties and early seventies, was basically a cesspool of porno houses, prostitutes, drugs and – oh yeah – America’s performing arts hub.
The problem back then was shows started at 8:30pm (so that theatregoers could sneak in dinner and couple martinis after work before heading to a show), sending them out into the Mean Streets of Midtown in the wee small hours of the Manhattan morning – a dream scenario for junkies looking for a wallet to empty.
As a result, attendance to Broadway shows was in sharp decline. The younger generation, busy protesting Vietnam, didn’t see anything that connected to them. There weren’t even enough worthwhile productions to keep all 17 Shubert houses open.
The logical answer to a cash crunch would have been to sell a few of them, but that wasn’t the mandate of the Shubert Organization that Bernard Jacobs and partner Gerald Schoenfeld had taken over a few years earlier – it was to keep all 17 theatres running as theatres.
Instead, the lawyers went to the bank, seeking a $1 million line of credit. As collateral, they put up the titles to all 17 theatres the Shubert Foundation owned.
The bank said no – the theatres (mostly located between 44th St and 52nd Street in midtown) – were in an area that was dangerous, dirty and drug-infested. What savvy ’70’s banker wanted to own one more broken-down turn-of-the -20th century theatrical barn in an area full of them?
There’s an old saying about life in the theatre, particularly the Broadway theatre – “you can’t make a living, but you can make a killing.” In other words, all the bad economic news in the world can be solved in a single moment by producing a hit show.
For the Shuberts, that hit turned out to be betting on the creative potential of a dancer turned aspiring choreographer named Michael Bennett, who’d grown up in a dysfunctional family in Buffalo, where his small time hood of a father was ashamed to have raised a dancer – until one day, when he tried to pay off some gambling debts by offering some mobsters a piece of his son’s potential dance earnings.( The mobsters passed.)
There’s more to that story – much more – because it’s about the man who went on to create A Chorus Line, which went on to become one of the great smash hits in the history of Broadway.
But it barely scratches the surface of the people, personalities, and theatrical history explored in Razzle Dazzle, a marvellously readable exploration of Broadway’s emergence from the bad old days into what it is today – a monster of a business that in many ways serves as the anchor to the world’s idea of New York City.
(New York Post theatre columnist Michael Riedel)
The story of Broadway’s resurgence is admittedly told from the point of view of the Shubert Organization, which granted Riedel generous access, but that’s only problematic if you really buy into the idea of a ‘battle’ for Broadway (between the Nederlanders and later, Jujamcyn organizations, and now, Disney and other major entertainment studios).
I guess there was a battle – in particular, over which theatres would house which shows – but what makes Razzle Dazzle such a fun read is the fact that Broadway still remains a crapshoot, sometimes a highly costly one (maybe Riedel will write a sequel about Spiderman: The Musical).
The Shubert Organization started out as a family-run group running theatres in Syracuse, New York. For a long time, they were just theatrical landlords, before discovering that they might have to become producers, too.
That led to one small problem, namely the fact that none of them were quite sure which shows would connect with audiences – particularly, after they took over in the early 70’s, Jacobs and Shoenfeld, who were lawyers, not theatre people – but someone imparted a piece of wisdom on them about how to choose which shows to get involved with: bet on the jockey, not the horse.
In other words, find the best talent out there and ride it. That’s what led to championing Michael Bennett, who created A Chorus Line and later, Dreamgirls, two monster hits, even as he was abusing booze and cocaine and eventually, succumbing to AIDS in the late 1980’s.
That was what led to Trevor Nunn, a British director and the man behind such unlikely hits as Nicholas Nickelby, an 8 hour long adaptation of a Dickens novel – who also ended up directing Cats (big hit) and Chess (big miss).
There’s another subplot early on in Razzle Dazzle, concerning the flagrant ticket scalping that generated a lot of envelopes full of cash in the 1960’s for everyone involved with live theatre, before the days of credit card orders and now, online orders and premium seating (now the envelopes full of cash go to the ticketing agencies instead of the people who ran the theaters.)
The other subplot concerns the role Broadway played in transforming Times Square from a pit of despair in the 1970’s and 80’s into what it is today – an urban Disneyland of sorts.
(Or if not the Disneyfication of Times Square, then the Torontofication – it turns out the architect behind the bounceback of the area was former Toronto native Rebecca Robertson, who was one of the people who talked Disney into pumping a bit of money into one of those 42nd Street dives that ultimately led to the street’s turnaround.)
All of it is told in rather restrained manner by Riedel compared to his weekly Post column, where he likes to push Broadway jockeys right off their horses – but he still has a great ear for dialogue and knows what to leave out of a story as much as he knows what to put in.
Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway is a must-read for anyone climbing a plane to fly to New York to see a few shows. It’s a wonderful glimpse into the show that goes on behind the scenes of all the shows Broadway audiences flock to.