Wednesday, March 16, 2016

There's no business like show business

So, after about two weeks, I finally finished Michael Riedel's tome covering much of the history of Broadway. Razzle Dazzle: The Battle For Broadway is one of the rare non fiction books that I read, and wow, it became quite emotional reading towards the end.

Problem being it takes a few chapters before it really gets interesting. The intro is great, we start with an investigation into Broadway finances in the early 1960's following a phone call to a State Attorney from an "Angel" concerned that their contribution to a producer for a show wound up buying the producer a new boat, but they hadn't seen any return on investment. This leads into the investigation of "ice", which would likely be considered scalping in this day and age. Essentially, the box office sells the tickets to brokers for much more than face value, and the brokers in turn sell the tickets for even more. Only the face value sale gets reported, while the proceeds get passed up the chain and trickle down to people who don't have a stake in the show. Which leads tho things like the show losing money while people are getting quite rich on the extra money made from sale tickets. Or, as Richard Rodgers found out when Annie Get Your Gun! was in Philadelphia, there are no tickets available, but the orchestra seats are empty.

As the investigation winds down (and almost nobody get punished severely, although new laws and regulations go in place to keep it from happening), we then go back in time to Syracuse, New York, and the three Schubert brothers, JJ, Lee, and Sam, who essitially go from rags to riches working in the local theater, then buying local theatres. Eventually, they buy property in Manhattan, which runs them afoul of The Syndicate, a loose association of theater owners who pretty much run the live theater industry nationwide. (It started off as a good idea, it made sure shows and tours proceeded in orderly fashions, and everyone was happy. Sadly, over time, it turned into "If you want the show to open or play, you will play by our rules.")

The war with the syndicate goes on for quite some time, particularly after Sam dies, and a truce is thrown out the door under the pretense of a man named Erlanger telling the surviving brothers that he doesn't honor contracts with dead men. When the market crashes in 1929, the Schuberts buy out the Syndicate. Not that it matters, towards the end of the depression, the Schuberts wind up putting most of their theaters on the market, then buying them back since no one else had any money to buy them. Whne the last brother dies, the empire falls under the auspices of a governing board and foundation, nominally under the control of a drunken nephew who spends most nights drinking and womanizing. There's also the small matter of a lawsuit over JJ's two wives and which one should inherit the state.

Long story short, the lawyers Shoenfeld and Jacobs end up staging a coup to get rid of JJ jr. and get themselves and a third partner in charge of the company. (The third partner, Irving Goldman almost manages to wreck the company later due to doing things like making productions and theaters buy supplies from companies he either owns or has investments in.)

(Yes, I'm summarizing quite a bit of detail here. Deal with it.)

We discuss the near failure of Broadway during the late 1960s and early 1970's. The author points out that while rock music was popular, Broadway musicals were mostly old fashioned. That and Times Square, in the aftermath of White Flight and the collapsing economy of NYC, was pretty much a very seedy section of town that most folks didn't want to set foot into after dark. (Side note here: my trip there last year has seen Times Square transformed from "The Deuce" into something closer to Vegas. I literally had to use my hands as blinders to get past the number of giant television billboards advertising shows. Compare that with a High School trip in 1992, when we stayed at the Edison. While the district was safer than described in earlier time, there were 3 peep shows and a few adult movie houses right across the street from the hotel.)

Somewhere in here, in the narrative of the clean up, we start getting into shows the theaters were producing. We also meet Jimmy Nederlander, who came from Detroit to Manhattan, who's houses are mostly run down, although improving.

The book really shines when we get to the shows. (And when you get to this section, load YouTube. While the shows themselves aren't there on demand, many of the iconic moments discussed are.) For instance, when 42nd Street is in tryouts, a malfuntioning curtain leads to the rather wonderful opening number when the curtain rises just enough for the audience to see nothing but a chorus of feet tap dancing away. (As 42nd Street is one of the first shows I ever saw performed professionally, I let out and excited noise reading about it. Also, the YouTube clips of "Lullabye of Broadway" include Jerry Orbach singing.)

We here about Michael Bennett directing and choreographing A Chorus Line, as well as a rehashing of the story behind the story (although here they go in to the move from the off-Broadway  Public Theater into a Broadway theater.) We meet Tommy Tune, who is also a legend in his own right. We hear about Nederlander's major entrance into Broadway power with a little musical based on an old Depression era comic strip named Annie. (Funniest story in here is how the lady playing Miss Hannigan, Dorothy Loudon, allegedly told the child actors that if they stepped on any of her lines, they wouldn't live to see the curtain call.)

Mixed in to the early 80's is Schoenfeld's goal of continuing to clean up Time Square, which includes tearing down 3 theaters to put up a hotel with a theater in it (in which Nederlander ends up owning the theater). The backlash about that comes to the fore during the 1983 Tony awards when Bennett's Scubert financed Dreamgirls goes up against Tommy Tune's Nederlander financed Nine. The discussion of that year's broadcast is hysterical, as we first hear about Cher's cover of Cole Porter's "My Heart Belongs to Daddy". (YouTube this. It's well worth watching just for the whole "What did I just watch?" factor.) While Dreamgirls did end up taking home 9 Tony's to Nine's 6, Nine did get Best Musical, partially due to the backlash against tearing down the 3 theaters. That rivalry also ends the friendship between Bennett and Tune. (Which, given Tune opened Nine on the last day for Tony eligibility is sort of understandable.)

We go from there to the new British Invasion involving producer Cameron Macintosh and Andrew Lloyd Weber. While I will say I wasn't a huge fan of CAT$, here, reading about how they marketed the behemoth into what it is today was fascinating.

There's also two chapters with a chapter on Phantom of the Opera between them about one of my favorite musicals, Chess. The first chapter covers the actual writing of, and the West End production, which ran ito horrible trouble based on Bennett's dropping out halfway through rehearsals. (He publically stated it was due to chronic angina, but people close to him report it had to do with the Karposi Sarcoma lesions that were spreading from his foot to his forehead. This of course leads into a discussion on how many theater folks were dropping like flies in mid 1980's, including a tale of a group of 8 folks who figured that since they were all healthy, they would survive if they only dated each other. And none of them were alive a few years later.) Trevor Nunn ended up taking over the show and tried to mix his vision with Bennett's, to mixed reviews. When it comes to New York, Nunn throws out most of Bennett's work and does it his way. It fell apart. Evidently, there's a newer version that mixes the best of both worlds, which is probably the version I saw in 1993 at Wright State.)

We run in to AIDS again in the 1990's, as Howard Ashman and Alan Menkin move from off Broadway (Little Shop of Horrors) to Hollywood to help revive Disney's moribund animation division with The Little Mermaid. During the writing of Beauty and the Beast, Ashman dies in Greenwich Village. His music lives on, particularly given the success Disney has had moving their animated movies to Broadway.

In the end, the book is like a more musical version of Game of Thrones, as almost everyone is dead by the end. (As of 2015, Nederlander is still alive. Shoenfeld and Jacobs both died. Most of the producers, directors and choreographers asre dead, their torches passed on to new people.)

By far the biggest issue I had with the book is that, due to the nature of the narrative, he keeps jumping back and forth in time to show us where this person came from, what was going on in New York that lead tro this show opening, etc.

The other problem I had was that the book mainly focused on the Schubert shows, with them taking up probably about 75% of the narrative, Nederlander comes in with about 20%, and the last 5% goes to the indies, including Disney.

On the other hand, the book is probably as close as any of us will get to sitting down with the movers and shakers in the theater world and hearing their stories. Also, much like The Devil Wears Prada does with fashion, Razzle Dazzle provides an excellent overview of the business of theater. Also, it should be mentioned that no one is portrayed as a villain twirlling a mustache or a sainte polishing a halo. Everyone comes off as human, capable of both very good things while doing very bad things.

And in the end, I walk away with several 11 o'clock numbers ringing in me ears, and a few tears shed over characters whose art has had sunch influence over my life.