“Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway” will make a non-fan happy, too

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Book cover of
Book cover of "Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway" by Michael Riedel

Author Michael Riedel gives readers an absolutely correct amount of drama

You know every single role in your favorite Broadway show.

You can name all the actors who’ve ever filled those roles. You know the plot and every word to every song. How many times have you seen that show, bought the t-shirts, read a playbook, coveted the posters? And how much is there that you don’t know? In Singular Sensation by Michael Riedel, come see.

Hollywood’s supposed Golden Age lasted from the 1930s until just after World War II. The Golden Age of live television, says Riedel, roughly spanned the Eisenhower years. The Golden Age of Broadway, then, was from 1943 to 1959. At about that time, a “British invasion” arrived, lasting for decades.

And then, in the later 1990s, everything changed.

Suddenly, low-budget musicals were profitable. Musical comedies became popular again, and plays “made a comeback.” Corporations began eyeing Broadway as a way to further their brand and make more money.

Perhaps most importantly, “[a] new breed of producers” stood up to theater owners who’d previously had serious power, and new theaters were established. Literally, the landscape of theater-going changed.

It wasn’t all singing and dancing, though. Says Riedel, “Broadway has a knack for survival,” and it needed that knack: the AIDS crisis was in full-swing then, terrorism left its mark on theater audiences abroad, Times Square was seedy, and New York City itself was struggling financially. The industry was ripe for change, and Riedel tells about it.

He writes of egos, ideas, and role replacements, all of which often clashed. He explains how money and power makes or breaks a show, especially in behind-the-scenes deal-making with theater owners who decide which shows run and which don’t. He writes of writers, actors, directors, costumers, and criminals.

Riedel explains how a daytime talk show host made Broadway a must-see destination for New York City’s tourists. He explains how Disney made its mark on Broadway with the help of Rudy Giuliani. He writes of a genius who never saw his masterpiece and never knew its popularity. And he tells of a show rescued from near-obscurity by a husband-and-wife team who couldn’t let it go…

House lights down, stage lights up and, within minutes, you’re transported to another place and time. Reading Singular Sensation is something like that: author and theater columnist Michael Riedel takes readers backstage, overseas, onstage, and in rehearsals and meetings with people you’ll recognize if you’re perpetually Broadway-bound. The nice surprise is that this serious-but-lighthearted, semi-scandalous collection of related stories will, because of the size of the names involved, make a non-fan happy, too.

Indeed, Riedel gives readers a fly-on-the-wall feel through bit of non-catty, relatively kind celebrity gossiping, done with an absolutely correct amount of drama. This keeps Singular Sensation under control while maintaining a sense of insider, somewhat like reading Variety with a delightfully droll PhD.

It’s likely been a minute since you sat in a theater seat and you miss it very much, but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying Broadway on paper. So grab Singular Sensation and roll with it.

Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway by Michael Riedel, ©2020, Avid Reader Press, $28, 335 pages