There’s nothing quite like Broadway drama. Between the divas who star in shows and the even bigger ones who write and produce them, there is never a dull moment behind the scenes of a Broadway show. This was especially true during the 1990s and early 2000s—the era of Broadway’s resurgence in American popular culture, which makes this time period the perfect topic for Michael Riedel, longtime theatre columnist for the New York Post, to write about. His latest book, Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway, often reads like more of a gossip column than a historical account, but is a quick, devilishly entertaining read for all Broadway lovers. (4 out of 5 wands.)
(Note: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher and NetGalley. All opinions are my own.)
Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway by Michael Riedel
The 1990s was a decade of profound change on Broadway. At the dawn of the nineties, the British invasion of Broadway was in full swing, as musical spectacles like Les Miserables, Cats, and The Phantom of the Opera dominated the box office. But Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard soon spelled the end of this era and ushered in a new wave of American musicals, beginning with the ascendance of an unlikely show by a struggling writer who reimagined Puccini’s opera La Bohème as the smash Broadway show Rent. American musical comedy made its grand return, culminating in The Producers, while plays, always an endangered species on Broadway, staged a powerful comeback with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. A different breed of producers rose up to challenge the grip theater owners had long held on Broadway, and corporations began to see how much money could be made from live theater.
And just as Broadway had clawed its way back into the mainstream of American popular culture, the September 11 attacks struck fear into the heart of Americans who thought Times Square might be the next target. But Broadway was back in business just two days later, buoyed by talented theater people intent on bringing New Yorkers together and supporting the economics of an injured city.
Michael Riedel presents the drama behind every mega-hit or shocking flop, bringing readers into high-stakes premieres, fraught rehearsals, tough contract negotiations, intense Tony Award battles, and more. From the bitter feuds to the surprising collaborations, all the intrigue of a revolutionary era in the Theater District is packed into Singular Sensation. Broadway has triumphs and disasters, but the show always goes on.
If you’re looking for an in-depth dive into the creation of these shows, or Broadway during these decades, this book might not be for you. However, if you want a light and breezy overview of some of the most important Broadway shows of this era, and the real-world context that led to their creation, then look no further. Riedel’s experience with the New York Post makes him perfectly suited to emphasize the most attention-grabbing details of these productions and spin them into yarns that will have you eagerly turning page-after-page to learn more about them. If this sounds like an insult or a complaint, it’s not. There are any number of other books that will cover this time period with all the dry depth you might desire, but how many of them will detail the conflict between Patti LuPone and Glenn Close during the initial few productions of Sunset Boulevard the way that Riedel does?
That’s the special sauce of this book—it’s a fun read. Riedel writes in a fluid, easy-to-read style that allows the details of the stories he’s sharing to hog all of the spotlight—and there are some great stories in this book. Riedel covers the demise of the Big Spectacle West End imports and the return of the American musical’s dominance on Broadway. He also covers shows and topics like Sunset Boulevard, Rent, Chicago, Angels in America, Rosie O’Donnell, The Lion King, The Producers, the revitalization of Time’s Square and the dominance of Disney, and the aftermath of 9/11. As a collection of topics for a book like this to explore, they’re a great bunch. They deftly and clearly lay the groundwork for Broadway and the American musical’s resurgence into popular culture in the late 2000s and 2010s.
Singular Sensation’s biggest downfall, however, is the internet. So many of these stories are already well known and oft-discussed in theatre circles online, so they lack the element of surprise that the stories covered in Riedel’s first book, Razzle Dazzle, had. For hardcore fans of Broadway, especially those who may have grown up during these years, there may be little new here for them to learn. However, I still believe this is a book worth reading, even if you do know all of this information already. There is so much stuff packed into these pages that you’re bound to learn something new—I didn’t know about half of the things Riedel covers in this book, so I was thoroughly engaged on every page. And even if you don’t learn anything new, Riedel’s style is so captivating and easy-to-read that you’ll find yourself drawn into Singular Sensation anyway.
At the end of the day, if you like theatre and broadway, Singular Sensation is a great book to read—especially if you’re younger or unfamiliar with the topics covered. Riedel’s style is easy to understand and invites readers to immerse themselves in the drama and creativity of the Broadway community in the 1990s and early 2000s. Sure, I wish Riedel had gone deeper on certain subjects and focused a bit less on gossipy drama, but I can’t deny that Singular Sensation is an entertaining read. If you like Broadway, you’ll get something out of this book for sure.
4 out of 5 wands.