Broadway Snarls at New Butcher, Michael Riedel

On March 31, New York Post theater columnist and Theater Talk host Michael Riedel settled into balcony seats at the Shubert Theater. His friend and long-suffering co-host, Susan Haskins, was somewhere else in the theater that night; they were there to take in the first preview of Gypsy , the much-anticipated revival directed by Sam Mendes, starring Broadway sweetheart Bernadette Peters.

Mr. Riedel had been questioning the casting of Ms. Peters as the hard-charging Mama Rose. He was spoiling for a fight, and he soon got it. While industry wags were heaving blissfully about the new production of the Arthur Laurents–Stephen Sondheim–Jule Styne classic, the 36-year-old Post columnist was preparing to report that Mr. Laurents had “charged up the aisle” at the first preview and given the show’s producers an earful about the production and its casting, later sending a ” War and Peace” –sized sheaf of production notes to Mendes & Co.

“ANGRY CREATORS WONDER IF PETERS IS REALLY A … ‘GYPSY’ WOMAN,” read the April 4 headline, a throwback to the old-fashioned waspish, heard-on-the-Rialto Broadway columns.

“Putting tender, vulnerable, lovely Bernadette Peters in the role gives new meaning to the phrase ‘non-traditional casting,’” Mr. Riedel wrote. “Whether Mendes can pull ferocity out of a woman who is frequently compared to a kewpie doll remains to be seen.”

Before long, Ms. Peters started missing shows, and Mr. Riedel’s assessment that the revival was in full sprawl appeared prescient. Gypsy ‘s producers said that Ms. Peters had contracted a respiratory infection. (Neither Ms. Peters nor anyone associated with the present production would speak to The Observer .) But theater gossips-who had questioned whether Ms. Peters’ gossamer cords would snap under the pressure of a role championed by heartier types like Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly-found a champion in Mr. Riedel who, on May 7, published a column with an image of Ms. Peters on the back of a milk carton bearing the legend: “Have You Seen Me?” and trashing the show for charging premium ticket prices for regular understudy performances.

Mr. Riedel is no Addison DeWitt, the acid-tongued stage gossip who made and broke stars in Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve . The theater is no longer so dramatic a place, though it’s not for lack of trying. It is arguably a sign of Broadway’s resurgence that after 14 years on the beat, Mr. Riedel’s moment-in which he can at least simulate just such a figure-is near. Perhaps DeWittedly, the controversy over Mr. Riedel’s Gypsy Love Song-the first real fun a reporter has had with a Broadway show in a long, long time-may have brought it closer.

“I like being able to go after someone’s show. I like the battle, a little swordplay,” Mr. Riedel said on a recent evening in the top-floor dining room of Angus McIndoe, a popular spot for theater heavies that also happens to be down the block from the Shubert.

A David Hyde Pierce look-alike in a gingham Polo shirt and chinos with a woven belt, Mr. Riedel was eating a burger with a side of steamed vegetables and drinking a Diet Coke. The actor and comedian Eddie Izzard was sitting by the window; the New Jersey Star-Ledger theater critic Michael Sommers was filling out his Tony Awards ballot at the bar; and the choreographer Jerry Mitchell, who worked on Gypsy , ate with two friends at a nearby table. It was almost like Sardi’s in the old days. Mr. Riedel waved at Mr. Mitchell, and Mr. Mitchell waved back.

Mr. Riedel brought up Gypsy . Mr. Mitchell didn’t deter Mr. Riedel; on the contrary, he seemed to look in Mr. Mitchell’s direction and raise his voice.

“I went to the first preview of Gypsy ,” he said. “Everyone was wondering: Could Bernadette pull it off? Once I saw it, I could tell that she was really going to struggle through the run of the show. I think the Mendes production is very pedestrian. It’s a tired old boring production of Gypsy .”

Even critics who disagreed with Mr. Riedel couldn’t help but address his reporting in their reviews.

“You can tear down the black crepe, boys!” raved The New York Times ‘ chief drama critic, Ben Brantley, in his own review of Gypsy , as if to acknowledge the dark mood that ushered the musical onto Broadway, inspired by Mr. Riedel. He called Ms. Peters’ performance “the surprise coup of many a Broadway season.”

“Ben Brantley wrote his review of Gypsy from on high, and it was obviously a slight at what I was writing,” Mr. Riedel said recently. “‘Don’t listen to the vultures,’ he said. That kind of exchange is fun. I was taking on a much-beloved figure in the theater world. I was not reporting on bad behavior; I was saying she was taking off performances. You’re asking people to shell out $100! It’s legitimate to report, and quite unfair to the paying customers. It was a tremendously exciting story.”

In August, Mr. Riedel angered the producers of Movin’ Out when he wrote that negative buzz surrounded the show’s pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago; in January, he irritated Barry and Fran Weissler when he cracked Helen Keller jokes on behalf of their production of The Miracle Worker , which closed out of town; in March, he reported with glee that the box-office receipts for Baz Luhrmann’s staging of La Bohème were quickly dropping.

Mr. Riedel was having a ball.

“Last year he trashed my show, Sweet Smell of Success ,” the theater and film producer David Brown said from his midtown office. “He took us on mercilessly, and I came close to getting a contract out on him from some of the boys I used to know. He has a tendency to destroy. He is the enfant terrible of the New York press.”

But in Ms. Peters, Mr. Riedel had found Broadway’s soft spot, and he drove the sword in to the hilt. “Bernadette’s a trooper. She’s done a lot of shows for a lot of people,” said Emanuel Azenberg, who produced Movin’ Out and La Bohème and worked with Ms. Peters on the musical The Goodbye Girl for 188 performances in 1993. “Everyone who’s worked with her really likes her. Whether she’s the perfect Mama Rose is irrelevant; she’s a nice lady.”

And taking care of your own is an important thing for producers, who count on stars like Ms. Peters to headline, whether it’s Annie Get Your Gun , which ran for over 1,000 performances, or Gypsy , which has an estimated $8.5 million budget and may need to sell more than $525,000 worth of tickets a week to break even.

Liz McCann, a longtime New York producer who serves as managing producer of the Tony Awards, often fires off angry letters to Mr. Riedel, which he happily excerpts in the Post . “Michael’s column has the power to make mischief rather than create trouble,” Ms. McCann said. “Who’s that little imp in fairy tales? He’s kind of like Rumpelstiltskin stirring the pot. That gets to some people.”

John Barlow, a publicist who worked on Dance of the Vampires , which opened and closed this season, doesn’t entirely agree. Mr. Riedel reported that people were calling Michael Crawford, the star of Vampires , a “fat rooster” behind his back, and that Mr. Crawford didn’t want his co-star, René Auberjonois, to get laughs.

“Michael does have a significant amount of influence,” Mr. Barlow said. “Next thing you know, there are stories in The Times , in Newsday , the Daily News , Variety , sometimes even Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood . Michael Riedel doesn’t work for the producers or the publicists; he works for the reader. Sometimes we’re glad of that, sometimes we’re not-but at the end of the day, that’s the reality.”

That evening at Angus’, Mr. Riedel finished off his hamburger and ordered a cup of tea. He realized he was late to meet Ms. Haskins, his Theater Talk co-host, to record a segment on the Tony Awards for Batchelor and Alexander , a late-night radio talk show on WABC.

He grabbed his green Tommy Hilfiger windbreaker and umbrella and went over to kiss Jerry Mitchell, whose show he had just finished loudly trashing, on the cheek.

“Do you hate me?” Mr. Riedel asked Mr. Mitchell.

“I hate no one,” Mr. Mitchell said.

On the walk to 2 Penn Plaza for the radio appearance, Mr. Riedel called Ms. Haskins. “Calm down, I’m coming,” he said.

When he arrived, Ms. Haskins, a graphic artist who teaches English at Pratt University, was waiting anxiously in the green room.

“The interesting thing will be if Michael lets me talk on air,” Ms. Haskins said. “The running joke on the show is that Michael won’t let me talk, but it’s because he has so much to say and has such a dominant personality. He’s been learning to allow me to talk a little more, though. Now we just have to work on him paying the slightest attention to what I say.”

Ms. Haskins and Mr. Riedel met on a public-access talk show discussing theater in 1992; she was 41 and working at La Mama, and he was 23.

“Susan was the Mary Tyrone of public access. She was addicted to it like a morphine drip,” Mr. Riedel said. They wanted to make a theater program in the vein of Meet the Press or The McLaughlin Group .

Theater Talk premiered on public access in early 1993, and when they were moved to a 2:30 a.m. time slot in 1996, they submitted the show to PBS, where it airs directly after Charlie Rose on Friday nights. The show has attracted as many as 200,000 viewers, but the number regularly hovers around 60,000.

On a recent show, Mr. Riedel said how much he liked Movin’ Out ; Ms. Haskins said viewers should know that it’s not quite a musical, but really modern dance.

“Michael said, ‘You’re drunk-you don’t know what you’re talking about,’” Ms. Haskins recalled. “He just sort of flattened me out.” Then she said, “I don’t want to be rude in front of the company, so I can’t flatten him back.

“At other times, people have said I was an abuse victim. Nathan Lane said I should join a 12-step program. Arthur Laurents said we’re George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “

Ms. Haskins and Mr. Riedel went into the studio, where host Paul Alexander introduced them to his co-host, John Batchelor, who was preparing his notes for the show.

Mr. Alexander said that Mr. Riedel wrote a “vicious column” in the New York Post .

“Even I say he’s vicious,” Ms. Haskins said.

“He’s determined to close Bernadette Peters,” Mr. Alexander added.

When the show began recording, Mr. Riedel almost immediately piped up about Ms. Peters.

“I think Bernadette Peters is terribly miscast, and I also don’t think she’s capable of singing this score,” he said.

“You were awfully nasty to her in the press. The Broadway world loves Bernadette Peters,” Ms. Haskins said.

“You hear about her with such reverence. There is a Bernadette Peters claque that takes offense to everything,” Mr. Riedel said.

When the taping was done, Ms. Haskins had to get home to give a shot of insulin to her diabetic cat, but she had a quick drink with Mr. Riedel on his walk home to the West Village. Mr. Riedel ordered a glass of red wine that he promptly returned because it tasted like “mouthwash.” Ms. Haskins sipped from a seltzer with Rose’s lime juice.

“Susan looks at everything in the theater through rose-colored glasses,” he said. “Everybody’s a saint; everybody loves everybody. We’re always bickering. It’s all an act. You gotta have a gimmick, as they say in Gypsy . We’re like Burns and Allen. Or Leopold and Loeb.”

Like so many of the city’s verbal sharp-shooters, Mr. Riedel grew up in a small town-in his case, Geneseo, N.Y., population 8,000. His mother was a school librarian, and his father was the athletic director at SUNY Geneseo.

His first love-politics-took hold early. In elementary school, he was named president of “Fourth Graders for Ford.”

“I wanted to be a Senator, or a Supreme Court justice, because that’s where all the power is,” he said.

Mr. Riedel left Johns Hopkins University after his first year because of a broken heart.

“I was in love with her; she wasn’t in love with me,” he said, recounting his transfer to Columbia University, where he acted in plays and appeared regularly on a radio show devoted to musical theater. The summer after his sophomore year, Mr. Riedel interned in Liz McCann’s office while she was producing the Broadway production of Dangerous Liaisons . “I interned for Liz McCann, and I still didn’t know what a producer did. I got coffee and was sent to find out whether Alan Rickman’s air-conditioning was working. If my parents had left me with a $10 million trust fund, I would have been a producer.”

Ms. McCann says she has only a vague memory of Mr. Riedel working as an intern. “He didn’t make much of an impression,” she told The Observer . Through friends, Mr. Riedel found a slot at Theater Week magazine, where he took the job of managing editor for $18,000 a year. But the job had its perks: He got free tickets to go to the theater and could write whatever he wanted.

In Mr. Riedel’s case, that turned into a regular column about Alex Witchel, who wrote the “On Stage, and Off” theater column for The Times , and Frank Rich, the paper’s chief drama critic.

“Walter Winchell said, ‘The way to become famous fast is to throw a brick at someone who is famous.’ And I threw my brick at Alex Witchel and Frank Rich. People think I’m mean, but I’m never as mean as she was. I was creating what we’d now call buzz,” Mr. Riedel said.

Mr. Rich and Ms. Witchel, who are now married, didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.

“I suppose, looking back, I should have sucked up to her. Maybe I’d be writing for The Times if I had,” Mr. Riedel said. “I look back and think what a prick I was, what a prig I was. I’ve mellowed out, as they say.”

After a three-year stint at Theater Week , Mr. Riedel found his way to George Rush’s gossip column at the Daily News , which led to covering the theater beat, which landed him at the Post , where he says he now spits “spitballs from the sidelines.”

In the best circumstances, Mr. Riedel makes more friends than enemies with his column. He’ll say something nasty about a show or person in print; they spar, and then they become friends for life, or at least until that person’s next show is on the boards.

“I don’t think there’s anyone I couldn’t have a laugh or a drink with,” Mr. Riedel said. “Except Frank Rich and Alex Witchel.”

David Brown wrote Mr. Riedel a nasty letter during the run of Sweet Smell of Success , and Mr. Riedel printed it in the Post verbatim, without comment.

“It was a great ad for me,” Mr. Brown said. “After the letter ran, Michael called me and asked if we could have lunch, and he and I have been friends ever since. It’s long been the practice on Broadway for enemies in print to become friends. After a decent review comes reconciliation. Should he find favor with my next production, I’ll take him to dinner.”

Mr. Brown wasn’t the first: When Liz McCann told the Tony committee last season that they were not going to be inviting Mr. Riedel to the Tony awards because he had written a series of articles about how bad the theater season had been, Mr. Riedel heard about it and the next day invited Ms. McCann onto the show. Ms. McCann happily agreed, and Mr. Riedel did attend the Tonys.

“Susan was eager for Liz to destroy me on air,” Mr. Riedel said. “She lives in hope that someone will squish me like a bug.”