RAZZLE DAZZLE: The Battle for Broadway, by Michael Riedel. Simon & Schuster, 447 pp., $27.
Back in 1972, when Broadway and New York City itself stood at bankruptcy’s door, Bernard Jacobs — one-half of the lawyer tag team that built the Shubert Organization, which largely owned the theater district — sought a $1-million line of credit from J.P. Morgan. The collateral that Jacobs and his business partner, Gerald Schoenfeld, offered was their 17 Broadway theaters. Morgan declined. Last year, the empire that the late Jacobs and Schoenfeld nurtured explored the prospect of constructing a 1,500-seat musical theater on a prime Shubert parcel. Estimated cost: $150 million. Today, banks would line up to extend lines of credit.
When it comes to a history of Broadway, you wouldn’t think that stories about real estate, union contracts and backroom deals would make for a good read — never mind a riveting one. But the chief takeaway from Michael Riedel’s “Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway” is the high drama of the two-man juggernaut that saved Broadway. Not only did the Shubert Organization rescue a national treasure from a perilously close encounter with oblivion, but, as Riedel makes the case — somewhat less convincingly — they played a key role in the city’s recovery.
Jacobs and Schoenfeld were hired by J.J. Shubert, who got his start in the business by acquiring unpromising theaters in his Syracuse hometown. When no one in his family proved able (his son died at 53) or worthy (great-nephew Lawrence was an alcoholic) of succession, the mantle passed to Jacobs and Schoenfeld, who resisted the temptation of perpetuating the skim-off scheme known as “ice” — choice Broadway seats reserved for theater owners who took their cut before investors could recoup their investment. Sort of like “The Producers,” with less blatant criminality.
You could say that the Shubert Organization, in the capable hands of a couple of lawyers not bearing the name, put “legit” back into legitimate theater. That isn’t to say they were snobs in terms of audience appeal. Jacobs and Schoenfeld developed a nose for what would sell; when “A Chorus Line” came along in 1975, it would turn out to be a savior for Broadway and, perhaps, midtown Manhattan.
Riedel, longtime New York Post theater columnist, recycles many tidbits he’s accumulated over a career of reporting on Broadway to mix into a compelling narrative — at least for those with an interest in theater, whether as a business or artistic proposition. Most of the deals in both realms take place in Shubert offices above Sardi’s or in bars and restaurants within a few minutes’ walk. But many are resolved in Long Island retreats — the Hamptons, Shelter and Fire islands. Among them are negotiations involving who will direct, choreograph, star or invest in such hits as producer David Merrick’s “42nd Street,” Michael Bennett’s “A Chorus Line” and “Dreamgirls,” which the Shuberts produced, or Tommy Tune’s rival “Nine,” which landed on the stage at one of competitor Jimmy Nederlander’s properties. (Bernard and Betty Jacobs’ Shelter Island home, where Bennett retreated for “inspiration” to write “A Chorus Line” and “Dreamgirls,” sold last summer for $3.65 million.) In an amusing aside in the early chapters, we learn that Schoenfeld, still a hired hand who lived in Manhattan, was called upon at all hours by night owl J.J. Shubert, while Jacobs, who lived with Betty in Roslyn, was spared.
Despite Riedel’s focus on the bottom-line crapshoot that makes long-shot Broadway hits possible, his narrative includes enough celebrity gossip, most of it posthumous, to satisfy fans whose only investment — not inconsiderable these days — is in obtaining tickets. From Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and his British Invasion cohort Cameron Macintosh, who broadened the Great White Way’s horizons with megahits “Cats,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Misérables,” to Roy Disney and his creative team of Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman, who re-transformed Broadway with “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King,” outsiders helped change the face of Broadway. Neither of the Disney hits was a Shubert production. But the latter represented the culmination of Jacobs’ and Schoenfeld’s decades-long drive to remake Times Square from a narcotics-and-prostitution haven into a family tourist destination. Never mind the seedy cartoon characters who now ply Times Square Broadway for tips.
We imagine the honorary Shuberts — Jacobs and Schoenfeld — would not have approved. Yet Broadway continues its boom, thanks in large part to their fiduciary vision. It may not be sexy, but little happens on stage without $$$ — and good sense.