It’s the opening-night party for Sly Fox, at Tavern on the Green. Photographers prepare to catch the actors and celebrities arriving, when the preppy, innocuous-looking New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel strides in. “Michael, let me take your picture in case you get into trouble tonight,” calls out a paparazzo. Riedel obliges, beaming.
Inside, Riedel is greeted by a producer inquiring, “How’s the Broadway grappler? You’re notorious!” Riedel quips, “I was already sailing on the Notorious, now I’ve got a first-class compartment.” A recent late-night fracas at the opening of Fiddler on the Roof has turned the columnist into a story: Riedel, who had belittled the production as “de-Jewed,” was knocked to the ground by the show’s director, David Leveaux.
The event was memorialized by “Page Six” with the cheeky headline ‘ROOF’ DIRECTOR FLOORS POST, and Riedel, unhurt, is reveling in the attention, showing off his repaired watchband, which had broken during the contretemps. The five-foot-nine, 138-pound Riedel is no Mike Tyson wannabe, but he likes to provoke, saying, “I’m a wimp when it comes to physical violence, but give me a keyboard and I’ll kill ya.” Charming his way across the room, he schmoozes about a possible actors’ strike with Phil Smith, president of the Shubert Organization, and pays homage to Floria Lasky, the venerable showbiz lawyer. Lasky, however, has not forgiven Riedel for his attention-getting stunt last year, when he hectored Bernadette Peters for missing performances of Gypsy and plastered the actress’s face on a milk carton. The diminutive Lasky grabs Riedel’s tie and jerks it, nooselike, scolding, “It was unfair, what you did to Bernadette.”
Michael Riedel has become the columnist Broadway loves to hate. An attack dog in a world of lapdogs, this magna cum laude Columbia graduate, who reads Dante and Suetonius for fun, is an unlikely tabloid bad boy. But his twice-a-week, mean, often funny, always dishy, ruthlessly vitriolic behind-the-scenes gossip column has made him the scourge and the talk of the theater world. Unapologetic about his desire to create offstage drama, Riedel has mocked and ridiculed the biggest names on Broadway. “I’m mischievous. You have to expect they’ll be thin-skinned, and you have to expect they’ll get mad at you,” says Riedel, who also co-hosts a Friday-night theater show on Channel 13. “I like it when they fight back. I love the debate.”
Movie producers and actors have long expected that their every temper tantrum and deal gone sour will be covered by a voracious press. But the arty, insular theater community typically receives more respectful treatment, so Riedel’s hard-hitting dispatches land like sucker punches. “Our world isn’t used to this kind of journalism,” says David Stone, the producer of Wicked and The Vagina Monologues. “We’re all a little wary because no one knows how to respond.” Powerhouse movie and theater producer Scott Rudin (The Hours) points out that bad publicity “matters so much less” in Hollywood because the studios invest millions in marketing. But on Broadway, where producers put their own money on the line, the stakes are personal. “Michael can make a huge difference in the life of a theater producer,” says Rudin.
Ask theater insiders for their reactions to the columnist, and the printable responses include:
• Rosie O’Donnell, who produced the flop Taboo: “I hope you eviscerate him.”
• Rocco Landesman, the erudite, cowboy-boot-wearing producer and theater exec: “He’s nasty, he’s cynical. He couldn’t tell Ibsen from Strindberg.”
• Roger Berlind, the gentlemanly producer of Wonderful Town: “Michael is influential in respect to causing tremendous discomfort and damage and heartbreak. Everything he writes, every word including the punctuation, is about Michael Riedel.”
• Elaine Stritch: “I’m unusual. I like him. Most people fear him.”
The fear and loathing are sufficiently powerful that many blanch at the mere mention of Riedel’s name. At the American Theater Wing lunch at the Pierre, playwright Tony Kushner, a frequent target of Riedel’s vitriol, barked “No comment!” at me with such animosity that he later apologized for being rude.
Then there are Broadway legends, like Stephen Sondheim, who disdainfully claim to ignore him. When Sondheim and Hal Prince opened Bounce in Chicago last year and urged New York critics not to review the production, Riedel not only trashed the show but ripped into his colleagues for kowtowing to the creators. “I wasn’t going to roll over for dear old Steve Sondheim and Hal Prince,” says Riedel. Sondheim, in a phone interview, drily says, “I’ve never read his column or seen his TV show. It didn’t occur to me that he was important enough to write about.” When I mention Bounce and other uproars Riedel has caused, Sondheim laughs, then says, “What you ought to cover is why, if so many people hate him so much or resent him, do they read it?”
The simplest answer is that the column is a guilty pleasure. “He’s lively, and he makes the theater seem like an interesting place,” says Margo Lion, the producer of Hairspray. “He can be nasty and destructive, but he’s an enthusiast.” James Nederlander Jr., the theater owner, says, “He finds out everything. If he writes something bad, I have to shrug it off.”
Riedel adores being the center of attention. At a press party for Tony nominees at the Millennium in late May, he joked with a producer, “Someone needs to do a revival of Murder on the Orient Express”—the Agatha Christie mystery in which everyone has a motive—“and I could play the victim.”
What gives him clout is that he mines terrain that goes relatively uncovered elsewhere. Breaking with Broadway convention, he attends the first night of previews, and reports on the problems and turf fights before the critics have their say. He offers up juicy tidbits, dishing the news that Movin’ Out creator Twyla Tharp was so enraged by the inconvenient pregnancy of the show’s star, Elizabeth Parkinson, that Tharp demoted the dancer’s husband, the assistant director.