The seemingly down-market New York Post may not boost box-office receipts. But what Riedel has managed to do, with his backstage gossipmongering, is to insert himself into the discussion and put himself in the powerful position of influencing the city’s drama critics. On May 2 of last year, the theater world was stunned when the New York Times critic Ben Brantley, in his review of Gypsy, directly responded to Riedel’s taunts: “Shadowed by vultures predicting disaster, Bernadette Peters has delivered the surprise coup of many a Broadway season.” Brantley says now, “I am aware of him in a way I hadn’t been of any other columnist.” But he insists he’s not affected by Riedel’s ramblings. “He’s like a mosquito. You hear it buzzing and you might swat at it, but I can’t say it changes my point of view.” But many theater insiders charge that the Times’ arts coverage has been changed by Riedel’s dish-it-out style.
“You can’t insulate yourself from what he writes,” admits Charles Isherwood, Variety’s chief critic. “It’s worrisome. You try to put it out of your mind, but it becomes part of the story. In your review, you find yourself addressing the issues he’s written about.”
Out every night seeing shows, Riedel also works the late-night scene at theater-restaurant hangouts. He can be an engaging raconteur; CAA agent George Lane, running into Riedel, teased him about his “Jekyll and Hyde quality,” charming at night and ruthless in the morning paper. On a recent spring evening, Riedel headed for the first performance of Bombay Dreams, inconspicuously buying a last-minute ticket (with no VIP treatment, he scored a far-left neck-craning seat beneath a loudspeaker). “You go to a first preview to see if it’s a big flop,” he explains.
Riedel had a vested interest, since after seeing the musical in London two years ago, he wrote that “the dialogue is clichéd, the jokes sub-sitcom and the plot elements contrived.” He even suggested that the producers, who include Andrew Lloyd Webber, hire Thomas Meehan to prune the book. Meehan, the Tony Award–winning writer of The Producers, recalls, “My wife and I saw it in his column, and we both laughed.” Less than a week later, producer Elizabeth Williams called, asking him to look at the show.
Moments after the curtain rose, it was obvious Riedel wasn’t impressed by the new version. As the dancers undulated, he whispered, “This looks like the Gandhi exercise video.” While Riedel approvingly noted that Meehan had clarified the show’s convoluted plot, later that night, when the poison-pen columnist ran into actor Edward Hibbert (of Frasier fame), Riedel pronounced the show a stinker, predicting a Bombay bomb. Riedel wrote a column several weeks later highlighting the slow advance sales. Peter Brown, Lloyd Webber’s veteran publicist, was not pleased. “I have a bone to pick with him,” he said. “He wrote based on the first preview—he should have come back again to see the work that was done on the show.”
At the first preview of A Raisin in the Sun, Riedel slipped into his orchestra seat, tantalized by the possibility that the actor formerly known as Puff Daddy might completely humiliate himself. But afterward at Orso, Riedel pronounced himself impressed. “He could have forgotten his lines or had to be carried offstage. He didn’t do anything terrible, he didn’t do anything astonishing.” Riedel had dinner with Combs, and, hyping his access, wrote a sympathetic column. But he ended the article with the kind of pay-attention-to-me, trick-or-treat threat that drives producers nuts. “I don’t think I can be had for the plate of linguini, and when the show opens, I won’t hold back my opinion of the performance,” Riedel wrote. “But you do have to wonder: if Bernadette Peters had broken bread with me this time last year, would her chorus boys have to be out there now working the TKTS line to keep Gypsy afloat?”
Whenever Leslie Lewitas, Riedel’s younger sister and a textile executive, accompanies him to shows and meets theater people, she’s always asked the same question: “Was he always this mean?” Her laughing, affectionate, and honest answer is, well, yes.
Riedel and his sister grew up in Geneseo, where their father was the athletic director of suny–Geneseo, and their mother was a grade-school librarian. Riedel was a smart, sarcastic kid who joined the Young Republicans at 12, eschewed jeans, and planned to become a lawyer and politician. “Michael was picked on quite a bit for being the small guy and the intellectual,” his sister says, adding that he “always used his verbal ability to beat someone at their own game, whether teasing or bullying.”
At Riedel’s small one-bedroom on Perry Street, a portrait of Igor Stravinsky is perched on the fireplace mantel, and Broadway Playbills grace the coffee table. “I only keep the flops,” says Riedel. “The flops have been very good to me.” Just back from a Saturday-morning yoga class, he’s playing a Rachmaninoff CD and settles into his leather reading chair, surrounded by stacks of books that have migrated from the shelves to the floor. An insomniac who pops the occasional Ambien, he goes through books the way alcoholics do booze. The place is single-guy sloppy; Riedel has been living alone since a four-year romance ended in 1996, when his then-girlfriend moved to Los Angeles. A framed 1947 New York Post front-page headline about the House Un-American Activities investigations—BROADWAY REDDER THAN FILM—hangs in the bathroom. He cracks, “I’m afraid that if I’d been a columnist in that era, I would have been a terrible Red-baiter.”