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.
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.”
As Riedel quickly skims over his autobiography, what comes through is that he seems untouched by life. Inflicting pain, for him, is a jokey thing. “Michael has this cruel streak and a lack of empathy,” says Susan Haskins, his close friend and co-host of his TV show, Theater Talk. “He hasn’t struggled, he hasn’t known failure. He’s always been mean and funny, and there have been no consequences for being that way.”
Given Riedel’s hammy showman’s style of speaking, it’s not surprising to learn that he acted in high-school and college productions. Upon graduating from Columbia as a history major in 1989, he landed a job as managing editor at a now-defunct magazine, TheaterWeek. He was terrified the first time he wrote a review, of Larry Gelbart’s play Mastergate. “I threw up. I called my father and said, ‘I’ve got myself in the wrong profession.’ ”
To make the magazine more literary, Riedel asked well-known theater figures to write articles, including Eric Bentley, the distinguished Brecht translator and former theater critic for The New Republic. Not only did Bentley do stories, but he befriended Riedel, renting him a spare room in his Riverside Drive apartment. “It was the best two years of my life,” Riedel says. “It was like having a private tutorial with one of the great intellects of our time. He had this incredible library, and I could just read through the stuff he talked about.” Today, Bentley recalls Riedel fondly, but says he never reads his protégé’s column: “I can’t stand tabloid newspapers.”
“He hasn’t struggled, he hasn’t known failure,” says Susan Haskins, his close friend and co-host. “He’s always been mean and funny, and there have been no consequences for being that way.”
What transformed Riedel from an obscure scribe into a name to be reckoned with was his decision to go after that influential New York Times twosome—Frank Rich, then the theater critic, and his girlfriend (now wife), Alex Witchel, then the theater columnist. Riedel is shameless about his motive, saying, “Walter Winchell once said, ‘If you’re a nobody in this town, the fastest way to become a somebody is to throw a brick at someone.’ ” After producer David Merrick took out a heart-shaped ad in the Times mocking the Rich-Witchel romance, Riedel launched his own attack—arguing that the pair had used their power irresponsibly (ironically enough, given that abusing power is precisely the charge Riedel’s critics level at him). The resulting attention was irresistible. “I thought, I can ride this for a while,” he says. A theater insider who is on friendly terms with all three journalists says, “Michael is an opportunist. He went after Frank and Alex with total disregard for reality. It was grotesque.” Both Rich and Witchel declined to comment.
The gimmick worked; he was hired at the Daily News in 1993 by gossip columnist Charlotte Hays. Riedel subsequently switched to theater features, and was hired by the Post in 1998. Eager to expand his influence, Riedel began his TV show more than a decade ago (it airs Fridays at midnight on PBS).
Riedel has no qualms about trashing productions put on by his friends. The theater publicist John Barlow has represented some of Riedel’s favorite targets. “On rare occasions, if you ask Michael to kill something, he will, if it’s someone with whom he does business,” says the publicist. “But I’ve had times where he’s been incredibly unfair, sanity-eroding.” Scott Rudin, also a Riedel friend (he lives with Barlow), is one of the producers of Caroline, or Change. Lately Riedel has been slamming the show—primarily, it seems, because Rich liked it. Rudin wrote to Riedel in January asking him to back off. “Your feelings about Frank Rich are known to everyone,” Rudin wrote, “but they are not germane to your writing about this production.” Judging by Riedel’s subsequent columns, the letter had no impact.
But no drama intrigues him more than the scoop. At the opening of Sondheim’s Assassins—praised by most critics with guns blazing—Riedel looked offended during the show, whispering repeatedly to me, “This is sick.” Afterward, heading for the party at the China Club, he was in high spirits, insisting that he was rooting for the show to be nominated for a Tony (it got the nod for Best Revival) because it would lend such agita to the awards race. Animatedly gaming the Tony sweepstakes, he pauses on Eighth Avenue to say, grinning, “There’s going to be this great big boiling pot. And I’m going to be there stirring it.”
His remark conjures up Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson’s famous self-description: “I’m the straw that stirs the drink.” No, they’ll never name a candy bar after Riedel, nor is his workaday uniform likely to be retired by the New York Post. But that won’t stop him from stirring his cauldron. Too bad if his efforts sometimes resemble those of one of the witches from Macbeth.