Got an e-mail from Brigadude, who commented on the column I wrote last week in which I mentioned that I had shared a panel at Hofstra University with Michael Riedel of the New York Post. "Was there a question-and-answer session with the audience afterwards," Brigadude asked, "and if there was, did anyone ask Riedel why he's always so damned mean?"
I had to smile. Michael Riedel is arguably the most talked-about theater writer of our era and has been ever since he joined Theater Week magazine in the early '90s as its managing editor. I knew him in his early days, for I had a weekly column in that publication and would drop by each Friday to submit my work. Even then, I remember, Michael enjoyed spreading theater gossip and squeezing the udders of a few sacred cows.
Within a few years, he became a gossip columnist at the News, where he thrived. A few years later, he moved to the Post, where he has thrived even more -- and rightly so. If there's any theater enthusiast who doesn't tear open the Post every Wednesday and Friday to see what Michael has to say, then he or she is going online instead to see what Michael has to say. I doubt that there's ever been a Wednesday or Friday when he hasn't been discussed in Talkin' Broadway's "All That Chat" section -- sometimes accompanied by adjectives that are good, sometimes bad, and sometimes ugly.
In Assassins, Charles Guiteau mentions that when you have a gun, everybody pays attention. When you're Michael Riedel, everyone pays attention, too, even though he doesn't use a weapon. Instead, he's updated that famous phrase and has proven that the word processor is mightier than the gun. But let us give credit where credit is due: Digging and finding that Barbara Walters had invested in Sunset Boulevard and then promoted it on TV couldn't have been an easy story to catch. But Michael did, among scores of other scandals on which he's written. I know that I, for one, wouldn't want to miss the beans he spills.
I told this to Brigadude, who replied with: "But why is he so mean?" I think I can answer that, but I'll have to ask you to bear with a story. When I was a kid, I was a rabid sports fan and had an ambition to see a major league game in every ballpark, football field, basketball court, and hockey rink. By 1994, I had been to more than half of them. Then, two things happened. One: There was a baseball strike that caused the World Series to be canceled. Two: I was covering a story for the Newark Star-Ledger about a new theater that the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival was hoping to build. The powers-that-be at the festival fervently wished that the New Jersey State Council on the Arts would give it $1.5 million in aid -- and they were pleasantly shocked to learn that the council was actually willing to give $2.5 million. As the arts community was virtually dancing in the streets, all I could think was: Look at how happy everyone is with this money, while there are hundreds of athletes in this country who would be insulted -- yes, insulted -- if they were offered $2.5 million. And some of them had gone on strike to prove it.
Since that thought hit me, I've never again felt the same way about sports, though I still occasionally peruse the sports page. Then, a couple of years ago, I saw that some athlete had been arrested for a sexual atrocity. The following day, I read an account of a baseball superstar who'd been arrested for dealing cocaine. The next day, I heard on TV that that a football player had been charged with embezzlement from his supposed charitable foundation. And I thought: "Hey, in these times of shady athletes, how about a different kind of sports calendar? Not one where great achievements are listed but one on which each day of the year is marked with a disgrace that some athlete committed." So I started reading the sports pages with greater interest and dutifully noted every illegality that was reported. Then I stopped after a few days because it was all too sordid, but I realized that I had thought of doing all this because I didn't love sports. And that's why Michael Riedel is able to dig up and dispense the dirt on theater: He just doesn't love it.
During the Theater Week years, I spent a good deal of time with Michael -- quite a bit in the office, once in a while socially -- and, in all that time, he never once told me how much he loved a certain show or performance. He certainly didn't tell me about the favorite shows he saw when he was growing up. I suspect that's because, as far as I know, he wasn't a regular theatergoer before he got the Theater Week job. Instead, during those days in the early '90s, he'd tell me stories about shows in trouble. I would usually respond by adopting my best Mary-Martin-as-Peter-Pan voice and saying, "Lovelier thoughts, Michael!"
But should Michael really have lovelier thoughts? Here's another analogy: I remember that shortly after the military draft was abolished and the country went to a strictly volunteer armed forces, I was at a dinner party seated next to a U.S. Army general. I wasn't surprised when he told me he was upset that the draft had ended, I wasn't surprised, but the reason he gave for his feelings was something that wouldn't have occurred to me. "The people who don't want to be in the army should be in the army," he said, "because they're the ones who write the letters, make the complaints, and keep the system honest and working better. You can't just have people who take everything at face value. You need the malcontents." Michael Riedel's detachment from theater is the reason he's able to do what he does. And, Brigadude, it's why he can be as mean as Anyanka in Bajour.
To offer another sports analogy: When George Steinbrenner, easily the most controversial owner of the New York Yankees in the club's 100-year history, was suspended from baseball for doing something illegal, I heard many fans say with a smile on the very first day of the suspension, "I miss him already." Or, as Lucifer tells God in Arthur Miller's The Creation of the World and Other Business, good doesn't have any real meaning unless there's evil around, too. So we all have to admit one mean fact: We'd all miss Michael Riedel if he weren't there dishing the dirt for us, wouldn't we?
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]