The New York Post’s notorious theater columnist, Michael Riedel, has long been known for his acid-tongue and ability to close a Broadway show with a few biting phrases — but he’s about to gain a much larger audience. In last night’s premiere of Smash, Riedel (much to his devilish delight) gets name-checked by Debra Messing’s character, lyricist Julia Houston, and later in the season Riedel will turn up onscreen as well. He spoke to Vulture about his thoughts on Smash so far, his abiding love of St. Elsewhere, and getting the role he was born to play: himself.
You’re referred to in last night’s episode as a “Napoleonic little Nazi who writes for the Post.” Did anyone call earlier on to say, “Um, so, we’re mentioning you … ”?
[Creator] Theresa Rebeck, who I’ve known for many, many years, God love her, does everything at the last minute. So I get a call from her saying they were about to film the pilot but they had neglected to give me a release to sign to allow them to call me a “Napoleonic little Nazi.” So these messengers ran over with this thing, “We will be calling you a Napoleonic little Nazi, and you will not sue us.” So I said, sure, fine, I’ve been called worse.
Is there a better honorific you would have given yourself?
Mmm, well, of course I’d call myself the unbelievably brilliant and perceptive chronicler of the American theater, but maybe that’s laying it on a bit thick. You know, David Brown, the great old producer, was mad at me about a column I’d written about one of his shows, I think Sweet Smell of Success, and he fired off a letter at me saying something like, “You style yourself a modern-day Walter Winchell. Well, I knew Walter Winchell and you’re no Walter Winchell. You’re nothing more than a gnat!” And I thought, Well, that’s probably fair.
What were your first thoughts when you heard about the show?
Well, of course I was flattered to be mentioned. But to be perfectly arrogant about it, I don’t think you can do a TV show about the Broadway world without including a powerful and notorious Broadway gossip columnist. And who better to play that role than moi?
And did you like the show itself?
I thought they did a pretty good job of trying to convey what is a very insular, small world to a wider audience by coming up with characters whose lives the audience becomes involved in. The trick is to make it like a … I don’t know, like a St. Elsewhere. The setting is almost immaterial as long as the characters are compelling and have compelling struggles that involve the audience.
You were originally supposed to appear in a later episode, but in November you announced that your appearance was cut. What’s the current situation?
When I wrote my column [after reading the pilot], I heard from Theresa Rebeck. And she said, “Would you ever consider playing yourself in some of the scenes? We’re going to be using a lot of insider Broadway people as cameos, and we thought it would be fun if you popped up.” I mean, twist my arm … so I said, “I guess I could lend you a hand.” So that was fine, and I got the offer from the casting director, Bernie Telsey. Then, all of a sudden I got this very chilly e-mail from Bernie Telsey saying the table reading went on too long, so unfortunately we had to cut your scenes and Theresa looks forward to working with you in the future. I thought, There’s something fishy here.
So I poked around and found out Bob Greenblatt, the head of NBC, apparently — though you should check with him — I heard he was still smarting from some columns I wrote about a flop musical he did, 9 to 5. I gave that to “Page Six” and happened to go on “Imus in the Morning” the day it appeared, and Imus said, “If you’re on Smash and associated with us, we look like winners, but if you’re cut from Smash, you make us look like losers.” I said, “Don, wait, I’m doing my best to get back on the show! There’s no hard feelings; all I want to say to Bob Greenblatt is, the next time he comes to Broadway with a new musical, I’ll be waiting with open arms.” And I kid you not — the next day I got the call from Bernie Telsey’s office saying, “Oh, you’re back in the show and we’re sending your sides over.” Listen, my life could be, and should be, a major subplot on Smash.
Well, if you could write a Smash episode, what would you want to see play out?
My idea is, since they’ve established me as this character who has power, who they fear, I think it’s always a good idea to turn the tables on that kind of person. So I would play out a scenario where I become involved with, say, one of the chorus girls, and suddenly this little nobody has power over the powerful gossip columnist because she learns a lot of things about his secret private life. That would thicken the plot. And there really has to be a scene where somebody punches me or throws a drink in my face, because that’s happened in real life on a number of occasions. Maybe my old sparring partner [director] David Leveaux could make an appearance and we could re-create that scene at Angus McIndoe several years ago when he shoved me off my barstool.
Do you see the show’s Marilyn musical being successful?
I think a Marilyn musical is hard to pull off, because it’s ultimately a downer; she dies of a drug overdose and ends up lonely and depressed. Musicals generally don’t end with someone’s suicide. Unless it’s a Sondheim musical. But who knows, maybe they can take artistic liberties: Marilyn lives! She becomes a cabaret singer in Kansas City!
Isn’t that how the notorious flop Marilyn musical ended? With her alive?
My dear, how old do you think I am? You’re going to have to ask someone much older than I am about that show; I didn’t see it. Call Frank Rich. I’m sure he could fill you in on the plot.
There are some concerns that Smash is too New York–y — that Broadway won’t have mass appeal. What do you think?
I’m someone who believes that the more specific you are about a world, the more interesting it is to people who don’t know anything about it. It’s when you bland everything down that you wind up with milquetoast. If you can give people who don’t know anything about Broadway a taste of this rather kooky world full of eccentric, larger-than-life characters who are willing to risk everything in pursuit of a Broadway musical, whose lives can be completely upended because Michael Riedel writes a column saying the show sucks — people like that are inherently dramatic and should be compelling enough to bring an audience in.
There’s been a lot of talk trying to sell Smash as “Glee for adults.” Do you think it succeeds in a way that Glee doesn’t?
I must confess: I’ve never seen an episode of Glee.
I’m not a big TV watcher. I’m afraid the last TV show I watched religiously was St. Elsewhere, and that was in 1982. When I watch TV now, it’s DVDs of old Columbos from the seventies. Mr. Pop Culture I am not. I’ll be a regular viewer of Smash, though!
You’re really into St. Elsewhere, aren’t you?
St. Elsewhere was a great show! You felt you knew those characters and every Wednesday night when it came on, you felt you were checking in with your friends. They were as real to you as the people in your life. If I can give any advice to the creators of Smash, though God knows they don’t need it from me, I think you take your lead from the great writers Bruce Paltrow and Tom Fontana, who created shows like St. Elsewhere.
Do you find the characters true to life? Is there a character who reminds you of someone from the Broadway community you know?
I do, and that character is none other than Michael Riedel of the New York Post. And the episode I filmed, I must say the writers captured my voice. They even had me say a line I say all the time when I’m table-hopping.
“Hello hello!” I walk into the restaurant and see Anjelica Huston sitting at a table and I go, “Hello hello!” Which is what I do at Bar Centrale all the time. And I guarantee you that when that episode airs, “Hello hello!” is going to be the new national catchphrase. It should be right up there with “Time to make the doughnuts” and “Where’s the beef?”
Is there anything else about your episode you can reveal?
Let’s just say that as manipulative as I can be, I’ve met my match.