It's Year of the Woman on Broadway

More by happenstance than by design, "Woman of the Year" has coincided with Broadway's season of the woman. Not long ago, Variety, the show business weekly , heralded the phenomenon with a characteristic headline: "Babes on B'Way Blitz Looms on Legit Schedules." According to Variety, "Broadway is about to receive a blitzkrieg of femme star power."

The star-power elite is made up of femmes like Lauren Bacall, Elizabeth Taylor (in her New York stage debut), and Glenda Jackson. Earlier in the season , Jane Lapotaire arrived on the scene to recreate her London role in "Piaf." And Linda Ronstadt forsook temporarily the rock-pop world to play a coloratura Gilbert-and-Sullivan heroine in "The Pirates of Penzance." In some cases, the critics expressed reservations about the plays in which the leading ladies appeared -- but almost never about the leading ladies themselves.

The feminine spring cavalcade began appropriately enough with Miss Bacall's return to the theater after a 10-year absence in the Stone-Kander-Ebb musical-comedy treatment of "Woman of the Year." But this adaptation of the 1942 Hepburn-Tracy comedy was merely a glittering herald of women to come. According to present plans, among the stars and their vehicles scheduled to help light up the Great White Way in the near future are the following: Beatrice Arthur in Woody Allen's "The Floating Light Bulb" (April 27), Zizi Jeanmaire in "Can-Can" (April 30), Lena Horne in concert (May 3), Melba Moore in "Inacent Black" (May 4 ), Elizabeth Taylor in "The Little Foxes" (May 7), Renee Taylor with husband co-author/co-star Joseph Bologna in "It Had to Be You" (May 10), Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers in "Wally's Cafe" (May 17). Miss Struthers, Archie Bunker's daughter in the long-running TV series, "All in the Family," is making her Broadway debut. James Coco co-stars.

No one in the galaxy of women stars is being awaited with greater interest by Broadway playgoers than Elizabeth Taylor, more conspicuous lately as the wife of Sen. John W. Warner (R) of Virginia. With Miss Taylor as Lillian Hellman's rapacious Regina Hubbard, "The Little Foxes" was a sellout in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and subsequently in Washington, D.C., where it became a political-performing arts event. The local ticket-buying public has given the star its vote of confidence with an advance box-office sale approaching $2 million. If the initial 10-week run at the Martin Beck Theater sells out, the engagement will be extended for a second 10 weeks, after which the production will visit New Orleans, Los Angeles, and possibly London.

In the bright light of all this female star power, Variety's Richard Hummler asked rhetorically: "Who's to say the star system is dead? . . . Such a cluster of femme (or male) names in a short span isn't common on Broadway, and is as much a coincidence of unrelated scheduling as anything else. But it's further evidence that producers and authors maintain a belief in the insurance power, and the talent, of recognizable names."

As George Bernard Shaw once remarked, life is full of coincidences. And so the 1980/81 season will feature one more coincidence concerning women. On Sunday evening, June 7, the annual Antoinette Perry (Tony) Awards ceremonies will be dedicated to the achievements of women in the theater. The achievements will fall within the customary range of the Tonys themselves -- acting, writing, composing, directing, choreography, and design.

Ellen Burstyn and Richard Chamberlain are co-hosting the show, to be telecast by CBS. Mr. Chamberlain will lead a group of male stars -- among them Kevin Kline, Tony Randall, Jason Robards, and Ben Vereen -- in paying tribute to the theater's distaff achievers. Female stars of the evening will include Ann Miller, Jane Alexander, Celeste Holm, Beatrice Arthur, and lyricist Carole Bayer Sager.

Broadwayman Alexander H. Cohen credits the idea of this year's Tony Awards theme to Hildy Parks (Mrs. Cohen), who writes and co-produces the show with her husband.

When the couple were casting about for a 1981 theme, Miss Parks asked: "What would you think about women's contribution to the theater?"

"Spectacular idea," replied Mr. Cohen, a man not given to understatement. And so it will be in this season of women stars over Broadw ay.

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