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Previewing a strong new season -- on Broadway and off

By John Beaufort / September 4, 1981

New York

Things look bullish for biography on New York stages this season -- particularly for biographical musicals. Coming attractions list more than a dozen real-life characters, from Jackie Robinson to Christopher Marlowe and from Charlie Chaplin to Napoleon.

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If present plans hold, there will be two musicals each for Chaplin and Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong. Anthony Newley is coauthor of "Charlie Chaplin," and will play the Little Tramp in it, while Ben Vereen will portray Armstrong in "Satchmo ," the production being stages by Gene Kelly.

Among the notable names past and present scheduled for theatrical portraiture are Cole Porter and friends ("Red Hot and Cole"), Edward Sheldon and John Barrymore ("Ned and Jack"), Al Jolson ("Jolson Tonight"), Napoleon and Pope Pius VII ("Kingdoms"), and Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan ("Monday After the Miracle").

The unique dramatic event of 1981-82 will be the Royal Shakespeare Company's two-part, 8 1/2-hour adaption of Dickens's "Nicholas Nickleby," requiring two evenings. A cast of 42, directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, plays 150 roles. At a time of steadily increasing ticket prices, "The Life and Adventures on Nicholas Nickleby" will set a new record for dramas, with a top of $100 for orchestra ($50 for each of the two installments).

Three other London hits are listed so far for this season. "The Dresser" stars Tom Courtenay and Paul Rogers in Ronald Harwood's play about an old-school Shakespearean actor and his gossipy dresser. (Mr. Harwood was once the dresser for Donald Wolfit.) The British are also sending us Dave Allen, a top stand-up comedian, in "An Evening With Dave Allen." Will Russell's "Educating Rita" will be seen in New York with an American cast: Luci Arnaz and Laurence Luckinbill. Anne Bancroft as a violin virtuoso and Max Von Sydow will star in Tom Kempinski's "Duet for one."

Broadway's star power will be fortified in due course by Claudette Colbert and Jean Pierre Aumont in the Jerome Chodorov-Norman Panama thriller "A Talent for Murder." Katharine Hepburn is due in town with Ernest ("On Golden Pond") Thompson's "The West Side Waltz." Roy Dotrice (Pope Pius VII) and Armand Assante (Napoleon) will vie for power in Edward Sheehan's "Kingdoms."

At the moment it appears that musicals should be in good supply -- provided the theaters are there to accommodate them. In addition to those already mentioned, the list now includes "Say Hello to Harvey," starring Donald O'Connor in Leslie Bricusse's adaptation of "Harvey"; "The Apollo . . . Just Like Magic," a look backward at Harlem's legendary variety house; "The First," celebrating Jackie Robinson, the first black player in major-league baseball; and "Little-Me ," a reworking of the 1962 Neil Simon-Cy Coleman-Carolyn Leigh spoof.

Then there is "Marlowe," described as a rock musical-murder-mystery about the Elizabethan dramatist. "Dream Girls," a new Michael Bennett musical by Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger, concerns a group of backup singers. "Broadway Babies," directed and choreographed by Tommy Tune, is said to be cast entirely with juniors ranging in age from 6 to 11.