Previewing a strong new season -- on Broadway and off

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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.

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").

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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.

Other incoming musicals share a recurring common denominator: They rely in some way or another on the past. "Merrily We Roll Along" is George Furth and Stephen Sondheim's version of the 1934 Kaufman-Hart comedy. "Shubert Alley" commemorates the Shubert brothers and reprises songs from their shows. In "Oh Brother," Donald Driver and Michael Valenti transport a loose adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" to a Mideastern oil sheikhdom. The Comden and Green team and Larry Grossman have written "A Doll's Life," which imagines what happened to Nora after she slammed the door on "A Doll's House." Not forgetting revivals, "Camelot," starring Richard Harris, is due back on Broadway.

Other projects in various stages of preparation include "The Gift Horse," adapted by Will Holt and Harold Faltermeier from actress Hildegarde Knef's autobiography; "Sayonara," taken by William Aubert Luce, George Fischoff, and Hy Gilbert from the James Michener novel; and "Great Expectations," yet another borrowing from the Dickens treasury.

As for the classics, the Circle in the Square will open its season with Shaw's "Candida," starring Joanne Woodward, to be followed by Nicol Williamson in Shakespeare's "Macbet." The reliable Roundabout Theater is extending indefinitely its first-rate revival of Shaw's "Misalliance" and will present Michael York in "Hamlet" among its 1981-82 offerings. Later this season, James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer are due in town with "Othello," now at the American Shakespeare Theater, Stratford, Conn. William Hurt will head a Circle Repertory Theater production of "Richard II."

Among the Circle Rep's other projects are "Threads," a Southern homecoming drama by Jonathan Bolt; Jules Feiffer's "A Think Piece," about the travails of a trivialist; and "K-2," a mountain cliffhanger by Patrick Meyers, to be produced in collaboration with the Phoenix Theater. The Phoenix inaugurates its season with "Maggie and Pierre," a play by Linda Griffiths and Paul Thompson about Canada's Trudeaus.

Things are humming as usual at the Public Theater, that powerhouse down on Lafayette Street. Currently in preparation are "The Ballad of Dexter Creed," by and starring Michael Moriarty, and "Family Devotions," by David Henry Hwang, author of "The Dance and the Railroad," now at the Public. Ed Kleban, lyricist of "A Chorus Line," is working on his new musical, "Gallery," with a development team that includes director Richard Maltby Jr., choreographer Graciela Daniele, musical director William Elliott, and arranger Jonathan Tunick. Still ahead this season at the Public are works by Elizabeth Swados, David Rabe, and Ntozake Shange.

Other Off Broadway coming attractions promise such goodies as Jeffrey A. Moss's movie-milieu "Double Feature," with Carole Shelley, Stephen Vinovich, Pamela Blair, and Don Scardino. The Colonnades Theater Lab is presenting "Three by Pinero." The Manhattan Theater Club's starter is a revival of Clifford Odets's "Paradise Lost." Among the season's new plays will be "The Good Parts," by Israel Horowitz.

As usual, Off Broadway and nonprofit resident theaters will be contributing to Broadway's sustenance. Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize play, "Crimes of the Heart," comes to Broadway from the Actors Theater. Bill C. Davis's "Mass Appeal" was done at the Manhattan Theater Club. Tom Griffin's "Einstein and the Polar Bear" was presented at the Hartford Stage Company. Jules Feiffer's 1974 comedy, "Grownups," was recently acted at Harvard University's American Repertory Theater. There will undoubtedly be other such transfers and borrowings in the course of the season.

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