New York — ''B'Way Season Looms as Worst in Years.''
The unblinking headline in Variety, the show business weekly, bluntly reflects a prevailing critical consensus. Box-office receipts continue to rise because ticket prices continue to climb. (Top price for most musicals is now between $35 and $40 and for most plays, between $27.50 and $30.) Variety reports that theater attendance is 4 percent lower than a year ago and notes that there will be substantially fewer new productions in 1981-82 than in recent seasons.
Lack of hits is apparent in every principal category -- whether musicals, dramas, or comedies.
To date, the season's only musical-comedy success has been Michael Bennett's gorgeous ''Dreamgirls.'' By contrast, there has been a succession of flops. One of the biggest disappointments was ''Merrily We Roll Along,'' simply because of the talents involved: Harold Prince, Stephen Sondheim, and George Furst (working from a play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart).
''Dreamgirls'' apart, all of the favored musicals are holdovers from previous seasons. ''Annie,'' for instance, will soon be starting its sixth year. And the current champion, ''A Chorus Line,'' is now in its seventh year, having become the fourth-longest-running musical in Broadway history. It is surpassed only by ''Grease,'' ''Fiddler on the Roof,'' and ''Hello, Dolly!''
Had it not been for the British, the record for serious drama would have been bleak indeed. Broadway can thank the Royal Shakespeare Company and ''Nicholas Nickleby'' for its moments of most resplendent glory (nine hours of cumulative moments, to be exact). The $100-a-ticket spectacular has come and gone. The British are keeping their franchise with ''The Dresser,'' Ronald Harwood's strikingly theatrical account of provincial backstage life, starring Tom Courtenay and Paul Rogers.
In the classics department we have had a brilliant ''Othello'' and a disappointing ''Macbeth.'' The season's few serious plays by American dramatists have not survived.
Broadway has fared somewhat better with comedy. The current lineup includes ''Crimes of the Heart'' (winner of the 1981 Pulitzer and New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards); Bill C. Davis's ''Mass Appeal,'' starring Milo O'Shea; and Ernest Thompson's ''The West Side Waltz,'' a vehicle for Katharine Hepburn.
William Alfred's ''The Curse of an Aching Heart,'' which brought screen star Faye Dunaway back to the New York stage after an absence of 16 years, vanished on Feb. 21 after a run of only 11 previews and 32 performances. Jules Feiffer's abrasive ''Grown Ups'' also had an untimely closing.
The arrival of Bernard Slade's ''Special Occasions'' held out the hope that the skies might be brightening over the comedy landscape. Mr. Slade's two-character comic romance about the brief encounters of a divorced couple starred Suzanne Pleshette and Richard Mulligan. But their skills -- and their TV-augmented status -- proved of no avail. Anticipating the effects of a generally bad press, the producers closed the $750,000 production immediately after its opening night. Such are the perils of show biz.
At this writing, it remains to be seen whether even the superstar presence of Cher can save ''Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean'' from merited oblivion.
Last month, ''The World of Sholom Aleichem,'' a one-time Off Broadway hit, made it to Broadway in a flavorsome but all too brief revival starring Jack Gilford. In one of Aleichem's most touching sketches, a desperately poor and downtrodden character named Bontche Schweig, an underclassman who has remained silent throughout his life, dies and goes to heaven. Finally convinced that he can have any wish fulfilled, the uncomplaining Bontche asks hesitantly for ''every day, please, a hot roll with fresh butter.''
Metaphorically speaking, that might be what poor old battered Broadway is asking.