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NYU gives its grads -- not its regards -- to Broadway

By Hilary DeVriesStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 24, 1982

New York

The scene: New York's Greenwich Village.

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The time: The present. Broadway is breaking all previous records for box-office grosses. But critics snort that those statistics simply reflect inflated prices for tired musicals and revivals. The demand for new plays, new musicals has never been stronger, they say. ''A Chorus Line'' is in its eighth year. ''Annie'' is touring the country for the fourth time. ''Woman of the Year'' and ''42nd Street'' are both revivals. And a new musical, ''A Doll's Life ,'' recently folded after a vitriolic review in the New York Times. Producers and directors are desperate for new writing talent. But where, oh where to find it?

Anyone growing up in the '60s with any musical talent seemed bound for the record industry, not Broadway. Apparently it was easier to write rock 'n' roll lyrics than articulate the concerns of, say, King Arthur or the Trapp family singers on stage. It was also more lucrative - and less risky. For the price of producing a play - any play, let alone a musical complete with singers, dancers, and orchestra (think of the contract negotiations!) - has grown to astronomical heights. The price tag for most Broadway musicals averages $3 million to $4 million. Who can afford to take risks at those prices?

What has been revered as this country's most significant contribution to the theater, the American musical, seems to be a damsel in distress. Whence the White Knight?

The hero: New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and the world's first-ever Master of Fine Arts in Musical Theater. Established just last year, the first 21 graduates will emerge this spring - thesis musical in hand and on the stage (the students will write, compose, and produce their own musical). Musical-theater masters such as Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Betty Comden , Adolph Green, and others are already wildly applauding the concept.

The other characters: Aspiring librettists, composers, and lyricists, all under the age of 35. Some have experience under their belts, all have their future ahead of them. In other words, could be the new, yet-to-be-discovered Irving Berlins, George Gershwins, and Richard Rodgerses.

Act I: A small bakery just off the New York University ''campus'' in Greenwich Village. It is early morning and as quiet as New York ever gets. Deena Rosenberg, director the MFA program, is partaking of an almond cookie, her breakfast, and singing what will become a familar refrain: ''You have to learn to teach this.''

''The problem has traditionally been that very few people take musical theater seriously. It is generally considered a 'popular' art form, so most people think that it's just meant to entertain and doesn't need to be studied.'' She snaps off a corner of her cookie and proceeds:

''But the musical is America's most significant contribution to the theater. It truly is a compiliation of all forms - opera, operetta, English music hall, American minstrel, ragtime, even cabaret music. All of these co-existed in New York City during the turn of the century. And it took the likes of Irving Berlin , the Gershwin brothers, Oscar Hammerstein, Yip Harburg, to twist all the strands together into what became the American musical.''

Dozens of musicals opened every year from the 1920s to the 1950s. But today, only a handful are staged, and these are mostly revivals. ''We don't seem to be able to foster the kind of climate where a talented person can apprentice himself to a master composer or lyricist,'' Ms. Rosenberg says. ''Economics just don't seem to permit it.''

Ms. Rosenberg is all New York accent, curly black hair, and dangling earrings that quiver as she talks with an intellectual passion about what she sees as an under-appreciated art form. The author of an upcoming book on musical theater and the holder of advanced degrees in musicology, Rosenberg was drafted by the Tisch School to write the original proposal for and then direct the musical-theater program.

The program has struck a chord with musical-theater magnates. ''This whole program is really their idea,'' Rosenberg says, shaking her head vigorously. ''You know, people like Leonard Bernstein, Harold Prince, Arthur Laurents, didn't feel that there was any way to pass on their knowledge to upcoming composers and lyricists. They really wanted to see a program like this come about and to be a part of it.''