Theater: Broadway is just the beginning

By , John Beaufort writes theater criticism for the Monitor.

If I can make it there, I'd make it anywhere. It's up to you, New York, New York.

So sang Liza Minnelli in Kander and Ebb's swinging salute to this cosmopolis on the Hudson. Kander and Ebb may not have said it all. But as far as the art of playmaking are concerned, New York is the unquestioned capital of Theater, USA. To say this is not to ignore the range and excellence of theatrical activity across the continent. It is simply to say that, from show biz to the experimental fringe, New York offers an incomparable quantity and quality of stage entertainment.

The New York Convention and Visitors Bureau reckons there are more than 300 theaters in the five New York City boroughs. On any given night, the fortunate playgoer can take his pick of some 100 or more entertainments.

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With a slight blurring of boundaries here and there, the city's theatrical terrain divides itself into three sectors: commercial Broadway, Off Broadway, and the teeming precincts of Off Off Broadway.

Broadway has traditionally been synonymous with the beglamored glories of the American musical. The shabby Great White Way is observing tradition as a new season comes slowly to life. August saw the arrival of ''La Cage aux Folles,'' an immediate candidate to join the ranks of such current hits as ''A Chorus Line ,'' ''42nd Street,'' ''Dreamgirls,'' ''Nine,'' ''Cats,'' ''On Your Toes,'' and ''My One and Only.''

''A Chorus Line'' is something special. On Sept. 29, it became the longest-running musical in Broadway history. With its 3,389th performance, it outdistanced ''Grease,'' the previous champion.

More than longevity, however, distinguishes ''A Chorus Line.'' Based on director-choreographer Michael Bennett's approximately 30 hours of taped conversations with Broadway dancers, it became a kind of group profile. James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante distilled the conversations into a libretto. Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban provided the score.

The show emerged in the course of a year of workshops (a technique since adopted for other Broadway musicals, including Mr. Bennett's ''Dreamgirls''). From workshops, the production moved to the Off Broadway Public Theater, whence producer Joseph Papp transferred it to the Shubert on Broadway, its home for the past eight years. Brilliantly sung and danced by casts that have changed many times, ''A Chorus Line'' has become a landmark entertainment. With his innovative approach, Mr. Bennett added a new chapter to the history of the American musical. The show won the Pulitzer Prize, the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, and nine Antoinette Perry (Tony) Awards.

Broadway's conspicuous deficiency is in the area of serious plays. The scarcity of such entertainments in recent seasons is typified by the current scattering of dramas and comedies: ''Amadeus,'' ''Brighton Beach Memoirs,'' '''night, Mother, ''The Caine Mutiny Court Martial,'' ''Edmund Kean,'' ''Torch Song Trilogy,'' and ''You Can't Take It With You.''

Asked about the current state of Broadway, Shubert Organization president Bernard B. Jacobs responded with a characteristic balancing of restrained hope and realistic caution. Mr. Jacobs finds the musical theater doing ''quite well, '' its pace for the season having already been set by the enormous popular response to ''La Cage aux Folles.'' The Shubert official noted that, besides such lavish extravaganzas, the season will be seeing a number of promising smaller musicals.

''The problem,'' he said, ''is the lack of good dramatic product. It's still difficult to find the play we are looking for.''

Mr. Jacobs expressed very high hopes for the success of Tom Stoppard's ''The Real Thing,'' starring Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close - at the same time conceding the Shubert Organization's interest as coproducers with Emanuel Azenberg of the London hit. The fact that this will be yet another British import reemphasizes Broadway's continuing dependence on outside sources for its more substantial dramatic offerings. These sources include Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway as well as certain resident professional groups that nurture and develop new scripts.

What about the Off Broadway scene?

I found Paul Libin, president of the League of Off Broadway Theatres, exuding confidence. Undoubtedly, Mr. Libin's upbeat mood could be explained in part by the successful revival of ''The Caine Mutiny Court Martial,'' produced by the Circle in the Square, of which he is managing director. Next month, the Circle in the Square will begin presenting Rex Harrison and Rosemary Harris in George Bernard Shaw's ''Heartbreak House.''

But Mr. Libin also offered a broader perspective.

''The situation is very good right now,'' he said. ''Twenty-two shows are running, and there is a lot of planned activity.''

Mr. Libin agreed that, in recent seasons, Off Broadway has increasingly become the habitat for plays and musicals with a special appeal - entertainments that might once have risked Broadway but would not survive in today's harsher economic climate. Current examples would include plays like ''Quartermaine's Terms,'' ''Breakfast With Les and Bes,'' ''Extremities,'' ''Fool for Love,'' and ''Greater Tuna,'' as well as musicals like ''Little Shop of Horrors,'' and ''Taking My Turn.''

While Off Off Broadway activity continues apace - I counted nearly 70 productions in a recent Village Voice listing - these little groups on the periphery face large and in some cases unprecedented challenges. The problem is starkly simple: real estate.

''Theater rents have in some cases quadrupled,'' said Jane Moss, executive director of the Alliance of Resident Theaters (ARTS/New York) an association of 87 Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway groups.

Higher rents plus lower subsidies have forced some theaters to cut down on the number of their productions. On the other hand, Miss Moss noted that theater attendance has been up of late. It appears that more playgoers have been finding their way to the basements, lofts, church halls, storefronts, and various other converted spaces. According to an ARTS/New York survey, close to 2 million people attended Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway theaters in the 1980-81 season (the latest for which statistics are available).

Besides the fact that its playhouses are limited to a 99-seat maximum and its ticket prices are lower, Off Off Broadway is distinguished from Off Broadway by the conditions under which it operates. Off Off Broadway productions must adhere to certain union restrictions that do not apply to Off Broadway, where full contract salaries are paid. Off Off Broadway shows may run no more than 24 performances. Off Broadway productions can run ''open ended'' - for as long as people keep buying tickets.

''The alternatives Off Off Broadway offers to an audience are many,'' wrote Mr. Papp in his introduction to Mindy N. Levine's informative ''New York's Other Theatre - a Guide to Off Off Broadway'' (Avon). ''Economically, it provides an inexpensive way to be entertained. Geographically, it offers a chance to venture to some of the highways and byways of New York City. . . . By venturing into SoHo, Chelsea, Queens, Bedford Stuyvesant, the Upper West Side, Harlem, or any of the many neighborhoods where Off Off Broadway theaters are tucked away, one begins to see the strivings of people who have a serious interest in theater beyond glitter, glamour, and tinsel.''

Mr. Papp noted the beginnings, some 25 years ago, of a movement that has had a profound influence on recent American theatrical history. Theaters like the Circle in the Square shed new light on works such as Tennessee Williams's ''Summer and Smoke'' and Eugene O'Neill's ''The Iceman Cometh'' - works that had earlier met with indifferent success on Broadway. Ellen Stewart, of La Mama ETC (Experimental Theatre Club), the mother figure of the Off Off Broadway avant-garde, introduced a new wave of writers and directors before becoming a major force in international theater exchange.

The New York Shakespeare Festival, founded in 1954, began by concentrating on the Bard. Today the festival's far-reaching domain extends from its seven-theater complex on Lafayette Street to Broadway (where it has presented several productions), to free outdoor Shakespeare and other works in Central Park, and to television and films. No institution more vividly or vitally illustrates the crossovers that have enriched the totality of New York theater.

Today's Off Off Broadway - sometimes merging with Off Broadway - presents an extraordinary cross section of cosmopolitan life and performing art. There are directors' and actors' theaters, ethnic theaters, theaters exclusively devoted to new plays, theaters that specialize in the classics, a mime theater, a ''Ridiculous'' theater, and a children's theater.

The variety is rich. The range is as broad as the theatrical imagination. As Mr. Papp has written: ''At its best, Off Off Broadway is a true alternative theater - with a distinctive style and content and a reason for being all its own.''

While Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway offer some of the best ticket buys in town, a remarkable enterprise known as ''TKTS'' has brought Broadway theater once more within the reach of a public of modest means. The TKTS box office, at West 47th Street and Broadway, sells day-of-performance seats at half-price plus a modest service charge - a real boon, now that tickets top $45 for musicals and Brooklyn's Fulton Hall, and - for music and dance events - on West 42nd Street between Fifth Avenue and the Avenue of the Americas.

According to Anna Crouse, president of the sponsoring Theatre Development Fund (TDF), TKTS beginnings coincided with the theater doldrums of the early 1970s. After extensive consultations with representatives of Broadway producers and city agencies, the TKTS booth opened on June 26, 1973, in a converted trailer. By this September it had sold 12.5 million tickets, worth $128.8 million.

In Mrs. Crouse's opinion, the greatest achievement of the Times Square Ticket Center (as it is formally known) ''has been what it did for the city and for the theater. An average of 8,500 (people) a week stood in rain, snow, cold, and summer heat to buy a ticket for the theater. This ticket buyer was, and still is , younger and poorer than the regular Broadway ticket buyer. For the most part, this ticket buyer is a totally new audience . . . .

''By prolonging the runs of plays and by sustaining new ones until they catch on, TDF has added enormously to the economic health of the theater.''

In addition to TKTS, the Theatre Development Fund's voucher system for various performing-arts events reaches a mailing list of approximately 124,000 subscribers, who are enabled to buy tickets under a system that directly benefits the producing groups. Another popular source of bargain tickets is two-fers, widely distributed coupons worth two tickets for the price of one.

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