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Theater: Broadway is just the beginning

By John Beaufort, Special to The Christian Science MonitorJohn Beaufort writes theater criticism for the Monitor. / October 17, 1983

New York

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

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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.

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.''