Broadway. Rising costs and uncertain revenues are straining commercial and nonprofit theaters alike

You can make a killing in the theater, but you can't make a living. -- Robert Anderson, playwright PRODUCER Robert Whitehead has every reason to be enthusiastic about theater in America. When his most recent play, ``The Petition,'' opened on Broadway last month, its stars -- Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn -- received rave reviews. Box office business has been brisk. When the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Awards are handed out Sunday, Mr. Whitehead may well have a two-award hit on his hands: Both Ms. Tandy and Mr. Cronyn have been nominated for best performance in a play.

Despite his successful play, Mr. Whitehead, one of the few remaining independent theatrical producers, is not sanguine. In his office high above Broadway, he sinks into a chair and says quietly, ``Right now we are at one of the lowest points in the vitality of American theater.''

He is not alone in his assessment.

Earlier this year David Mamet, one of America's leading playwrights, addressed an audience of Harvard University students. His theme: decay in American theater.

When this year's Pulitzer Prizes were handed out, for the 13th time in 70 years there was no award given for drama. The reason? The most likely candidate, Robert Wilson's ``CIVIL warS,'' had been performed only once and never in its entirety. The three-member jury recommended including screenplays in future prize considerations.

Recently the artistic director of the Theater for the New City, one of the country's most important sources of new and experimental work, stood on the stage in New York's East Village and pleaded for the life of his theater, which faced a court-ordered eviction over a lease dispute. ``We have got to show what theater means,'' said George Bartenieff, this director.

By nearly any evaluation, theater in America is at a crucial juncture. Buffeted by adverse economic conditions and shifting cultural standards, live theatrical performance, as one artistic director puts it, ``is at a crucial point of consciousness'' -- a time when theater must reexamine itself and its relation to the nation's culture as a whole.

Statistics tell a part of the story.

In the past 10 years, production costs for commercial theaters have risen 300 percent. This season only 33 new plays opened on Broadway -- about half the number in 1968. Attendance, box office income, and theater occupancy were all at lower levels than in 1984-85, considered one of Broadway's worst seasons in decades.

Although the past 20 years have witnessed the rise of regional, nonprofit theaters, a trend that has brought professional theater to millions more Americans (see accompanying story), the financial state of these theaters is equally precarious. Despite record attendance and box office income, their collective deficit has doubled every year for the past several years. Talk of ``artistic deficits'' -- meager productions, shortened seasons, undemanding plays -- now rages.

Indeed, in the United States the future of live theater -- an art form that for 2,500 years has served as a social and political platform -- is under question.

``Theater is an imperiled and endangered species,'' says Marshall Mason, artistic director of New York's Circle Repertory Company. ``Yet it may be that theater is really passing in our society as a [cultural] need.''

As that live art form, theater, by definition, resists the current trend toward a depersonalized, media-dominated culture. ``People need the human contact theater offers,'' says Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

Nonetheless, in a culture increasingly characterized by high-tech, mass-market entertainment, traditional live theater is in danger of becoming a financial and artistic anachronism that appeals only to a dwindling audience. The current generation, with notable exceptions, continues to turn its energies and enthusiasm, as both audiences and performers, toward film, television, video, and rock music -- not theater.

Is American theater a sunset industry? Or is it, as one director suggests, ``the fastest-growing art form in history''?

The answer depends upon where one looks. And the picture varies considerably from Broadway to the avant-garde and regional theaters beyond.

If you walk west on 44th Street in New York City, just past Times Square and just short of the ``Chorus Line'' marquee, you reach Shubert Alley -- the spiritual heart of Broadway and headquarters of the Shubert Organization, the largest theater owner and producer in the country.

It is a high-stakes neighborhood. At any given time in recent years, roughly one-third of the 33 Broadway theaters have been dark. Financial losses on failed productions have run into the millions. But on the third floor at the rear of the Shubert theater, Bernard Jacobs, president of the organization and the most powerful man in commercial theater, is not unduly unhappy.

``This is cyclical business,'' says Mr. Jacobs, sitting in his hushed, antiques-filled office. ``Every year someone says Broadway is dead. They said the same thing in '75, but then along came `Chorus Line.' Just give me two hit shows, and then let's see what they're saying.''

But what they are saying beyond the elegant reaches of this office is not so much that Broadway is dead, as that it is, perhaps fatally, out of kilter financially.

Producing on Broadway has become such an expensive undertaking that it has become a business of extremes -- ever bigger hits followed by ever bigger losses. And while canny theater owners and individual producers are sometimes winners, Broadway and the American public, according to some observers, are the losers.

With the top ticket price for a Broadway musical now at $47.50, nearly 40 percent of the audience is made up of tourists, 20 percent people on expense accounts. ``There is no longer a serious following for theater,'' says one producer.

Despite the steady erosion of the number of new Broadway productions each season, there has been an equally steady increase in the theaters' gross income -- nearly 300 percent in the last 10 years. Indeed, Jacobs insists, ``[The Shubert Organization] is doing very well.''

While some of that growth can be traced to inflation and escalating ticket prices -- a 13 percent annual increase, according to the League of American Theaters and Producers -- much of it lies in the ``hit or flop'' situation now troubling Broadway.

``There is no such thing as a medium success anymore,'' says Joseph Papp, producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival.

With the cost of mounting a Broadway musical now reaching $5 million, the gap between financial success or failure has dramatically widened. Hit musicals, such as ``Cats'' and ``A Chorus Line,'' run longer and make more money than ever before. But most plays never make a profit. According to the theater league, only about 20 percent of all plays and 25 percent of all musicals return a profit to their investors. Last season, only two new plays, David Rabe's ``Hurlyburly'' and Neil Simon's ``Biloxi Blues,'' made money.

Because of the ``roulette economics,'' as one producer puts it, fewer individuals are producing. And those who do are taking fewer risks. Fewer plays have expensive pre-Broadway tryouts; fewer untried plays open on Broadway. Indeed, most shows now on Broadway began somewhere else -- in a nonprofit theater or in London, where production costs are roughly half of Broadway's. The commercial theater that once nurtured the likes of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill now largely imports or revives blockbuster musicals or supports only proven talents such as Neil Simon. As a consequence, say observers, Broadway is no longer part of the national cultural dialogue.

Some producers have tried to change the game by installing novel cost-cutting arrangements. Emanuel Azenberg, the producer of all Neil Simon's recent work, initiated a so-called ``profit pool,'' by which the traditional royalties paid to artists and the theater owner are no longer counted in the show's weekly expenses but are put into an after-expenses profit pool.

Producer Morton Gottlieb last year introduced another unique plan with the short-lived ``Dancing in the End Zone.'' In exchange for selling only half of the available theater seats, in essence limiting his potential profits, Mr. Gottlieb received concessions in wages, royalties, and rents from unions, artists, and the theater owner; in essence, everyone took a cut in pay to keep expenses down and extend the length of the show. Such a plan is now the keystone in current negotiations between the theater league and Actors' Equity union involving five ``endangered'' Broadway theaters.

Despite such efforts, however, most industry observers insist that no major rollback in general operating expenses is likely. ``Anybody who talks about lower production costs is fooling me or themselves,'' Jacobs says pointedly. Indeed, he hints that a rise in ticket prices -- currently $47.50 for the best seats at a musical and $40 for the same at a drama -- is in the offing. ``We've held the line for four years, but that won't last,'' he says.

``Theater is theater,'' Whitehead concludes. ``It has had its moments in history, and it will survive. But as long as costs are what they are, it will be different.''

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