Broadway's latest boom - bailout plans. Theater owners see city's first-ever, $5 million offer of assistance as too paltry. Though masked by a few smash hits, a continuing decline in the fortunes of Broadway theater has spurred an unprecedented flurry of rescue plans, including New York City's first-ever offer of public assistance. Today: reactions to the city plan. Tomorrow: a look at some private efforts.
ON Broadway, lines are forming around the block for tickets to ``The Phantom of the Opera,'' the smash London musical that opens here next month. But behind closed doors, New York's commercial theater community is struggling with the flip side of the phenomenon of success - financial crisis.Skip to next paragraph
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Despite the occasional hit musical, such as ``Phantom,'' Broadway is eroding. Escalating production costs, skyrocketing real estate values, and changing cultural tastes are fundamentally altering America's theatrical center in ways that make its ``crises'' of decades past seem almost insignificant.
During the past decade, Broadway has witnessed a steady falling off in the number of productions. And although recent statistics put this season's box office ahead of last year's, the trend is one of continuous decline. Industry observers say the situation has reached crisis proportions.
``Workweeks for actors on Broadway have dropped some 50 to 60 percent since 1981,'' says Alan Eisenberg, executive secretary of the Actors' Equity Association. ``Every year it drops some more.''
Gerald Schoenfeld, the usually ebullient chairman of the Shubert Organization, Broadway's largest producer and theater owner, says that Broadway was in great shape until a few years ago, but ``now the situation has become acute.''
Just how acute can be measured by the flurry of fresh proposals for restructuring Broadway that have surfaced here in recent weeks. The proposals include the establishment of an in-house creative team at the Jujamcyn Theater Organization, the third-largest Broadway producer, and a reduced-price subscription series similar to that offered by America's nonprofit theaters.
While both plans are considered unusual, even risky for the high-stakes Broadway arena, neither has elicited the interest - or the controversy - that a city-sponsored plan has.
A plan to involve New York City in the production of Broadway musicals and dramas was unveiled by the mayor's office this fall.
The proposal, the first official offer of public assistance for the beleaguered theater industry, which is considered New York's leading tourist attraction, calls for the creation of a $12 million New York Theatre Trust to produce plays and musicals at sharply reduced costs and with correspondingly reduced ticket prices in several of Broadway's vacant theaters.
While New York's theater community has long advocated government assistance in the form of tax abatements and a city-funded theater trust, the specifics of this proposal - particularly a $1 ticket surcharge and a lease arrangement for five endangered theaters - are angering and dividing an already troubled Broadway.
Proponents insist the measure is a major step forward on the part of the city; critics contend that the plan represents only token support while actually aggravating Broadway's fiscal woes by raising ticket prices.
``Broadway is a desert today,'' says Robert Whitehead, a veteran and well-regarded independent producer. ``For 10 years, we've been telling the city they have to give us this help.''
``The theater trust, as outlined by the city, is an outrage,'' says the Shubert's Mr. Schoenfeld. ``It is a radically different idea than the one advocated by the Theater Advisory Council in 1984. We will not support this proposal.''
Joseph Papp, producer of the New York Shakepeare Festival and author of that original theater trust proposal, resigned from the Mayor's Theater Advisory Council in protest, denouncing the city's plan as ``suspect'' and ``highhanded.''