New York Label Carries Clout
If a play's hot on Broadway, it eventually shows up on television, film, or in classrooms
NEW YORK — THOSE viewers tuning in Sunday night to the annual Tony Awards, telecast from the Gershwin Theatre in New York, may not realize that Broadway theater comes into their lives more than once a year, influencing the films they see, their local arts economy, and even what their children study in school.
"The vast majority of people tend to be most interested in plays that have succeeded on a tiny island off the northeast coast of North America," says Lawrence Harbison, an editor at Samuel French, the play-publishing company founded in 1830.
"The most successful plays on our list," which is used by community, amateur, regional, and school groups to lease the rights to produce their own plays, "are always the most recent New York hits," Mr. Harbison says.
Current favorites are "Lend Me a Tenor," a Broadway smash from three years ago, and "Other People's Money," a major off-Broadway hit of the same period. The all-time champion, particularly among high school productions, is another original New York hit, "Our Town." Theater influences TV
"All across the country," says Isabel Stevenson, president of the American Theatre Wing which originated the Tony Awards in 1948, "in high schools, two different plays a month are studied - not two movie scripts, or two television scripts, but two plays." The organization also sponsors locally televised panel discussions among actors, playwrights, producers, directors, designers, and stage managers, tapes of which are sent to school drama departments around the United States. "The interest in learning ab out theater is tremendous."
New York theater supplied most of the original resources, from actors and writers to technicians, to the early stages of both motion pictures and television. New York stage actors were recruited to work in the early pictures, and again when sound was introduced.
In its early years, television often broadcast live dramatic performances from New York. The trend continued, with film adaptations of New York plays such as "Amadeus," "Children of a Lesser God," and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
Recent examples include Alfred Uhry's Oscar-winner "Driving Miss Daisy," based on his off-Broadway play, and the most recent Hallmark Hall of Fame, "Miss Rose White," adapted from Barbara Lebow's successful New York production of "A Shayna Maidel." The PBS dramatic series "American Playhouse" frequently finds its material on the New York stage.
The list of performers now famous worldwide through films and syndicated television programs, who began their careers on the New York stage, is endless.
"It's amazing how many there are," says Ms. Stevenson, pointing to the current season in which actors such as Gene Hackman, Alan Alda, Glenn Close, Richard Dreyfuss, Raul Julia, and Al Pacino have returned to the New York theater. "I often ask them why they come back when they've got to face tough critics and make far less money than they can make in Hollywood. They always say the same thing - it's the live theater experience. There's nothing like it, for an audience, and for an actor." The `Broadway imprimatur'
For American audiences attending theater in their hometowns, New York remains the overwhelming influence. In a recent survey of professional touring shows offering limited runs only one of the 23 current productions was not originally a New York show, and that was a revue compiled from the songs of Broadway's Andrew Lloyd Weber. Of the 22 largest resident US theater companies, 10 chose former New York plays and musicals.
"The New York theater has an enormous impact on regional musical theater," notes Jim Thesing, executive director of the National Alliance of Musical Theatre Producers, a resource and support organization for its 70 members in 34 states, regional companies that produce musicals. "American audiences across the country have an insatiable appetite for the latest Broadway musical hit, so regional companies have traditionally built their seasons around the new shows."
Alan Wasser, general manager for both the New York and the touring companies of the shows "Phantom of the Opera," "Miss Saigon," "Les Miserables," and "Five Guys Named Moe," says, "For any show to have a successful touring life, it needs the imprimatur that Broadway can generate." For tours, "you rely on advertising that states it was or is running on Broadway." Even shows done in London require a New York production. "If a show is a success in London, it's done in New York. For `Les Mis,' it opened in L ondon and played for a year. After it opened successfully in New York, nine months later we were able to send out the first tour." At present, there are road companies in 15 locations around the world.
"When people come to New York," Stevenson concludes, "they may also attend other cultural events, go to museums, or to the ballet. But it's the theater that serves as the magnet."