'Broadway lite' troubles critics

Smaller can sometimes be better in theater.

A scaled-down version of the musical "The Scarlet Pimpernel," which recently reopened in a smaller Broadway theater, seems to be fairing better with both critics and audiences. Disney's long-running musical "Beauty and the Beast" is set to reopen next week in a smaller playhouse, a move some observers say will extend its life.

Conversely, "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," a small musical that did quite well in a small off-Broadway house, closed soon after it opened in a bigger Broadway theater earlier this year.

Now, the same principle seems to be behind "The Spirit of Broadway," a new and unusually short, hour-long Broadway show scheduled to open next year.

Dubbed "Broadway lite" by some theater industry critics, "The Spirit of Broadway" will nevertheless be a full-fledged live theatrical production staged by four-time Tony Award-winning director Jerry Zaks. Even more important, New York's theater unions have lined up squarely behind it.

Besides being an hour to two hours shorter than most shows, the only other smaller thing about "Spirit," its producers contend, will be its price: just $25 a ticket, compared with an $80 top ticket price for other Broadway shows.

Another major difference between "Spirit," slated to open at the historic Lyceum Theatre here, and other shows is that it will play six to eight performances a day, not the usual one or two.

"This multiple-performance schedule will permit us to charge a ticket price of $25 for adults and $15 for children," the "Spirit" producers said in a statement.

Some industry critics, including Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Organization, which owns the Lyceum Theatre, contend "Spirit" won't be a legitimate theatrical production. Mr. Schoenfeld is using precisely this notion to thwart efforts by Bertelsmann A.G., a giant German media company, from exercising its legal real estate "option" to buy the Lyceum, and co-produce "Spirit."

But a majority of knowledgeable Broadway insiders say that "Spirit" is a fait accompli.

Aaron Frankel, who teaches musical theater at New York University, agrees with Mr. Schoenfeld.

"I worry that this may be part of what I call 'the malling of Broadway,' in which musical revivals and revues are produced more frequently than new, original shows," Mr. Frankel told the Monitor. "I know this show is supposed to give people a 'taste of Broadway,' whet their appetite for other shows. But they may come away saying, 'If this is all Broadway has to offer, I don't want to see others!' On the other hand, the price - $25 a ticket - is terrific and may open the door for lower [theater] prices in general."

*Ward Morehouse III, a longtime observer of Broadway, is a freelance journalist and playwright based in New York City. You can send your comments on the Arts & Leisure section to entertainment@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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