The Arts: Beyond Reviews and Revenues

Theater was a vital force in the 1970s world of the performing arts. Broadway broke its all-time box-office record, late in the decade, by selling more than $100 million worth of tickets in a single season.

Road shows prospered.

Regional theaters grew more important as their numbers slowly increased across the country.

Black theater enlivened the scene, and British imports continued to remain highly visible -- and to cop prizes.

Here in the nation's theater capital, the single most conspicuous creative force was the New York Shakespeare Festival headed by Joseph Papp. Besides keeping his own five Public Theater auditoriums alive and alight most of the time, Papp exported to Broadway those entertainments that appeared to have a wide potential.

The great festival hit of the 1970s was "A Chorus Line," Michael Bennett's look at the lives of show business "gypsies." The Public Theater has also been responsible for such Broadway entries as "That Championship Season," "The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel," "Sticks and Bones," "Runaways," "The Water Engine," "Two Gentlemen of Verona," and "Much Ado About Nothing."

Mr. Papp even took on the prestigious Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center when the Beaumont board's failure to provide adequate funding led to the resignation of artistic director Jules Irving. After three kaleidoscopic seasons, Papp abandoned Lincoln Center in 1977. The current artistic director, Richmond Crinkley, is expected to relight the Beaumont next year.

The quintessential Broadway playwright of the decade has been Neil Simon. In 1970, he was represented by "The Last of the Red Hot Lovers," "Plaza Suite," and the libretto for "Promises, Promises." This year, he has had "Chapter Two" and the book for the enormously popular musical, "They're Playing Our Song," with a Hamlisch-Sager score. Scarcely a season has gone by without a new Simon play -- and usually a Simon hit.

Off broadway, Off Off Broadway, black theater, have all helped enliven the playmaking scene.

Certain resident professional theaters have increasingly become a source of scripts for New York. Examples -- such productions as "The Water Engine," "Da" (Olney, Maryland; and Chicago), "Teibele and Her Demon" (Minneapolis), and "Grease" (Chicago), which this season became the longest-running musical in Broadway annals. Black theater has been represented by productions ranging from serious works like "Paul Robeson" and "The First Breeze of Summer" to "The Wiz," "Ain't Misbehavin'," and "Your Arms Too Short to Box With God."

British plays and playwrights continued making major contributions and winning prizes in the 1970s.

Playgoers encountered new extremes of explicitness and occasional nudity in the 1970s. On the other hand, a number of plays reflected concern for the human dilemma. Old age was treated with humor and compassion in "On Golden Pond," "The Gin Game," and "The Kingfisher." And physical deformity was handled with compassion in "The Elephant Man," a serious work that became a prize-winning hit.

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