ALL summer, American producers were scouring London's West End for the next hit British musical. But it was dismal pickings. After years of creaming off the latest Trevor Nunn and Andrew Lloyd Webber hits (``Cats,'' ``Les Mis'erables,'' ``The Phantom of the Opera''), they found a string of less-than-successes this season. Revivals of ``Kiss Me Kate'' and ``South Pacific'' have been dreary. The two most touted musicals of the summer were ``Winnie'' (now closed) and ``Ziegfeld'' (closes Saturday). All of this follows the drubbings Broadway critics gave the two latest British imports - ``Chess,'' and the Royal Shakespeare Company's thriller, ``Carrie'' - earlier in the year.
The only deal struck so far? An American tour of Gilbert and Sullivan from the New D'Oyly Carte Opera company. The year in which the continuing renaissance of the British musical seems somehow stalled has also seen the return of one of Britain's oldest theatrical institutions.
This summer, thanks to a large bequest from the D'Oyly Carte estate and corporate funding from British Midlands Airways, the curtain rose on the New D'Oyly Carte Opera company.
After a two-month regional tour, the company debuted in London in July with new productions of the G&S operettas ``Iolanthe'' and ``The Yeomen of the Guard.'' It was the company's first season since its demise six years ago.
Next year, new productions of ``The Mikado'' and ``The Pirates of Penzance'' are promised, followed by a six-city United States tour in 1990, and the company's first-ever visit to the Soviet Union.
A world-renowned musical theater troupe, the D'Oyly Carte company had been the official, although hardly the sole, purveyor of the Gilbert and Sullivan canon for more than 100 years.
Ever since the first collaboration between composer and librettist, masterminded by impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte in 1875, the annual Savoy operas were an essential, if somewhat static, feature of the West End's musical scene.
Rising costs, declining musical and production standards, and the lack of government funding, however, forced the company to close in 1982, ironically just as Gilbert and Sullivan were enjoying renewed popularity.
``In retrospect, [eliminating funding] was perhaps the kindest thing they could have done,'' says Richard Condon, general manager of the new company. ``D'Oyly Carte was seriously in need of a shake-up.''
The annual operettas were carefully mounted in accord with Gilbert's original stage directions dating from the 1870s. A hard-hitting 1982 report from the Arts Council of Britain compared the company to an aging actress ``staggering offstage for a well-earned rest.''
It was that refusal of government subsidy that spelled the official end of the company, whose fortunes had sagged ever since the expiration of the operas' copyright in the mid-1960s. An explosion of new, and occasionally wild, Gilbert and Sullivan productions greeted that lifting of legal restrictions.
These included Joseph Papp's acclaimed Broadway revival of ``The Pirates of Penzance,'' Jonathan Miller's Marx Brothers-esque version of ``The Mikado'' for the English National Opera, as well as the straightforward but updated versions staged by Brian Macdonald at Canada's Stratford Festival. There were also thousands of amateur productions.
The catalyst for the new company came with a $1.7 million bequest from the will of Dame Bridget D'Oyly Carte, the founder's granddaughter, who ran the company for years. Mr. Condon augmented that sum with an additional $170,000 in annual corporate sponsorship.
Now, with a new and larger troupe of musicians and performers - and a significantly larger production budget - the company is back in the footlights with fresh versions of the 14 old favorites.
According to Condon and Bramwell Tovey, the company's music director, there will be no attempt to remount the old stagings but, rather, a cautious updating, which one critic labeled ``progressive conservatism.'' Some songs traditionally cut have been added, and orchestrations have been expanded from original piano scores. Observers suggest that the D'Oyly Carte's musical standards have not been as high since the 1920s.
Meanwhile, Sullivan's manuscripts have been checked and old errors corrected. Even if the librettos are to be played as written - with no updating of political references, as had been popular elsewhere - the antique stage techniques have been discarded for au courant methods.
``We intend to play the shows as written,'' says Condon. ``But that is not to say that we aren't using modern theatrical techniques.'' Average cost per productions now approaches $600,000 - more than six times the old company's production budget.
As for the London critics, they have greeted the first of these revivals with moderate enthusiasm - hearty endorsement for the return of the company, more qualified approval for the productions themselves.
Condon is undeterred. ``Our first season far exceeded our expectations,'' he says. ``Gilbert and Sullivan operas are a manifestation of a theatrical genius which has endured. Others can take license with them, but the company that started them will continue to do them honorably along traditional lines.''