Must the show go on?

ARTS THEATRE The box-office figures for Broadway's 1995 season are in, and, says Michael Arditti, things are looking grim ything remotel

A HEARSE patrols the Times Square theatre district half an hour before curtain up. It is, in fact, advertising a current off-Broadway hit ("Don't miss Grandma Sylvia's Funeral. Grandma now dies four times every weekend. Kosher meals included") but its symbolic significance does not go unremarked. Broadway, the legendary "fabulous invalid", is on its last legs.

It is easy to smile at the assertion that the 1995 Broadway season is the worst within living memory. Every Broadway season has been the worst within living memory, since William Goldman said so of the 1967 season in his book of the same name. On the face of it, the 1995 results offer some hope. In June, Variety published its summary of the year's box office. Sales passed nine million for the first time in 13 years and receipts totalled a record $406m (although, set against this, a single Hollywood blockbuster, Forrest Gump, made around $330m in the home market alone.)

From the producers' point of view, the results are less cheering. Variety calculates that only four of the year's 29 new Broadway shows made a profit: Patrick Stewart's Christmas Carol, A Tuna Christmas, the Ralph Fiennes Hamlet and the Tony-award winning Love! Valour! Compassion!; there were six out-and-out flops, including a new version of On the Waterfront, the most expensive straight play in history, which closed after eight performances.

Conventional wisdom maintains that the key to financial success is success at the Tonys. The importance of these annual awards to the marketing-led Broadway theatre cannot be overemphasised. The press agent for Love! Valour! Compassion! confided that, in spite of its rave reviews, had the show not won the Best Play Tony, it would have closed within three weeks. In the theatre, as in every other sphere, what Americans want most is to be sure that they have the best - and they are happy to let the experts decide for them what that is.

And yet, such is the shortage of new shows (in Broadwayspeak, "new product") that virtually every one that opens is guaranteed some kind of a nomination. This year, the annual absurdity reached new heights when the Tony committee abandoned rules requiring at least two entrants in every category, ensuring that Sunset Boulevard automatically won awards for Best Book and Best Score of a Musical - since the season's only other new musical, Smokey Joe's Cafe, is a compilation of old Lieber and Stoller songs and therefore ineligible.

Sunset Boulevard was, inevitably, chosen as Best Musical and its star, Glenn Close, as Best Musical Actress. This must have been a tribute to her stellar power rather than her singing ability since, to be frank, she cannot hit the notes. And, although all was smiles on awards night, relations between the actress and the composer have been less than cordial after a very public row about the all-important box-office figures, which were inflated to the tune of $150,000 a week during Ms Close's two-week holiday.

Broadway is synonymous with musicals and a season in which there are no more than two (or, to be more accurate, one-and-a-half) new ones can hardly be described as healthy. Moreover, this year, there have been only three musical revivals, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Showboat, which were both hits, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which wasn't.

How to Succeed, which is long overdue for a British revival, boasts a score as seductive as composer/lyricist Frank Loesser's more celebrated Guys and Dolls. Des McAnuff's charm-wrapped production features an extremely accomplished Matthew Broderick hoofing and goofing his way to the top (and the Tony) within some vertiginous state-of-the-art graphic sets.

The sets for Harold Prince's revival of Showboat are even more spectacular, and go some way towards justifying the record $75 seat price. Broadway wags may have dubbed it Slowboat, but, with his grainy photographic backdrops, cinematic fades and vast 70-strong cast, Prince has turned a notoriously broken-backed book into a full-scale American epic, while giving due weight to the glorious Kern-Hammerstein songs.

If new musicals are an endangered species on Broadway, new plays are virtually extinct. Many consider the most significant event of the 1995 season to be the decision by Neil Simon, the most successful American playwright of the past 30 years, to open his new comedy, London Suite (four playlets in the proven Plaza Suite formula) off-Broadway, while the Broadway theatre that bears his name remains dark. Off-Broadway is also hosting the premieres of plays by Edward Albee, AR Gurney and a triple bill of Woody Allen, David Mamet and Elaine May.

The two major reasons for Broadway's dearth of new plays are, first, that the vast auditoria alienate those raised on the intimate drama of cinema and television screens, and, second, that restrictive union practices make for inflated production costs. The all-powerful musicians' union has decreed that every straight play has to pay four musicians' salaries, on the grounds that they are being performed in theatres that might house musicals and are therefore costing their members jobs. Likewise, the stagehands hold managements to ransom, ensuring, for instance, that the "curtain man" earns a ludicrously high salary for doing no more than raising and lowering the curtain once during a show.

The few plays that do arrive on Broadway, whatever their artistic merits, are carefully aimed at a core audience, usually black, Jew- ish or gay. Of the three new plays now on, one, Having Our Say, is about a pair of 100-year-old black sisters, while Love! Valour! Compassion! features nine gay men. Author Terence McNally serves up the camp one-liners, musical-comedy references, chiselled bodies and intimations of mortality that constitutes so much of contem- porary gay drama. It also has the male nudity that's become the trademark of the 1995 season.

The other Broadway staple is the snob success, generally from England. This year's representatives are Tom Stoppard's masterpiece, Arcadia - whose acclaim has been muted by a sense that the American cast fails to capture the intricacies of Stoppard's text - and Sean Ma- thias's sparkling National Theatre production of Les Parents Terribles (renamed Indiscretions, presumably on the premise that some audiences still think Les Miserables is in French). Here, Eileen Atkins's symbolic battle with Kathleen Turner becomes less that of Cocteau's Order versus Disorder than that of a great actress versus an overstretched star.

The British have been much in evidence this year. A less healthy import has been that of stand-up comics better suited to Las Vegas. Broadway is currently hosting no fewer than three - Red Buttons, Jackie Mason and Rob Becker - in acts which make economic, but not theatrical, sense. Producers are going for short-term gains at the expense of long-term audiences, who are being given smaller and smaller experiences for higher and higher prices. Such shows make no use of the medium, merely the space.

Not that the behaviour of Broadway audiences is any less reprehensible. The chatter of suburban matrons, particularly at matinees, would suggest that they invented audience participation long before the Sixties avant- garde. The expense and difficulty of theatre-going seems to make mere attendance a matter for self-congratulation. Nowhere is this clearer than at curtain calls. Of the seven Broadway shows that I saw, six received standing ovations, a tribute less to the casts' performances than to the audiences' need to convince themselves that they had been watching a hit. The seventh, a new musical version of Chronicle of a Death Foretold, was, significantly, still in preview - so the audience had not yet been told what to think.

For an English theatre-goer, the continuing decline of Broadway is worrying, as a foretaste of what threatens the West End: ever-increasing rents and production costs, lack of imagination and over-compensation on marketing. Perhaps most dispiriting is the huge success of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, now bound for London. Musicals were once criticised for too close a reliance on pre-existing books, plays and films; Beauty and the Beast is far worse, a stage reproduction of a recently released musical film - and a cartoon, to boot. In Broadway, familiarity breeds content.

So, it is no surprise that currently on the road, and due on Broadway in the autumn, is Carol Channing in Hello Dolly, a role she originated and has already played over 3,000 times. As the critical heart sinks and the Broadway hearse draws ever nearer, one can already hear the sound of an arthritic matinee audience standing to ovate. !

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