Because the show must go on...

In the wake of the terrorist attacks, a handful of top shows on Broadway have closed. But the general health of theatre in New York, and especially its musicals, is as good as it's been for years, as Edward Seckerson discovers
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The Independent Culture

The show did go on, just as it always has. Springtime for Hitler was the unexpected hit of the season, a chorus girl became an overnight star, and just when you thought they'd cleaned up the sleaze around 42nd Street, a show called Urinetown moved into the neighbourhood. Mind you, with male strippers just down the block promising "The Full Monty" or your money back, the prospect of a return to Broadway's burlesque beginnings, albeit with a unisexual twist, suddenly seemed like a very real possibility – something, perhaps, that Max Bialystock, the fictional producer behind Springtime for Hitler, might cash in on once his new show, Prisoners of Love (direct from Sing Sing) hits town.

Broadway, as epitomised by the Broadway musical, has always had difficulty distinguishing fact from fantasy. But Broadway wouldn't – shouldn't – have it any other way. A few years back, you could barely recognise the place, so infested was it with foreign imports or clones of foreign imports. A crisis of identity loomed, Broadway's legendary confidence was on the wane.

Broadway's rehabilitation couldn't have come at a better time to help the city through its dark days. The balance between quality revivals and new shows is looking healthier than it has for some time, and off-Broadway is taking itself more seriously as the place where new talent gets its first bite of the Big Apple. Would that there were an equivalent here in London, or indeed throughout the country, where regional theatre was once the breeding ground for the new and adventurous. British talent is out there, but it doesn't have a platform.

What a turnaround. The Yanks have even robbed us of The Full Monty. I can't believe there wasn't a British bid to turn one of our most successful film exports in years into a musical. For Sheffield, substitute Buffalo. Commission a smart, streetwise book from Terrence McNally (who seems to have found a natural niche in Broadway musicals) and a score from David Yazbek that sounds like Frank Loesser has gotten funky, and what might have seemed like a very bad idea on the drawing-board is proving quite the opposite at the box office. Everybody's jostling for the coveted first eight rows of the stalls (in the movie, "the full Monty", you may remember, was glimpsed only from behind).

Outside the theatre, programme- sellers are heard yelling: "The only Broadway souvenir programme with tush-shots!" Inside the theatre, we gather like gatecrashers on a hen-night, because we are the audience and it's precisely that which makes the show such a riot. In the opening minutes, a professional male stripper, from a group calling themselves "The Romeos", struts his stuff in the semi-buff, and it's possible to believe that the women running down the aisles screaming for his G-string are not cast members at all but overexcited Manhattanites. And one speaks for all when she says: "My friend told me they were fabulous – and she's a lesbian!"

This is about as close as Broadway gets to audience-participation. The Americanisation of The Full Monty rings surprisingly true. McNally's book has lost little of the original's homespun charm and/or sentimentality. But the social realism strikes a more cynical, even mordant, tone with the famous dole -office sequence now relocated to a funeral. And there's a terrific sequence where the guys, desperate for moves for their act, unwittingly find inspiration in basketball. But it's primarily a "verbal" show. The smart one-liners come thick and fast – "You wanna be in show business, you should be spayed first" – and Yazbek's ballsy song lyrics get my vote for the best rhyming couplet of the season: "'Cos when you're swinging your cojones/ You'll show 'em what testosterone is."

Plenty more like that from the master, Mel Brooks, whose manic alter ego Max Bialystock, played by Nathan Lane, is first heard to exclaim: "Stop the world! I want to get on!" Brooks, sorry Bialystock, will steal from anybody. Even himself. It was only a matter of time before The Producers – a stage musical trapped in a movie – would make it to Broadway. This is the flip-side of the lullaby of Broadway: that is, the rude awakening. You like to think that characters like Bialystock – void of talent, taste, or scruples – actually existed, but if they didn't, that it was Broadway's duty to invent them.

Nathan Lane is a force of nature whose virtuosic slow burns, double takes, silent exasperation, and hysteria (just the mention of money – especially his own money – sends Bialystock into heart-attack mode) belong to a Broadway we rarely encounter now outside of old movies. When the curtain rises on opening night of Bialystock's latest project – a musical adaptation of Hamlet entitled Funny Boy – we know precisely where we are. The wonderful thing about The Producers – the musical (quite apart from seeing more of Springtime for Hitler) – is the way in which it subverts the Broadway we know and love. Brooks and his director/choreographer Susan Stroman spare no expense to give offence. A pastiche of Busby Berkeley has scantily clad chorus girls in the formation of a swastika. A glimpse of "Old Lady Heaven" (all Bialystock's backers are rich and randy old ladies) builds to a huge tap number, familiar but for the fact that the distinctive sound is produced not by feet but by Zimmer frames.

That sound nightly fills the theatre just two blocks away, on 42nd Street (how's that for "on location") as the curtain partly rises to reveal row upon row of perfectly synchronised tapping feet. You've heard of a call to arms – this is Broadway's call to legs, a newly minted refit of Gower Champion's classic production. "By this time tomorrow night, we'll either have ourselves a live leading lady or a dead chorus girl". So says the big-shot producer when his star takes the phrase "Break a leg!" rather too literally. Into the breech steps eager out-of-towner Peggy Sawyer (the blissfully loose-limbed Meredith Patterson), and the rest, as they say, is Broadway history. "Keep young and beautiful" coos one of Harry Warren's great songs, and bang on cue a giant tilting mirror descends to give us one of those eye-popping aerial Busby Berkeley shots. "We're in the Money" all right. The big finish has a chorus line of thousands appearing row by glittering row atop a giant stairway. This must be the "stairway to paradise". In Bialystock's dreams.

His view of off-Broadway? "I hate it. Mimes, experimental theatre, no parking..." And Batboy. Over at the Union Square Theatre, Laurence O'Keefe's wacky little rock musical (a kind of Edward Scissorhands with fangs) has a winning debut performance from Deven May in the title role, a couple of reasonably good songs, and a monumentally silly spoof of The Lion King involving what can only be described as an orgy of cuddly toys. That alone is worth the trip downtown.

Moving uptown from the village is the success story of the season, Urinetown – a musical about global warming, drought, the rising price of water, the ruthless exploitation of those without a pot to piss in, so to speak. A powerful corporation, UGC – Urine Good Company – is redefining the phrase "tax relief". There's a lot of Weill and Brecht in this deliciously grubby confection, but with better jokes. Mark Hollmann's quirky music and lyrics, and Greg Kotis's devilish book have their cake and eat it. Urinetown is both social satire and a parody of social satire. It lets us in on the joke and then mocks us for laughing at it. "What kind of a musical is this?" asks Little Sally, the smartassed kid. "What kind of a title is Urinetown? Nobody will come to see it." Wrong.

'The Producers', 'Urinetown' and ''The Full Monty', (001) 212-239 6200; '42nd St' and 'Batboy', 212-307 4100. Edward Seckerson's 'Stage & Screen' is on Radio 3, Mondays, 4pm