Peter Pringle's America: A Sixties future for poor old Broadway

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TWO HOMELESS men have set up camp outside the Biltmore Theater on 47th Street and Broadway. The box office has been closed for five years and a steel grille covers the doors, but you can peep inside. There is rubbish scattered about and stacks of red upholstered seats from which, a quarter of a century ago, the Sixties generation watched Hair, the stage production of their new, unfettered world of counter-culture excess - free sex, full-frontal nudity, love beads, flower power, marijuana and anti-war protests.

As Broadway begins its uncertain second century, America's theatre folk have been nostalgically recalling the days when the front of the Biltmore was decked with flowers, how Hair was packed for 1,750 performances, how it gave birth to seven American touring companies, and how it grossed dollars 80m. Shows don't do that today. The mass appeal Will Rogers Follies celebrated its second anniversary on Broadway last month, and is likely to close this year or early next without recouping the dollars 7.5m it cost to stage. And there are other dark theatres besides the Biltmore.

Behind the fluff and finery of last night's showbiz Tony Awards ritual lies a bitter struggle between the old and the new generations of Broadway managers and producers. It is a fight that threatens Broadway as the only spawning ground for successful American theatre, and bends its stuffy rules about mass commercial entertainment and what constitutes high drama. It is a struggle that

is part of the larger canvas of American society in transition.

For comfort, directors, producers, actors, actresses and their attendant critics have delved deep into the history of the Great White Way, as the theatre strip became known when the neon lights arrived in the mid-Twenties. In those days there were 228 shows on Broadway, and the theatre business, like the American economy, was booming.

The songs reflected the times, full of promise and fun, painting a land of endless opportunity in which the common man could become a star and get rich, all in one glorious all-American finale. 'It is a glowing summer afternoon all night,' the French novelist Paul Morand wrote about 42nd Street. 'One might almost wear white trousers and a straw hat. Theatres, night clubs, movie palaces, restaurants are all lighted at every porthole.'

Times Square and the theatres to the north of it retain a certain tawdry lure, but if you wore a white suit today along the contiguous part of 42nd Street you would stick out like a gardenia in a garbage pail. Dirty, smelly, lined with abandoned shops and cinemas and dotted with sex-video and peep-show parlours, Broadway at 42nd Street appears to be in a terminal state of decay, reflecting the harsh fact that making money in the theatre is no easier than anywhere else these days.

Nostalgic theatre people have been remembering that My Fair Lady cost dollars 350,000 to put on in 1956 and earned it back in six weeks. Fiddler on the Roof paid back in four months the dollars 375,000 it cost to stage in 1965. Investors received a return of 3,390 per cent, a rate unheard of today. Then, in 1977, there was Annie, which cost a million dollars to stage and has since earned dollars 300m. Guys and Dolls, which was to have marked the upturn for Broadway after the disastrous Eighties, broke even only a year after it opened in 1992.

Amid the gloom, there are hints of better times. Audiences are up 6.5 per cent on last year, at 7.9 million. Broadway ticket sales reached a new high of dollars 327mfor the season that has just ended. Touring productions earned three times the amount they grossed five years ago. The increased revenue is largely due to the price of a ticket, which shot up to match the staggering rise in labour costs for more elaborate effects, and the cost of stars in shows such as The Will Rogers Follies, where Mickey Rooney will soon be earning dollars 20,000 a week. Shelly Plimpton, an actress in the Sixties Biltmore production of Hair, earned dollars 130 a week.

So is the Age of Aquarius about to burst upon Broadway? Critics see hope in two new productions, the Sixtiesrock musical Tommy, which had 11 Tony nominations, and Angels in America, the Pulitzer prize - winning three - and - a - half-hour gay fantasia about the ravages of Aids. In the clamour for Tommy, critics see the Woodstock generation come of age. Although theatre - goers don't drop acid any more, hardly smoke dope, don't copulate freely because of Aids, and scarcely even touch hard liquor, they will sit down sedately and happily in front of a rock musical and not even think of bopping in the aisles. Grown-up hippies as the new theatre-goers, perhaps?

In Angels, the critics see an even more interesting experiment. Not only does it defy the traditional Broadway formula, according to which it is too long, includes dream sequences and has a topic that turns people off, but it is an outspoken vision of contemporary American society, exploring issues that every citizen is being forced to address. Tommy and Angels were produced independently of the Broadway establishment - in California - by theatrical teams in their thirties; the herald of a new generation on old Broadway?

Lacking government-subsidised tickets (and why shouldn't Washington help out a national institution, pray?), Broadway has to change to survive, by dropping its confining rules and the myth that a show is not a show unless it has played 'the strip'. What more absurd comment could there be on the Tonys' closed-door policy than that Arthur Miller's The Price, a 1968 play that was revived on Broadway this season, was eligible for an award, while Miller's latest play The Last Yankee, produced off-Broadway, was not?

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