The Death of Broadway

The Great White Way has already become a kind of Disney World with dirt and real crime, an attraction that the people who used to support it can afford to visit only once a year. Even if Broadway is cleaned up, the author argues, the changes in New York City guarantee that it will never be what it was

BY THOMAS M. DISCH

A CITY IS A MACHINE THAT WORKS BY INERTIA. By virtue of their solidity and expense, large buildings act as a brake on social change. Each one, from the most squalid tenement to the ritziest hotel, represents a way of life that has jelled into just this form and is jealous of its right to continue as is. Thus neighborhoods in the process of gentrification acquire graffiti threatening death to yuppie invaders, and all bastions of privilege hire doormen to defend them from riffraff. Finally, however, no single building, no street, no neighborhood, can hold its own against the glacial advance of larger social forces.

Right now such a social glacier is poised at the edge of New York City’s already much eroded theater district. For many decades inertial real-estate values, abetted by landmark-designation legislation, have earned Broadway the dubious epithet “Fabulous Invalid.” In the nineties the Fabulous Invalid is destined to become the Inglorious Corpse, and the Great White Way to become a graveyard for great white elephants, as, one by one, the thirtysix theaters left in the Broadway area find themselves unable to attract either shows or audiences.

Those who feel a professional obligation to contradict the handwriting on the wall—theater owners, producers, and press agents—can cite cheery statistics. The League of American Theatres and Producers announced last June that for the third year in a row Broadway set box-office records, with $283 million in ticket sales. However, this record reflects not dramatically increased attendance but only higher ticket prices—as high as $55 or $60 for musicals. Actual attendance for the past four seasons was, in millions, 6.97, 8.14, 7.97, and 8.04. Ten seasons ago attendance totaled 10.82 million. Twentytwo years ago William Goldman noted in The Season, the best book about the Broadway theater ever that the 1967-1968 season had set an all-time high for ticket sales, $59 million; then, too, the reason was higher ticket prices—soon to be as high as $15.

The most revealing and dismaying contrast between Goldman’s season and the one just past is in the number of plays produced. In the 1967—1968 season fifty-eight shows opened on Broadway: forty-four nonmusical plays (twenty-five dramas, nineteen comedies) and fourteen musicals. The 1989-1990 season yielded thirty-five shows: twenty-one nonmusical plays (six of them revivals) and twelve musicals (four of them revivals), plus two “special attractions.” Musicals seem to be holding their own, but clearly “legit” drama (to use Variety’s parlance) is an endangered species. In 1967-1968 there were new plays by Harold Pinter, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Tom Stoppard, Gore Vidal, Eugene O’Neill, Joe Orton, Edward Albee, Neil Simon, Peter Nichols, Lillian Hellman, Ira Levin, Peter Ustinov (two plays), and some twenty-seven other playwrights, not counting those who wrote books for musicals. Last season the “name" playwrights presenting new work were Larry Gelbart, David Hare, Tom Stoppard (with a radio play from 1972 on stage for the first time), August Wilson, A. R. Gurney, and Peter Shaffer. As of January 1, a time when the season is usually at its peak, only five legit dramas were playing on Broadway—three held over from last season and two survivors from among the scant four that opened last fall, one of them at Lincoln Center, which is a “Broadway” theater only by a legal fiction.

The steep decline since 1967-1968 represents but a portion of a longer-term downward trend. Throughout his book Goldman lamented the diminished state of the theater in his time. There were 264 new productions in the 1927-1928 season and 187 three years later, after the double whammy of the Depression and talkies; there were sixty in 1940—1941. The sixties brought a mild upsurge, but, as Brooks Atkinson lamented in his historical account Broadway (1970), “in the seventies there was a surplus of theaters all through the year. Most theaters were dark during long periods. . . . Herman Levin, producer of the legendary My Fair Lady, believes that the day is not too distant when ten theaters will be enough.” Levin may prove to have been an optimist.

An Uninviting Avenue

THERE ARE MANY reasons for this situation, but the main one has nothing directly to do with the theater. Manhattan, long regarded as a nice place to visit but not to live, is becoming useless for either purpose. On September 3 of last year this was dramatized with a vividness that no Broadway playwright has achieved in the past many seasons, when a “gang of ritualistic muggers” (to quote a headline in The New York Times) killed a twenty-two-year-old Utah tourist, Brian Watkins, as he tried to defend his mother from their attack. And why do you suppose the gang (called FTS, an acronym for Fuck That Shit) was down in the subway mugging tourists? Not to get money for crack, no. They wanted to go dancing at Roseland, where many of them were later arrested as they exited at closing time.

The story is a natural for a full-scale Broadway musical. It would open at FTS headquarters, in Flushing, where the gang leader, Rocstar, is explaining in a rap song to two new recruits that to be initiated into FTS they must mug someone that night. Cut to the Watkins family in front of a traditional bright-lights-along-the-Great-White-Way backdrop as they sing a medley of standards in praise of Broadway. Then the mugging, performed as a slow-motion duet for Rocstar and Brian. Finally the big Hip-Hop Ballet in Roseland, as the gang members, exhilarated by their kill, vie to see who is the most spectacular dancer. The young murderer’s friends told the Times that Rocstar had a special talent for graffiti, so there is the possibility of a dance solo for Rocstar in which he would declare his love for the ingenue (another Big-Apple-loving Utahan, whom he’s met only that night, at Roseland) in tragic eight-foot letters just before the cops arrive.

Some may object that such a scenario is in questionable taste, offensive to victims and assaulters alike. One of the more refined cruelties of living in New York City is that it is considered bad form openly to excoriate minority public enemies like the members of FTS. Yet it is impossible to speak of the problems of the Broadway neighborhood without mentioning what all visitors immediately notice: its streets have become a gauntlet of sinister and sleazy pushers, hookers, panhandlers, mad derelicts, wristwatch con artists, and small, silent clusters of youths who look like recruiting material for FTS. Where there were once nightclubs and restaurants catering to theatergoers, there are head shops and pizza parlors of surpassing grunginess. The very Roseland where FTS members held their victory celebration was for decades a ballroom frequented by the same fuddy-duddies who could be counted on to fill the now darkened theaters.

I came to New York City in 1957, after daydreaming about Gotham all through my high school years in Minnesota, and landed a job checking hats and selling orange juice at the Majestic Theater through most of the runs of The Music Man and Camelot. I had no theatrical ambitions myself; I just wanted an address at the center of the universe. The Broadway I became acquainted with corresponded at most points with the myth that had brought me there. My boss at the Majestic, Arthur Gross, might have stepped out of a Damon Runyon story, with his gravelly dese-dem-dose accent and a belief in his destined luck at the racetrack which no losses could dampen. My fellow orange-juice vendors had a similarly quixotic faith that they were Broadway bound, and a few did eventually land jobs in the chorus lines of musicals.

The neighborhood was filled with such now vanished lower-middle-class amenities as cafeterias and automats and bars that actually provided a free lunch of sorts for the price (fifteen cents) of a glass of beer. Forty-second Street, whose scuzziness has by now proved so intractable that it is slated for bulldozing as a last cosmetic resort, was then a benign honky-tonk of movie houses that played second-run double features until the wee hours. The teenage gangs of that era had made only a symbolic beachhead on Broadway, as the Jets and Sharks in the Bernstein and Sondheim West Side Story of 1957. Homelessness, similarly, was the theme of a musical comedy, Subways Are for Sleeping, in 1961, long before it became a permanent feature of the landscape. (In fact, the cheapest movie houses on Forty-second Street specialized in movies so old and dull that only winos would pay the thirty-five-cent admission charge, and thus provided the city with large de facto dormitories.)

The Times Square venues that I knew as a checkroom attendant earning $32 a week were, needless to say, the very meanest socio-economic niche. The audiences whose coats and hats I checked set the general tone of the area, which was one of middle-class mass-market glitz: Schrafft’s, Howard Johnson’s, Childs. A rung up from those were Sardis, Gallagher’s, the Stork Club. Now, in the era of $60 tickets (more if you buy from scalpers), it is only the upper end of the spectrum that still, tenuously, survives. As with housing in New York City, there is little provision for middle-class, middle-income needs. In the fifties and early sixties Broadway shows were one of the city’s basic amenities, available even to those (and they were a majority in the Majestic balcony) who hesitated before they splurged on a thirtyfive-cent half-pint carton of orange juice. Now, except among the rich, a night on the town has become a once-ayear extravagance, a fact reflected in the strength of Broadway musicals relative to plays. Last season musicals accounted for 67 percent of attendance and 75 percent of gross receipts. After all, people can see actors on TV any night of the week; they can read a good story. When they go to the theater, they want a lavish production, visible millions, their money’s worth.

A Changed Context

AS A LATTER-DAY IRVING BERLIN MIGHT OBSERVE, there’s no industry like the entertainment industry. None, certainly, likely to yield such a small return on the money invested. Consider the fate of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, the most expensive show in Broadway history and the winner of six Tony awards. After a run of less than two years, and while it was still playing to 90 percent capacity (more than 10,000 people a week), it closed, having earned only $4.8 million of its $8.8 million cost. Its weekly expenses were so high and its profit margin so slim that its producers decided to take a scaled-down version on the road and to Japan while the show was still relatively fresh. The Robbins show epitomizes the current desperate situation of Broadway not just in terms of profit and loss but in its essence as well. It’s an anthology of show-stopping moments of the kind that just don’t happen on Broadway anymore, except in revivals. Three of the excerpted shows—Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, and Peter Pan—were also revived last year; two have already closed.

How do theater people themselves account for the quick failure of many shows and the probability that the rest will be unprofitable? Usually they blame the messenger— that is, the New York limes theater critic, Frank Rich, who reviews almost all Broadway shows and most other major theatrical events in the city. When Rich pans a show and it flops, he is always ready to hand as a scapegoat. Last November the English playwright David Hare’s fulminations against Rich’s review of Hare’s Phe Secret Rapture earned banner headlines in Variety. Hare kvetched, “There is an unmistakable personal nastiness in what [ Rich ] writes, a series of ad hominem attacks that seem unmotivated by what he has seen on the stage but by some personal bitterness about artists.”Hare’s outrage strikes me as a classic instance of denial and of the sense of entitlement common to artists who have waxed fat on subsidies. I thought Rich was too kind to the play.

But Rich does in fact exercise a life-or-death power over most plays, despite his disingenuous insistence that it is producers who close shows, not his reviews. His raves have helped such minor-league works as Eastern Standard, Mastergate, and Once on This Island win transfers out of pre-Broadway venues, while his pans in just this past season sank not only Hare’s play but also Accomplice, The Cemetery Club, and a revival of Paddy Chayefsky’s The Tenth Man. These three victims were all, on the face of it, likely survivors, filling niches (thriller, sentimental comedy, Jewish high-minded drama) otherwise unoccupied at the time they opened. Accomplice was an ingeniously plotted comic murder mystery in the vein of Deathtrap, which Rich found “incomprehensible.” Rich dismissed The Cemetery Culb a benign, formulaic comedy about Jewish widows in Queens, as “‘Golden Girls’ at four times the length but with at most one-fourth the star wattage,” and “one of the best arguments yet advanced for cremation.” He was acerbic about the Lincoln Center production of The Tenth Man, Chayefsky’s most successful play, and dismissive of Somerset Maugham as a playwright in reviewing a revival of The Circle, but that show survived by sheer star power, in the shape of Rex Harrison, Glynis Johns, and Stewart Granger. One would have to be an intrepid producer to mount further revivals of Maugham while Rich remains the Times’s sole Broadway critic. As for the living playwrights Rich has hexed, what can they do but bewail their fate, like Hare, and resign themselves to writing for Off Broadway and regional theaters?

As The Nation’s reviewer, I have seen the same plays that Rich has seen for the past three seasons, and while I have usually been better disposed toward the “wellmade” plays Rich tends to pan, I think Rich’s tastes are more congruent with the expectations of actual Broadway audiences than are my own. His slighting comparison of The Cemetery Club to The Golden Girls isn’t off target. The latter is one of the best-scripted TV sitcoms since Taxi, and few sentimental comedies on stage in recent years have been as amusing. If audiences insist that what they see in the theater must be of another magnitude altogether than the best things available on TV, then Broadway had better just scrap the genre of sentimental comedy altogether. And so, by and large, it has. The most notable successes in that vein— Steel Magnolias and Driving Miss Daisy—had long runs Off Broadway, where a show can survive if it sells in a week what most Broadway houses have to pull in every night. Both shows went on to become popular movies. Yet they would probably have fared no better than The Cemetery Club on Broadway, where sitcom wholesomeness has little box-office appeal, even among those who enjoy it in other contexts. Who goes to the Four Seasons for a hot dog?

It is the same with a thriller like Accomplice (despite a set—incorporating an operational mill wheel—that offered the kind of conspicuous expense unavailable in smaller theaters), with a “serious” or writerly drama like last season’s The Lisbon Traviata, and with most revivals, from Shakespeare to Arthur Miller. For such plays Off Broadway is a more natural venue. A larger set in exchange for being three times as far away from the actors is a poor trade-off. The chance to see Dustin Hoffman play Shylock or Kathleen Turner play Maggie the Cat is not worth double the price of admission to see a noncelebrity actor in a more freewheeling performance any night of the week.

Broadway has become a tourist attraction, New York City’s dilapidated and inadequate response to Disney World. Most native New Yorkers have come to regard it as they do the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty—a place one goes to, if at all, only with out-oftown visitors. A friend of mine who works in the city courts and used to take in three or four Broadway shows a year with his wife is typical of many: he has decided that two hours of live entertainment simply isn’t worth the price of tickets and a risky subway ride into the heart of the city’s darkness. And this is a man who used to be a Transit Authority cop.

The reason that Broadway appeals less to New Yorkers these days isn’t just that Broadway has changed: so have New Yorkers. Middle-class flight to the suburbs and subsequent inner-city decay have not yet reached the proportions in Manhattan that they have in Detroit or Philadelphia (or in Brooklyn or the Bronx, for that matter), but even so these are basic demographic facts of life. Some of the émigrés to the suburbs still work in the city and constitute, probably, a moiety of the vanishing breed of “regular” theatergoers. But a glance around the lobby at any Broadway show reveals who isn’t there: any of the city’s readily identifiable minorities—blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and the young.

It isn’t just the expense; it’s the fact that New Yorkers no longer have a common culture. The melting pot has been replaced by a mosaic, the separate components of which regard one another with apathy or contempt. Allegories of neighborliness like Abie’s Irish Rose and West Side Story are passe. When blacks appear on Broadway, as they have recently in August Wilson’s dramas or musicals like Black and Blue and Once on This Islandr, it is usually in an all-black production performed for predominantly white audiences (though Black and Blue is the particular favorite of Japanese tourists). Only one play now on Broadway proper. Prelude to a Kiss, and another at Lincoln (’enter. Six Degrees of Separation, can be said to mirror contemporary urban reality—or fantasy, for that matter.

In his recent comedy, The Cocktail Hour, A. R. Gurnev drew a vivid portrait of a middle-class couple from the older generation, who loved to go to the kind of Broadway plays that Lunt and Fontanne starred in—plays about smart, sophisticated tipplers having romantic adventures amid nice furniture. No American playwright in our time has a better handle on the WASP milieu; few are as funny, none more skilled in basic carpentry. Yet The Cocktail Hour, like most of Gurney’s plays, had an OffBroadway run. A significant exception was Love Letters, a play requiring only two actors and no set. An additional selling point was that since the actors read their lines, anyone could perform the play with a week’s rehearsal or less, and so it was a play that any currently unemployed pair of actors could perform in any currently darkened theater.

A Break in the Supply

MORE AND MORE, BROADWAY THEATERS HAVE tried to keep their marquees lit by offering evening-long monologues (Tru) and solo recitals, as well as two-handers like Love Letters. T his trend has not been limited to Broadway. Twoand three-character plays have abounded at resident theater companies across the country in the past season. Regional theaters have also become uncommonly attentive to that part of theatrical heritage that is in the public domain. In Minneapolis the Guthrie Theater offered a season of five plays by Shakespeare, one by Euripides, The Front Page (1928), The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), and, inevitably, A Christmas Carol. At the Actors Theatre of Louisville, long noted for its premieres of new plays, five of seven forthcoming productions are of works more than twenty-five years old. Since Broadway has become accustomed to having regional theaters do much of the work of development, this trend will represent a significant rupture in the pipeline in the years ahead.

Supply and demand does not operate in the theater as it does in classical economic theory. Writers, perceiving an abundance of dark theaters, will not consider this an opportunity to write new plays to augment a dwindling supply. Universities—and the world at large—are filled with people aspiring to be writers, and for almost all of them that means writing novels, since the likelihood of publishing one’s first novel is many times greater than that of having a first play produced. The likelihood of earning a living as a novelist, slim as it is, is also much greater than that of doing so as a playwright. Accordingly, apprentice writers with a shred of sense try to develop their novel-writing muscles first. Some writers, of course, lack that much sense, or have a natural flair for the theater, and a few are able to buck the odds and get produced.

But even for those few there is Hollywood and the vast talent-gobbling maw of television. In the TV era it has come to be understood that the stage is only a stepping-stone to Hollywood. Playwriting has become the larval stage of a screenwriter’s career, the mere grubby precondition of butterfly success. And rarely do those who have gone west continue to write for the Broadway stage, Neil Simon and David Mamet being notable exceptions.

Who, then, does write plays nowadays? A canny few playwrights like Israel Horovitz and the late Charles Ludlam have managed to create their own little Bayreuths, where they have been able to produce and direct their work without constantly seeking new or renewed funding. The luckiest have a comfortable relationship with one of the established regional or Off-Broadway venues that can serve (when fueled by a rave from Frank Rich) as a launching pad to Broadway: Lanford Wilson at Circle Rep, August Wilson at Yale, David Rabe at the Public Theater. More commonly, however, playwrights of a literary bent produce work with no expectation of a Broadway production. Often they represent a minority sensibility—gay, feminist, black—in a combative mood: Christopher Durang, Megan Terry, and Charles Fuller are examples.

Indeed, what most non-Broadway playwrights have in common is contentiousness. They remain children of the counterculture, with the bad manners and chip-bearing shoulders common to that breed. They don’t attend the Broadway theater, they don’t write for it, and they are almost unanimous in seeing Broadway as facing extinction—even those who, by a fluke, have been produced there. Marsha Norman, who wrote ’night, Mother, declares Broadway to be “virtually closed for serious drama.”Stephen Sondheim observes that “a whole generation and a half has grown up without the theatregoing habit,” and that “much of the middle class that used to support the theater can’t afford it anymore.” Lanford Wilson grouses, ”1 don’t think there have been more than two good plays on Broadway since ‘62.”

Equally dire pronouncements about Broadway and the future of theater in general have been made by Christopher Durang, John Guare, Michael Weller, and, indeed, virtually all the other seventeen contributors to In Their Own Words, the anthology of interviews with American playwrights from which the quotations above were extracted. The only cheery view of the situation comes from David Mamet, who declares,

I think it’s a great time to be a young person in the theatre. All bets are off, as in such times of social upheaval as the twenties in Germany, the sixties in Chicago, the period from 1898 to 1920 in Russia. ... I think we’re going to start putting people in jail again for what they write. People have been subconsciously afraid of expressing themselves because the times are so tenuous. And the reality will follow that feeling. So that will be exciting.

Maybe, but one thing is sure—the excitement won’t be on Broadway.

Everybody’s a Playwright

IT ISN’T ONLY CAUTIOUS, PANDERING PRODUCERS who are the enemies of playwrights, however. In their own way, directors and actors have an ageless and unassuageable grudge against the tyranny of the text. In the film industry the director has long been considered the No. 1 Artist, the auteur, while the star has the most box-office clout. In Hollywood, notoriously, the script has always been a mutable thing. But in the theater authors once had more authority. Even dead authors’ printed texts were too famous to be seriously tampered with. Directors were in charge of the actors’ performances and coordinated the decorative aspects of a production—sets, costumes, music. But they were bound to follow the story line as a train must follow its tracks.

Gradually that changed. The examples both of Hollywood and of musical comedy (where the book has usually been a negligible part of the production) emboldened directors to assert their own artistic claims. Elia Kazan forced rewrites from Tennessee Williams that turned his plots around 180 degrees. Bob Fosse managed to turn Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin from the sentimental celebration of innocence and idealism that the author thought he had written into a glitzkrieg that reflected his own obsessed hedonism—and audiences loved it. The show ran four and a half years. Finally, Fosse’s auteur instincts produced the film All Thut Jazz, the story of his life coauthored by an obscure writer willing to stroke Fosse’s ego.

Actors resent the authority of writers no less than directors do. They have special cause, having to mouth the same words night after night until they must feel like puppets. They know that a scene’s success, even a play’s, often depends on their delivery rather than on what is being delivered. In retrospect it seems almost inevitable that actors and directors would band together to subvert the tyranny of the text. Plays under the baton of Judith Malina, of the Living Theater, or Jean-Claude van Itallie, of the Open Theater, or Richard Schechner, of the Performance Group, became communal creations in which each actor did his own thing. At first, during the sixties and early seventies, the results were often exciting. But as the novelty wore off, the excitement diminished and jelled into a new avant-garde orthodoxy that dispenses not only with authorship but also with narrative, coherence, linearity, and anything like human interest. Richard Foreman and the Wooster Group have been the chief exponents of this style, but it recently reached its apotheosis in Martha Clarke’s million-dollar fiasco, Endangered Species, a spectacle that sought to make a large statement about animal oppression, racial domination, the Holocaust, the Civil War, and the tyranny of love, using no text but lines cobbled together from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. This state of affairs was dictated not by Clarke’s artistic vision but by a dispute over whether the intended author, Charles Mee, would receive equal billing with her. Clarke refused, Mee stood his ground, and the result was a mishmash of grandiose good intentions that starred a circus elephant. Elephants are impressive animals, but in the theater writers may still be more essential.

Martha Clarke is not a Broadway impresario, though her budgets tend to make her look like one. Nor is there any threat that Off Broadway’s war against the written word will establish a beachhead on Times Square anytime soon. But if the largest budgets are reserved for the inchoate visions of the most ambitious directors, that is one more reason for playwrights to write plays on a small scale or not at all.

Not Much to Sing About

LET US SUPPOSE THAT LEGITIMATE THEATER IS A lost cause on Broadway, except for a few evermore-retro revivals each season. Doesn’t that still leave the musical as a living art form? I think not, and for parallel reasons—the dw indling supply of talent and the disparity between what producers can offer and what consumers want.

To begin with the supply side of the equation, a paucity of opportunities dictates fewer apprenticeship positions. The entertainment industry has, however, been aware of the need to provide some seed money for research and development, and so there are a few institutions that encourage fledgling composers and lyricists to learn their craft. In the course of three years of reviewing I have seen a fair number of the resulting musical comedies, both in New York and out of town, one of w hich, Once on Phis Island, recently graduated to Broadway (thanks to a rave from Frank Rich). I thought that this “calypso” musical was bologna on white bread, an innocuous minstrel show put on by an all-black cast and an allwhite creative team. It was subsidized by AT&T and showcased at Playwrights Horizons. At about the same time, A Change in the Heir, by another team of hopefuls, opened on Broadway, having been developed at the New Tuners Theatre, in Chicago. It fell just short of legendary awfulness. And those two were probably the best of the neophyte musicals I’ve seen.

The talent isn’t there anymore, or isn’t visible, and the only musicals that have lately made any sort of mark on Broadway bear this out. Last season’s musical successes were a revival of Gypsy; City of Angels, with a score by Cy Coleman, who has been writing hit musicals for thirty years; Grand Hotel, with a resuscitated score from Robert Wright and George Forrest, who did Song of Norway and Kismet (the score was fortified by a few solid songs by Maury Yeston); and Aspects of Love, by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the English composer, who has two other musicals currently running. This season brought revivals of Oh, Kay! (1926), Fiddler on the Roof {1964), and Peter Pan (1954); a revue of Yiddish musical-theater favorites; and an homage to Buddy Holly.

tf Broadway’s musical menu is beginning to be almost as antiquarian as the Metropolitan Opera’s, the reasons are no further away than your radio and your cable-TV screen. Broadway style, however broadly defined, no longer represents the consensus preference in matters of song and dance. While a few efforts have been made to come to terms with rock-and-roll (the best, Grease and Little Shop of Horrors, were Off-Broadway shows), by and large Broadway composers go for wit, romance, schmaltz, and the tempos of ballroom dancing. The current Pommy Tune hit Grand Hotel is a state-of-the-art example of what can still be done, but surely it is significant that the show is set in 1928, and that its two best dance numbers are a Charleston and a bolero, which are, respectively, show-stopping and heart-stopping.

Or so they seemed to this fifty-vear-old, who started seeing musicals at movie theaters in the early 1950s, when the movies regularly reproduced Broadway hits. However, when I talked recently to a class of college freshmen at the School of Visual Arts, twelve of whom had just seen Grand Hotel, I was pained to discover that only one student would admit to having liked it. The others thought the songs “dull” or “phony,” and found the alternation between speech and song off-putting. In short, they disliked the idea of musical comedy, and indeed, when I asked them to name a musical that they had liked, I got mostly blank looks. I might as well have asked them who was their favorite Puritan divine.

The one transformation that musicals have made to adapt to these changing tastes is represented by the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber and of the French team of Boubli! and Schonberg, the creators of Les Miserables and the forthcoming Miss Saigon, Their recipe is to move musical comedy in the direction of opera by reducing the comedy component to near zero, replacing ordinary speech with recitative, so as to promote a continuous musical flow, and providing large dollops of spectacle. It also helps to have elements of religious {Jesus Christ Superstar) or political (Evita, Les Miserables) uplift, in order to reassure audiences that they’re not frittering away their money on mere entertainment.

So far, no Americans have managed to produce musicals in this new vein. The one edge that Broadway still has on the English and French invaders is dancing, and the best indigenous hits of the past ten years have been revues and revivals that showcase great dancing, such as Black and Blue, 42 nd Street, and Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. But the days of great dancing are also numbered, because choreographers are, literally, a dying breed. Gower Champion died the day his 42nd Street opened; Bob Fosse died in 1987, having already choreographed the occasion in All That Jazz; Michael Bennett, of A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls, died the same year. Jerome Robbins has semi-retired. Of all the choreographer-directors of the first rank, only Tommy Tune is still active.

Bennett died of AIDS. No single group in the New York art world has been harder hit by the AIDS epidemic than dancers and choreographers, and this cannot help having an effect on what producers are able to produce. There are not so very many first-class talents in the field that we can expect the gaps in the ranks to continue to be filled by new recruits year after year, as in a Civil War army. There is no way to measure what will never happen, or what might have been had so many not died or become too ill or despairing to work. Lesley Farlow, a dance specialist in New York City, has initiated an oralhistory project for the dance collection of the New York Public Library, taping the testimony of dancers and choreographers stricken with AIDS. Probably no one has a better grasp of the overall situation than Farlow, and she says that hundreds and hundreds of prominent danceworld figures have died AIDS-related deaths.

AVery Few Remedies

FEW OF THE PROBLEMS FACING BROADWAY ARE within the scope of the entertainment industry to remedy. Ticket prices might be scaled back, and in fact there is a new scheme afoot to supplement the existing last-minute-discount TKTS office in l imes Square with a more extensive operation, called STAR*TIX, in Grand Central Terminal. Another scheme is the Broadway Alliance, an agreement among producers, unions, and theater owners to make three Broadway theaters available for plays with budgets of less than $400,000 (that is, not musicals), for which ticket prices can be reduced to $24, $19. and $10, thanks to financial concessions by all parties. If the scheme succeeds, perhaps it could be extended to more than three theaters; at least a dozen are dark most of the time.

The problem of Times Square’s squalor is of another magnitude, one that requires solutions on the scale on which Robert Moses worked. Indeed, bulldozers are poised to begin a Moses-stvle effort that will entail leveling Forty-second Street and several blocks around, and replacing all the local low-life with high-rise office towers and a convention center. Already, new hotels have gone up in the area, their acres of lobbies and restaurants serving as a kind of middle-class bastion from which touristhunting muggers can legally be excluded, as they cannot be from the streets. The imminent battle between developers who would like to create protected environments and civil libertarians who fear the creation of a two-tiered city with high-safetv precincts accessed by credit cards will probably eventually be fought in court—assuming that the urban engineers have the funding to begin building such a safe new world.

l he city’s latest budget crunch makes this seem a less likely assumption than that the slide into old-fashioned urban decay will continue. Perhaps the middle class will abandon Manhattan altogether, and the Great White Way can repeat the history of Forty-second Street on a larger scale, converting to the MTV generation’s equivalent of burlesque and vaudeville—raunchy popular entertainment at low prices for mass audiences. Out-of-towners could come in busloads and see it on chaperoned tours, the way the French and the Japanese now tour Harlem. But probably the future holds a combination of the two— a state-financed last bastion in a sea of picturesque, lifethreatening sleaze. Which is to say, just what we’ve got now, only more so.