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It's the Biggest Broadway Season Ever--Again

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They are paying more, but more people are attending and more shows are available from which to choose.

What accounts for this new surge in Broadway audiences? "We've put ourselves back on the general public's entertainment menu," stated a spokesperson for the League. "They realize that Broadway is a unique experience. And through advanced marketing techniques--raising our profile through television--we're bringing that message to them. There's also a lot of shows to go to. There are musicals, straight plays, revivals. It's a real department-store effect--there's something for everyone."

The renovation/building of new theatres by Disney (The New Amsterdam) and Livent (The Ford Center for the Performing Arts), as well a general revitalization of the Times Square area, promise to bring in more audiences in future seasons. For a summation of the 1996-97 season on and Off-Broadway, look below.

NEW MUSICALS

This appears to have been a Broadway season chock-full of new musicals; but it only looks that way, because all of these tuners opened in the crowded two-week period just before the cutoff date for the Tonys. (A number of shows, including Whistle Down the Wind and Time and Again, and revivals of Applause and Funny Girl, closed out of town.)

None of the new musicals that made it to Broadway captured unqualified raves from the critics or an overwhelmingly strong response from the public in the form of ticket sales. Of the pack, the strongest candidate for surviving the summer is The Life, a top contender for the Best Musical Tony and the winner of the Outer Critics and Drama Desk Awards. Play On! has already played out, closing after a month's run. Dream is barely holding on. The incredibly expensive Titanic was taking on water, but a recent cast appearance on Rosie O'Donnell's TV show increased sales, and a good impression on the Tony telecast might send more lifeboats. Steel Pier received kudos for Susan Stroman's choreography and the ensemble; attendance has been good, but not spectacular. Jekyll & Hyde's fanatic cult following and a probable Tony for leading man Robert Cuccioli will most likely prolong the life of this pop-oriented thriller.

Technically, you could count the week-long run of the concert version of Alan Menken and Tim Rice's King David as the last Broadway production of the 1996-97 season, since it did open before the end of May.

Off-Broadway, Violet drew a lot of attention as well as the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical. Word is going around that a commercial transfer is in the works, but it's strictly in the talking stage. Manhattan Theatre Club's production of The Green Heart did not draw enough water and sunshine from the critics to merit an extension beyond its limited run.

The revue genre has made a comeback, with five entries--I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change; A Brief History of White Music; Howard Crabtree's When Pigs Fly; Capitol Steps; and Forbidden Broadway Strikes Back!--enjoying healthy runs. Tap Dogs, with its hunky Australian cast and pyrotechnical choreography, appears to be settled in for a long run at the Union Square.

MUSICAL REVIVALS

The hit of this season is not a new show, but a revival of Chicago. The 1975 Fred Ebb-John Kander-Bob Fosse criminal-as-celebrity musical was an immediate smash in the Encores! series last season, and made the transfer to Broadway in the fall. So far, it has dwarfed all the new shows, won the majority of available awards, and will probably sweep the Tonys.

Candide was accused by certain members of the press of overproduction, but its producer (Livent) only plans to run it for a limited time on Broadway before taking it on tour. Annie and Once Upon a Mattress were slammed in the press; the former is attempting to make a go of it, while the latter will pack up its 20 mattresses this weekend. Juan Dariƒn: A Carnival Mass is considered a new musical by the Tony Committee, but was produced previously Off-Broadway. This life-size puppet play enjoyed a successful limited run at Lincoln Center.

Away from the Main Stem, The Cocoanuts (a stage version of the Marx brothers film comedy-musical) transferred from a stand at the American Jewish Theatre to an open run of several months at the American Place Theatre. The Ridiculous Theatrical Company revived Charles Ludlum's Corn, while York Theatre Company presented No Way to Treat a Lady and The Last Sweet Days, new versions of older shows.

NEW PLAYS

As usual, new plays on Broadway--both foreign and domestic--were in short supply. American premieres totaled only five, while the British supplied us with three. There was one foreign-language production: Moscow Theatre Sovremennik's Into the Whirlwind, which played in repertory with the company's Three Sisters for a one-week engagement.

The Last Night of Ballyhoo is the favorite to take the Best Play Tony, and will probably gain some mileage out of the award and the prizes already won by cast members Dana Ivey (Drama Desk), Celia Weston, and Terry Beaver (Outer Critics for both). Barrymore is still struggling at the box office despite laudatory reviews for star Christopher Plummer, who is certain to take the Best Actor Tony.

The Young Man From Atlanta rode into town on the strength of a Pulitzer Prize for an earlier Off-Off-Broadway production. With no new awards likely for Horton Foote's intimate drama and a soft box office, its future at the Longacre Theatre is in doubt. Christopher Durang's Sex and Longing and Wendy Wasserstein's An American Daughter, Lincoln Center Theater's two Main Stem offerings at the Cort Theatre, met with mixed reaction. Durang's dark comedy played out to LCT's subscription audience, while Wasserstein's political play will continue through the end of June.

Our British cousins offered Skylight, Stanley, and Taking Sides. Skylight and Stanley had successful limited runs, while Taking Sides ended its commercial engagement when a bankable star could not be found to replace the departing Ed Harris.

Off-Broadway, with its lower expenses and greater number of resident theatre companies, has produced many more original works this year than has Broadway. The greatest success of this crop is Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive, first presented at the Vineyard Theatre and now in an open-ended commercial run at the Century Theatre. The drama-comedy about the unlikely subject of pedophilia has won the Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel, Outer Critics, Obie, and New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, as well as citations for its stars, David Morse and Mary-Louise Parker. Prospects are favorable for a healthy run.

Other productions which transferred from limited engagements to commercial runs include Old Wicked Songs and Minor Demons (both closed earlier this year), and Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. Stonewall Jackson's House, Jonathan Reynolds' satire on racial attitudes in the theatre, continues an open run at the American Place Theatre.

Alan Zweibel's Bunny Bunny--a loving tribute to his late friend, comedian Gilda Radner--drew plaudits for David Gallo's cartoon-like sets, but mixed notices for the play itself. It closed last week before going on tour. Cakewalk, another memory play about a departed celebrity (this time it was irascible playwright-legend Lillian Hellman) by a surviving male companion, also had a relatively short run. Grace and Glorie had a summer's stint at the Laura Pels theatre, but folded to make way for the Roundabout Theatre Company's Scapin.

The only purely commercial Off-Broadway production this season which appears to be an unqualified hit is Making Porn, a salacious comedy about the gay adult film industry featuring some lowbrow laughs and plenty of naked flesh. A continuing roster of guest appearances by actual sex stars has made this show at the Actors Playhouse the porno version of Grease.

The Bermuda Avenue Triangle, written by and starring Renƒe Taylor and Joseph Bologna, opened at the tail end of this season. Negative reviews compared it to a TV sitcom; but there is always an audience for TV, and Taylor has a following for her recurring role on the sitcom "The Nanny," so this comedy of romantic retirees might find an audience.

Noteworthy productions from theatre companies included Nine Armenians, Psychopathia Sexualis, and Dealer's Choice (Manhattan Theatre Club); Good as New (Manhattan Class Company); Minutes From the Blue Route and The Joy of Going Somewhere Definite (Atlantic Theater Company); This Is Our Youth (The New Group); View of the Dome and A Question of Mercy (New York Theatre Workshop); and A Message to Michael (Rattlestick Productions). After 28 years, the now-defunct Circle Repertory Company went out with a whimper rather than a bang with the poorly received 900 Oneonta, its last production.

Lanford Wilson, one of Circle Rep's founders, met a hotly divided press when his Sympathetic Magic opened at Second Stage. Craig Lucas, another established author, received even more scathing reviews for his God's Heart, at Lincoln Center.

PLAY REVIVALS

Revivals outnumbered new plays on Broadway, 11 to five. The biggest hit of the reproductions was the British import A Doll's House, featuring a controversial performance by Janet McTeer as Nora. Two troubled theatre companies received much-needed shots in the arm. Al Pacino's sell-out production of Hughie helped redress some of the financial woes of Circle In The Square, while the Julie Harris-Charles Durning edition of The Gin Game provided Tony Randall's National Actors Theatre with its second unqualified hit (the first being last year's (Inherit the Wind).

Lincoln Center's The Little Foxes got mixed notices. Roundabout's productions also drew varying responses: The Rehearsal and London Assurance (still playing) were well received, while A Thousand Clowns, Summer and Smoke, and an all-star Three Sisters caused mixed reactions. Bill Irwin's adaptation of Scapin was a big hit in the Roundabout's Off-Broadway space, the Laura Pels. All My Sons--the newest Pels occupant, and a tail-end entry in the season--scored mostly positive reviews.

The visiting Moscow Theatre Sovremennik's Three Sisters completes the Broadway revival roster.

Off-Broadway, the Drama Dept. burst onto the scene with praised productions of the rarely seen June Moon (winner of the Taking Off and Lucille Lortel awards) and Tennessee Williams' Kingdom of Earth. The WPA reworked another lesser Williams play, The Red Devil Battery Sign. WPA's other significant production was a new staging of The Boys in the Band, which transferred to the Lucille Lortel. Eugene O'Neill was also the target of reinvention, with an avant-garde The Hairy Ape from The Wooster Group.

The New York Shakespeare Festival headed toward completion of its 10-year marathon presentation of the Bard's works, with all three parts of Henry VI condensed into two evenings, Antony and Cleopatra (starring and directed by Vanessa Redgrave), Henry V, and Timon of Athens. The Signature Theatre Company provided a slate of old and new Sam Shepard works.

The Valiant Theatre Company's first season consisted of revivals of Rhinoceros and A Soldier's Play, while the Blue Light entered its sophomore year with Two Gentlemen of Verona and Waiting for Lefty.

SOLOS & SPECIALTIES

One-person productions came in all varieties this season. Charlayne Woodard (Neat), Julia Sweeney (God Said "Ha!"), Spalding Gray (It's a Slippery Slope), and John DiResta (Beat: A Subway Cop's Story) told personal stories, while Felix A. Pire (Men on the Verge of a His-panic Breakdown) and Timothy Olyphant (The Santaland Diaries) played the scripts of others.

Maripat Donovan appears to be settled in for a long run, comically tormenting audiences as a lovable but tough nun in Late Nite Catechism. Douglas McGrath satirized the current Capitol Hill scene in Political Animal. Karen Trott's Springhill Singing Disaster and Mary Louise Wilson's Full Gallop made commercial transfers this season from smaller stages last season. The former closed, while the latter is still galloping.

Eve Ensler shared her research on women's sexual attitudes in The Vagina Monologues, Fiona Shaw gave life to T.S. Eliot's epic poem The Waste Land, and Everett Quinton played all the characters in Racine's Phaedra.

Historical figures portrayed during '96-'97 included Einstein, Nijinsky, Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton, George Bernard Shaw, and baseball great Christy Mathewson. Charles Busch (Flipping My Wig), Lilliane Montevecchi (On the Boulevard), and Fyvush Finkel (From Second Avenue to Broadway) brought cabaret-style entertainment to Off-Broadway stages.

Specialties were a mixed bag as well. We had magic from David Copperfield (the limited-engagement Dreams and Nightmares) and Joseph Gabriel (the still-playing Magic on Broadway), New Vaudeville antics from The Tokyo Shock Boys and The New Bozena, and a relationship seminar from best-selling author John Gray (Women Are From Venus, Men Are From Mars).

PLANS FOR '97-'98

New theatres will further light up the revitalized 42nd Street next season. As noted previously, The New Amsterdam has already opened with the concert edition of King David. This summer it will briefly host Disney's new animated feature Hercules, to be screened along with a live stage show. Then on Nov. 13, Julie Taymor's adaptation of another Disney cartoon feature, The Lion King, will open after a tryout in Minneapolis.

Livent's new Ford Center for the Performing Arts will open on Jan. 18 with Ragtime, based on E.L. Doctorow's novel.

Appropriately, the Roundabout will open a revival of 1776 in July. The eclectic cast includes Brent Spiner (Data from "Star Trek: The Next Generation"), Pat Hingle, Robert Westenberg, Tom Aldredge, Jerry Lanning, Lauren Ward, and Cass Morgan (the last two from Violet). In the Laura Pels space, Shaw's Misalliance opens Aug. 7. Frank Langella, rather than the previously supposed Liam Neeson, is skedded to play Cyrano de Bergerac later in the season at the Roundabout.

Once the Broadway fall season starts, we've got The Triumph of Love (opens Sept. 25); Sideshow (opens Oct. 16); Jane Eyre (Oct. 26, postponed from this season); Neil Simon's Proposals (Nov. 6); The Scarlet Pimpernel (Nov. 9); The Diary of Anne Frank (opening date TBA); and The Capeman (opening TBA). The Drama Desk Award-winning Moscow Sovremennik Theatre will return with a production of The Cherry Orchard. Speaking of Chekhov, Lincoln Center Theater has a production of Ivanov, starring Kevin Kline, on its agenda.

Tommy Tune is planning a stage version of the M-G-M movie musical Easter Parade for himself and Sandy Duncan, in the Fred Astaire and Judy Garland roles. Silk Stockings, the 1955 tuner based on the Greta Garbo film Ninotchka, is also set for workshopping. Word is that Kander and Ebb are still working on their musicalization of The Skin of Our Teeth for Bernadette Peters, and a giant sign in Times Square proclaims a Broadway production of a play about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Alexander Cohen might bring over the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Peter Whelan's The Herbal Bed, a new drama based on the real story of a court case involving Shakespeare's daughter. Elizabeth Williams still has a musical version of Tom Sawyer in the works.

Off-Broadway producers and companies seem not to have heard of the phrase "summer slump"; smaller stages will be extremely active in the coming months. Just around the corner are As Bees in Honey Drown (The Drama Dept.); Baby Anger (Playwrights Horizons); My Night With Reg (The New Group); Henry VIII and On the Town (the New York Shakespeare Festival's season at the Delacorte in Central Park); and commercial productions of Jest a Second!, Queens Boulevard, and Always Patsy C

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