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Broadway's 'boom' lacks creativity

Broadway is booming. Or is it? Statistically Broadway's box offices are ringing up the biggest season ever. But some critics claim the theaters are cashing in on an entertainment-minded public to the detriment of serious art.

The League of New York Theaters and Producers reports a record-breaking year for Broadway -- $195 million for total gross receipts. While many attribute such increases to rapidly escalating ticket prices -- an average $17.82 this year -- attendence, too, has broken all records and gone past the 10 million mark.

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Theater observers see the recent Broadway boom resulting from: improved marketing techniques including television advertising, credit card purchases, and half- price ticket booths; wider audience appeal; and, according to the league's president, Richard Barr, the fact that "people are simply getting tired of TV."

But not all theater observers are impressed with recent Broadway fare, despite the surge at the box office.

"What boom?" asks Joseph Papp, producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival and such Broadway hits as "A Chorus Line." "The increased box office take is the only good thing I see. Otherwise, it's been a dull season of rehash productions marked by the absence of anything truly provocative."

Other old favorites currently luring the American public away from television and movie screens include "Oklahoma," "Camelot," and "My Fair Lady."

The current penchant for reviving "oldies" has prompted some critics to ask: Whatever happened to serious theater? Some critics says that by pitching productions to a public seeking entertainment more than art, Broadway is sidestepping more innovative thespian fare.

One reason for Broadway's hesitancy: production costs have more than doubled over the past few years, making the cost of failure too great. This is why popular musicals with their broad appeal are recycled.

Another factor is that long-running shows boost financial stability -- for the Broadway houses, as well as their commercial counterparts across the country.

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But if Broadway is treading ever more cautiously the fine line between "hit and flop," what of Off-Broadway and the regional theaters -- the smaller, nonprofit houses from which new plays most often spring?

Broadway's boom doesn't directly affect nonprofit regional theaters, since they are relatively autonomous and survive through grants and community subscribers. But many observers see commercial producers as turning an ever-hungrier eye upon the regional theaters in search of sure hits for their own houses. The competition for quality plays grows increasingly stiff.

Boston has long been considered a prime location for Broadway tryouts. But veteran Boston theater watcher Kevin Kelly sees this role declining. Boston's four big commercial houses now support largely Broadway road shows. The new Metropolitan Center is particularly interested in grabbing big-name hits to fill its cavernous 4,200 seat ampitheater. As President Harry S. Lodge says, "We must have something that has succeeded."

And if Boston's larger houses have largely gone the way of Broadway roadshows , the city's little theaters are also showing a lot of reruns -- hosting largely classical plays and other tried-and-true fare. Donald Tirabassi, manager of the Colonial Theatre, states that the chances for any great amount of experimental theater being done in Boston is "getting to be fairly remote."

Chicago's theater scene has remained more separate from New York than Boston. And, according to the League of Chicago Theaters, the city's theaters have not felt the box office boom that Broadway has.The traditional home of the "dinner-theater," Chicago experienced a theater renaissance during the 1970s and saw the number of its off-Loop theaters (comparable to New York's off- Broadway) burgeon to approximately 40. These mid-sized houses are supported largely by seasonal subscribers. That core of regional theater now faces a period of retrenchment in the face of federal cutbacks and an increasingly competitive market. As Stuart Okin of the Apollo Theater says, "It's a time of living by your wits -- a time when everybody is looking for property."

Theater of all types -- nonprofit as well as commercial -- appears to be doing well in the celluloid land of Los Angeles. New arts centers, such as the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion, have sprung up. In addition, several older theaters and movies houses have been restored. Los Angeles now boasts seven large theaters and up to 200 smaller houses. The city often serves as jumping-off point for Broadway touring companies.

San Francisco's regional theater, according to observers, is thriving creatively. But the city currently supports only two resident "equity," or union, theaters, plus some other smaller houses.

What many observers claim is inhibiting the number of new productions in San Francisco and other regional theaters around the country is the controversial "subsidiary rights clause." This requires the producer of a play that moves from a small, nonprofit theater to a commercial house to offer the actors their original roles or buy them out. The result, critics contend, is that the price of success can sting almost as much as the cost of failure.

So significant a problem is this that the Dramatists Guild has filed suit with Actors Equity, the actors' representative in New York, to renegotiate the provision. Many see the resurgence of new plays at the grass-roots lev el as dependent upon the outcome of that suit.

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