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Previewing a strong new season -- on Broadway and off

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Things look bullish for biography on New York stages this season -- particularly for biographical musicals. Coming attractions list more than a dozen real-life characters, from Jackie Robinson to Christopher Marlowe and from Charlie Chaplin to Napoleon.

If present plans hold, there will be two musicals each for Chaplin and Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong. Anthony Newley is coauthor of "Charlie Chaplin," and will play the Little Tramp in it, while Ben Vereen will portray Armstrong in "Satchmo ," the production being stages by Gene Kelly.

Among the notable names past and present scheduled for theatrical portraiture are Cole Porter and friends ("Red Hot and Cole"), Edward Sheldon and John Barrymore ("Ned and Jack"), Al Jolson ("Jolson Tonight"), Napoleon and Pope Pius VII ("Kingdoms"), and Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan ("Monday After the Miracle").

The unique dramatic event of 1981-82 will be the Royal Shakespeare Company's two-part, 8 1/2-hour adaption of Dickens's "Nicholas Nickleby," requiring two evenings. A cast of 42, directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, plays 150 roles. At a time of steadily increasing ticket prices, "The Life and Adventures on Nicholas Nickleby" will set a new record for dramas, with a top of $100 for orchestra ($50 for each of the two installments).

Three other London hits are listed so far for this season. "The Dresser" stars Tom Courtenay and Paul Rogers in Ronald Harwood's play about an old-school Shakespearean actor and his gossipy dresser. (Mr. Harwood was once the dresser for Donald Wolfit.) The British are also sending us Dave Allen, a top stand-up comedian, in "An Evening With Dave Allen." Will Russell's "Educating Rita" will be seen in New York with an American cast: Luci Arnaz and Laurence Luckinbill. Anne Bancroft as a violin virtuoso and Max Von Sydow will star in Tom Kempinski's "Duet for one."

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