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In theater, imports from London stole the spotlight

As the year winds down and the '87-'88 theatrical season reaches its midpoint, two trends become increasingly evident. One is Broadway's ongoing debt to British creativity in the matter of musicals. The other is Off Broadway's sustained appeal to a large constituency and its importance as a nurturer of original works with commerical prospects. Broadway is awaiting the latest of the British-originated spectaculars to which it has grown accustomed. Andrew Lloyd Webber's ``The Phantom of the Opera'' opens Jan. 26 (after previews), with a record advance sale already of more than $15 million. London casts members Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman star. Lloyd Webber's ``Cats'' and ``Starlight Express,'' plus ``Les Mis'erables'' and ``Me and My Girl'' complete the current roster of British originations.

It has been left for Stephen Sondheim (``Into the Woods''), John Philip Sousa (``Teddy and Alice''), and Marvin Winans (``Don't Get God Started'') to carry the flag for musical USA on Broadway. Which is not to overlook the revivals of ``Cabaret'' and ``Anything Goes.''

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Award-winning ``Fences'' proved a triumph for playwright August Wilson, director Lloyd Richards, and James Earl Jones and company. John Malkovich and Joan Allen bestowed acting credibility on Lanford Wilson's foul-mouthed ``Burn This.'' The British enriched the scene with the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Christopher Hampton's ``Les Liasons Danerouses'' (from the de Laclos novel), and Hugh Whitemore's ``Breaking the Code'' (from the Andrew Hodges biography), starring Derek Jacoby as a memorable Alan Turing.

Weekly Variety heralded Off Broadway's importance to the New York theater scene in a story headlined: ``Off-Broadway Showbiz Darling.'' Critic Richard Hummler noted ``an uncommon number of box-office hits ...,'' among them ``Driving Miss Daisy,'' ``Steel Magnolias,'' ``A Shayna Maidel,'' ``Tamara,'' ``Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,'' and ``The Boys Next Door.'' ``Miss Daisy,'' ``Magnolias,'' and ``The Boys Next Door'' have been acquired for movie production.

There is also Off Broadway's role as a supplier of Broadway entertainment. Moving shortly from Off Broadway to Broadway will be the black South African musical ``Sarafina!'' and ``Serious Money,'' a savage British satire which will reopen with an American cast.

Although funding problems have led to the cancellation of three contemporary productions, the New York Shakespeare Festival has embarked on its ambitious six-year plan to present all 36 of Shakespeare's plays. ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' opens official on Jan. 12 to lead off the marathon. Other Off Broadway revivals will include George Bernard Shaw's ``Man and Superman'' by the Roundabout Theatre Company and Peter Book's version of Chekhov's ``The Cherry Orchard,'' at the BAM Majestic in Brooklyn.

The upcoming Off Broadway agenda also includes A.R. Gurney Jr.'s ``Another Antigone,'' Beth Henley's ``The Debutante Ball,'' and a musical version of Chaim Potok's ``The Chosen,'' starring George Hearn.

Back to Broadway: With ``The Phantom of the Opera'' leading the way, the midtown commercial theater will begin to emerge from its current lull. Among the musicals anticipated in the coming months are the Anglo-American ``Carrie,'' ``Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,'' ``Mail,'' a revamping of London's ``Chess,'' Lee Bruer's ``Gospel at Colonus,'' and ``Bright Lights,'' a show-tune celebration that will be part of the First New York International Festival of the Arts. Dramatic fare will include Lee Blessing's ``A Walk in the Woods,'' inspired by US-Soviet Geneva arms talks; David Hwang's ``M. Butterfly,'' based on a real spy incident; and Shakespeare's ``Macbeth,'' starring Christopher Plummer and Glenda Jackson.

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