Special Assignment New York: Broadway

By CLAUDE SALHANI, JOHN BLOOM  |  Oct. 5, 2001 at 5:52 PM
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NEW YORK, Oct. 5 (UPI) -- Anybody in the mood for a play?

On one end of Times Square stands the half-price ticket booth -- for people looking for a quick escape -- and on the other end stands the Armed Forces Recruiting Center -- for people looking for a quick involvement. On this particular day the military is winning.

It's an hour before they throw open the shutters and offer unsold tickets for tonight's shows, and so far there are only about 30 people lined up near the statue of George M. Cohan, the Yankee Doodle Dandy himself.

"We thought it might be our only chance to see a show like 'Phantom,'" says Bill Sardanis, who lives in the Albany area but brought his wife and young son down for the day. "We were hoping for 'The Producers,' but apparently you still can't get those."

Usually at this time of day you would see hundreds of people waiting in a line that snakes back and forth in the shadow of the Palace Theater marquee. But these are not normal times for Broadway, which was hit first by the devastation of the attack itself (theaters were dark for two days, something that almost never happens), then by the shutdown of the airlines (the vast majority of Broadway theatergoers come from out of town), then by the jolt to tourism in general and New York tourism in particular.

The theaters made a slight comeback last week, with "The Producers" once again playing to standing room only and some of the popular shows back to 70 percent or 80 percent capacity, partly because of Broadway-lover Rudy Giuliani's stirring call for New Yorkers to take in a show as a patriotic statement.

Less uplifting was Liza Minnelli's angry interview on "Entertainment Tonight," in which the diva said, "I don't want terrorists thinking they can come here and shut down six Broadway shows!"

Actually the terrorists bungled the job and only shut down five Broadway shows. "Kiss Me Kate" was down for a week but came back when the performers and stagehands agreed to a substantial salary cut. Broadway is fighting a national illusion, among other things. People glued to the 24-hour news coverage see images of the Ground Zero mess and long lines at the Lincoln Tunnel, where emergency car-pooling regulations have been put into effect, and they conclude that the city is barely functioning.

In fact there's only a small part of Lower Manhattan where barricades are up, and the only effect it would have on a tourist is that he might have a traffic delay getting to Wall Street or the Statue of Liberty ferry. Once you get north of Canal Street everything is not only functioning, but nightlife has come back with a vengeance. The bars are crowded and the taps are running free.

Still, the city was stunned when five Broadway shows closed in a single week, and I'm not sure why. It's not like it hasn't happened before -- usually in January, when frigid weather and post-holiday frugality always batter the box office -- and usually the response is a mere shrug. That's life. Shows close. Some close in a single night --"The Red Shoes" and "Carrie" come to mind -- and the tabloids usually have a field day with gleeful "Just HOW BAD Was It?" stories.

But there's a difference between bombing on Broadway and Broadway being bombed, and you can't entirely explain it away by saying tourists deserted the city. There are turning points in history at which people say, "I just can't watch that anymore."

Before World War II, for example, "Andy Hardy" was the most popular film series in history. In 1946 they tried to make another one -- and nobody wanted to see it. Perhaps there were other reasons that these five Broadway shows couldn't hold out against Osama bin Laden.

Take "Blast!," for example. If any show would seem perfect for these strange times, this would be it. It has a cast of 55 drum-and-bugle-corps performers who do complicated split-second drill movements while playing brass and percussion instruments, waving flags, twirling rifles, brandishing sabers, running up and down poles, ramps, industrial scaffolds, platforms, marching double-time backwards, and generally celebrating the regimented movements of the call to arms.

The talented athletic cast originated with the Star of Indiana Bugle Corps, but the show was refined for the stage by some of the top designers and orchestrators and pyrotechnicians in the world.

And perhaps that's the problem: it was "refined for the stage." There's no real plot line to "Blast!" Instead, it's organized by the color palette, starting with the cool colors (they open with blue, in a deliberately muted rendition of "Bolero") and ending with the hot ones (a stirring Spanish blaze of red flags).

It's not really about war, but about the accoutrements of war. It's about young men marching off to mythical battles, confident that they will always come back to do the next number. When it premiered in London, the Guardian critic said it was odd to watch a military show that included "the perpetually pasted-on smiles of the young cast . . . you feel like you're face to face with the Happy Cult." The Financial Times said it was exciting to watch and yet "strangely cold."

Soldiers don't smile. These were toy soldiers, and they were soldiers pasted onto a painter's canvas. "Up With People" with light-weight twirling rifles is not something you can watch when a foreign cabal just knocked down the biggest office building in the world.

Another show that instantly closed was "A Thousand Clowns," the revival of Herb Gardner's 1962 bittersweet comedy about Murray Burns, an emotionally repressed bachelor who gets fired from his television writing job and decides the only things he loves are his messy apartment, loose women, martinis, cigarettes, and his 12-year-old nephew. When social workers come to try to take the boy away, the audience roots for the charming oddball nonconformist and, after a series of plot twists (it's a true three-act play), they leave the theater with a warm teary resolution.

In the version that just closed, Tom Selleck made his Broadway debut in the role created by Jason Robards and later reprised by Judd Hirsch, and though he got nice notices, the play is obviously from a time when eccentric anti-social behavior could be truly shocking, when children were over-protected, and when New York was a place where the range of "acceptable behavior" was so narrow that the idea of violent crime, much less terrorism, would be beyond the pale of this world that it never even enters the character's minds.

It's a quaint New York where the most dangerous thing we can imagine is an overzealous social worker. We might trade our modern lives for that world, but we don't really believe it. We've seen too much.

"Stones in His Pockets" also closed. This play from Belfast, a hit last season in London, is a comedy about two Irish guys in County Kerry who get jobs as extras when a Hollywood production company comes to town. Conleth Hill and Sean Campion play all 15 roles in what is inevitably described as "a virtuoso display of acting skill," but the premise is precious and ephemeral. At times like this, people want meat, not dessert.

Finally, there's "If You Ever Leave Me . . . I'm Going With You," the more or less true story of the 35-year relationship (including five marriage ceremonies) of Broadway veterans Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna, who have always been comedy writers as well as performers.

They reminisce about their lives (their first wedding reception was on "The Merv Griffin Show"), do scenes from the plays they've shared, sing songs, argue, reconcile and chat amusingly in what is best described as a diverting cocktail party. It's a quintessentially New York show -- funny, edgy, a little dysfunctional, intellectually wise -- and yet, in the city it belongs in, it didn't survive. In many ways, this seems like the strangest closing of all, and it's unnerving in a way that the other ones aren't.

The cocktail party, which was invented in New York, may indeed be over.

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