(Part of UPI's Special Report reviewing 2002 and previewing 2003)
NEW YORK (UPI) -- The American theater faces the New Year in flux as Broadway continues to surrender its leadership role to Off Broadway, and regional theater and the theater community strive to build a younger audience to keep the stage alive and lively.
Pundits have long predicted the demise of Broadway but it continues to thrive as a multi-billion dollar industry in New York City and on the road. The gross box office take on Broadway last season, with top tickets selling for $90, was $643.4 million, down only 3.4 percent from the previous year in spite of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
But shows that are dispatched by Broadway to theaters across the nation -- and often throughout the world -- rarely include straight drama and are limited mostly to musical comedies. Many of them are revivals ("Oklahoma," "Into the Woods") or shows produced by Disney ("Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King") or based on Hollywood films ("The Producers," "Thoroughly Modern Millie").
Hix in the stix (as the showbiz publication Variety used to call road audiences) are no longer treated to performances by great dramatic actors as they were in era of Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne, Walter Hampden, and Helen Hayes. Even Broadway audiences are getting used to seeing Hollywood actors -- considered good box office -- in leading dramatic roles rather than actual stars of the theater, a dying race.
This is to be expected in an industry where very few shows make enough profit to cover soaring production costs ($3-6 million for a play, $8-12 million for a musical) let alone pay their investors a profit. As long as 20 years ago Variety reported that only three of the 40-odd productions on Broadway were financially successful and that is very much the ratio today. Only one in four musicals even breaks even.
The slim chance of making money by producing shows has turned the big theater owners, like the Shubert Organization and the Nederlander family that used to be major producers of shows, into mere theater rental agents and frightened away scores of independent producers. Into the vacuum have stepped the Walt Disney Company and Clear Channel Entertainment, which owns 38 theaters stretching from Los Angeles to London.
Disney has the money and know-how to retread its popular cartoon films into shows that jam Broadway theaters with tourists for years on end. Clear Channel, through its SFX entertainment subsidiary, makes theater in vertical ways not available to the independent producer. It operates a Broadway show subscription series in 56 North American cities, all of which are bound to get "Hairspray," SFX's current Broadway hit.
This is a good for the American theater in that it keeps interest alive in stage shows across the nation, but it does little to encourage artistic partnerships that result in thrilling theater, once the role of independent producers who put together such creative teams as Robert Whitehead with Arthur Miller and Harold Prince with Stephen Sondheim.
Theater critics have had to look to Off Broadway and regional theater for a long time to map the progress of straight drama and even musical theater in the United States. Off Broadway, where the top ticket price is $65, continues to take on financially risky projects because its production costs are considerably lower than Broadway's and pours out hundreds of new shows each season along with Shakespeare, Restoration comedy, Chekhov, and Shaw.
Off Broadway is home to the non-profit production companies - The Public Theater, Roundabout, Playwrights Horizons, Lincoln Center Theater -- that have done so much to keep the American theater alive and ambitious for the past 25 years, encouraged by a booming economy and the generosity of the national Endowment for the Arts.
Now that the economy is soft and grants from the Endowment and foundations have been cut, even Off Broadway is looking for material with popular box office draw like the current movie-based naughty musical, "Debbie Does Dallas," and "Take Me Out," a play featuring unparalleled displays of male nudity that is aimed at the homosexual audience.
Non-profit regional theater can be expected to grow and expand as the true source of theatrical energy and innovation in the nation, although its spokesman, the Theater Communications Group, reports production expenses up more than 20 percent. The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis has announced it will build a $100 million three-theater complex, the largest of a half dozen new stages being planned across the nation.
More regional theaters are producing original musical comedies. The famous Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago produced its first musical, "The Ballad of Little Joe," two seasons ago, and the Theater Under the Stars in Dallas has just premiered a musical based on the film "Some Like It Hot," starring Tony Curtis, that could eventually move to Broadway. "Thoroughly Modern Millie," winner of the Tony Award for best Broadway musical last season, premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in California.
Regional theater already generates most of the new material seen on Broadway as well as Off Broadway, a phenomenon that didn't exist a generation ago.
Audience-building is now the prime concern of these theaters, and they are investing in cutting-edge sound and lighting equipment in answer to a growing audience taste for spectacular productions rather than low budget productions of the stage classics that have been the standard fare of regional theaters since their inception.
Theater everywhere is looking for new ways to draw in younger theater-goers to replace increasingly graying audiences that on Broadway average 40 years of age and rising. The nation's youth is more screen oriented by way of movies, television, computers, and DVDs, and the League of American Theaters and Producers has warned that the number of audience members between 18 and 24 shows long-term decline.
The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., has pioneered a lucrative new aspect of theatrical production by staging a festival of six Stephen Sondheim's musicals earlier this year, a box office success that drew a younger audience. An Off Broadway theater group, the Signature Theater, has found it profitable to focus on one playwright each season, reviving three or four of his or her plays for the edification of a new generation of theater-goers. This year it salutes Lanford Wilson.
The American theater -- especially Broadway -- has for years been described as "the fabulous invalid", but it shows few signs of expiring just yet. Change seems to be the key to a long run in the 21st century.