Broadway lures plenty of actors but fewer plays

January 11, 1994|By Mike Dorning | Mike Dorning,Chicago Tribune

Five years after arriving in New York from Pasadena, Md., Katie McAllister daily walks past theater marquees to Joe Allen's restaurant, where she is playing in her first -- and so far only -- Broadway role: waitress.

Ms. McAllister is following a time-honored tradition. Actors here have always been more likely to find themselves balancing trays than treading the boards. Currently, about 17,000 of the 20,000 members in the New York branch of Actor's Equity are employed outside the theater, many in the city's restaurants.

Actors still come to Broadway with hay in their hair and stars in their eyes. Some things don't change.

Its once-unchallenged command over American theater may have diminished, but a Broadway run still defines success even if many of the best plays and musicals now originate elsewhere. In the New York theater district's 100th season, it remains true that the only opening night that counts is on Broadway.

The show does go on here -- 33 new productions opened last season. But the audience has changed dramatically, and, inevitably, so has the nature of the show itself.

First film and then television became competitors for Broadway audiences. Then much of the theater-going middle class decamped for the distant suburbs. And, perhaps most important, ever-more-costly tickets transformed Broadway shows from an affordable regular event to rare luxuries for all but a few.

"About half of the Broadway theaters are empty right now, and that's because no one will take a risk on a play," says Marvin Carlson, a professor of theater studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

For producers, that risk more than ever is a costly gamble.

For example, the original 1950 "Guys and Dolls" cost $300,000 to produce, and tickets were $6. The current revival of the musical cost $6 million, and tickets are $65.

By its nature, live theater is a labor-intensive undertaking. In New York, it is made all the more expensive through the contracts demanded by 16 separate unions representing theater workers.

And unlike in most U.S. businesses, technology and better management can contribute little to bring down the cost of staging a Broadway show. "There is no increase in productivity that will make you learn to sing harmony faster," says Edward Strong, a partner in Dodger Productions.

As a result, the range of productions on Broadway has become narrower and the number fewer.

From a peak of 264 new productions in the 1927-28 season, the number of shows opening declined to a low of 28 during the 1990-91 season.

What has survived are the all-out spectacles, musicals like "Phantom of the Opera," "Les Miserables" and "Cats." And, importantly, they are the shows that bring in the tourists, who now buy more than half the tickets and are responsible for most of the theater's $2.4 billion contribution to the New York economy.

Given the stratospheric ticket prices, theater-goers, particularly tourists, are not inclined to risk their money on less than a sure thing. And with their costs also escalating, neither are producers.

"Broadway, instead of developing theater in this country, has become an importer of already developed work," says Arnold Aronson, chairman of the theater department of Columbia University.

Such Pulitzer Prize-winning plays as "Angels in America," "The Kentucky Cycle" and "Glengarry Glen Ross" all originated outside New York -- in San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago, respectively.

In addition, advance ticket sales as insurance to fill the houses have become more important, as have the box office allure of popularly recognizable artists like composers Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber and playwright Neil Simon.

Whereas Hollywood historically has looked to New York's stages for creative inspiration, increasingly the process is reversed, with Broadway remaking popular movies.

Last season, "Kiss of the Spider Woman," previously a dramatic film, won the Tony Award for Best Musical. Walt Disney Co. is planning to open a Broadway production this spring of "Beauty and the Beast." And a musical based on the Tom Hanks movie "Big" is in the works.

The development of the midtown theater district began in 1893, when the American Theater opened on 42nd Street, less than a block from what would soon become Times Square. Previously, the New York theater had been centered about a mile south in Union Square.

Less than a decade later, O.J. Gude, a designer of advertising displays, had already coined the phrase "The Great White Way" to describe the glow of lights from the numerous theater marquees that illuminated Broadway. Many disappointed would-be actors later, it would inspire the adage, "There's a broken heart for every light on Broadway."

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