Urbanities

James MacGuire
The Theater: Killed but Still Living
Summer 1992

James MacGuire is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

For almost a hundred years, Broadway has been more than a strip of congested concrete. It has been a New York symbol and an American dream—for awestruck audiences a yellow brick road to another world and for stage-struck New Yorkers an entry to the Great White Way of life.

Terrence McNally described his introduction to the magic of theater this way, in a speech before the Producers’ League:

As a five year old my working class parents took me from our smallish Texas town to see Ethel Merman in the original production of Annie Get Your Gun. They had to sacrifice to do it. It involved money they didn’t really have. It involved travel. It involved months of planning.... I remember the show more vividly than a show I saw last season. When Merman revived the show many years later, I found myself remembering every line and gesture a moment before they were spoken or sung or made.

And no wonder. As a five year old I had been taken into a world of music and laughter and magnetic personalities and beauty and tears. I was someplace special, some place that was realer than real, some place where the real world stopped and the equally real world of our dreams began. I wanted to stay there forever. I still do.

For every New Yorker who wants to travel to someplace “realer than real,” the apparently inexorable decline of Broadway is nothing less than heartbreaking. Originally at the southern end of Manhattan, the theater district moved northward with the city’s population. When Longacre Square became the hub for New York’s horsecar and train lines, it became the center of the theater district, too. And with the completion of the subway in 1904, the theaters moved to Times Square.

At least 54 Broadway theaters have been lost since then. The Ziegfield, where Showboat premiered in 1927, was destroyed in 1966. The Hippodrome and Alla Nazimova’s 39th Street Theater are long gone. The Empire on 40th Street, which opened in 1893 and saw theatrical legends from William Gillette and Sarah Bernhardt through Helen Hayes and the young Julie Harris, finally closed its old doors in 1953 in anticipation of the wrecker’s ball. The Gallo Opera House, too, is gone, although it survived its years as a CBS property to reopen in 1976 as Studio 54 and today houses another disco, the Ritz.

The number of new shows each year has dropped even more dramatically. “My first night in New York City,” recalls veteran newspaperman and radio personality Jack O’Brien, “was in 1934. I bought a discounted ticket—down from $3.30 to $1.65—to see Ethel Merman at the Alvin Theater in Anything Goes. Later I walked up to 52nd Street to hear Art Tatum play at the Onyx Club. That year 135 shows came in. By the time I worked my way up to drama critic for the Associated Press it was the 1943-44 season, and only 97 shows opened.” That, in turn, was down from 264 in the 1927-28 season. There has been steady erosion since. In 1967-68, for example, 58 shows opened on Broadway. Last season, a boom year by modern standards, Broadway played host to half that many productions.

Nationally the theater is in dire shape. According to American Theater magazine, half the country’s theaters ended 1991 in the red. Eight ceased operation, bringing the five-year total to 25 closed theaters. Expenses rose only slightly ahead of inflation, reflecting a year of no growth. Income failed either to cover expenses or keep pace with inflation. The number of subscribers increased, but single-ticket sales declined, signifying an alarming failure to develop new audiences for the future. Foundation grants rose, such as from the Lila Wallace- Reader’s Digest Fund, which became the largest arts donor in the country over the past year, but not enough to close the earnings gap created by sluggish box offices. Meanwhile, federal and state grants fell sharply.

Membership of New York’s two remaining theatrical clubs, the Players and the Friars, is in decline, and the third, the Lambs, closed some years back, making the old aphorism newly apposite: “The Players is for gentlemen pretending to be actors. The Friars is for actors pretending to be gentlemen. And the Lambs is for neither.”

Veteran theatrical agent Robert Lantz describes the current situation this way: “Can you think of anyone today who has the national position of Katharine Cornell, Helen Hayes, or the Lunts? We don’t have any theater stars. Any!”

Broadway’s loss of prestige and economic muscle are reflected in the lives of the people who make it work. To enter the world of theater folk is like entering the fun house at Coney Island: All the ordinary laws of human existence seem suspended for the duration of the ride. To a rationalist, or an economist, the stage life makes no sense at all, and sadly, economics is forcing many of Broadway’s finest talents to look for a way out.

Consider Connie Ray, for example, who wrote and performed in a hit musical at the Lamb’s Theater called Smoke on the Mountain. Nevertheless, to keep herself solvent she still had to continue working as a paralegal at Skadden Arps during the show’s run. After years of facing that kind of financial pressure, when the offer came to star in an NBC comedy series, The Torkelsons, she jumped at it.

Kevin Kelley took a more high-minded route to L.A. Determined to stay in the theater when he left the faculty of Julliard (an esteemed faculty position in the theater world but one whose remuneration he was forced to supplement by working as a word processor by the hour), he accepted the post of artistic director of the Los Angeles Shakespeare Festival. Three years and a mountain of debt later, he gratefully returned to New York to work as an acting coach on Loving, a soap, and increased his salary exponentially.

Directors, too, have been turned off. Even more than writers they know the truth of the old adage, “You can make a killing on Broadway, but not a living.” Megs Booker, an experienced director who learned her craft working with Ingmar Bergman, attempted to tough it out on her own in New York after the Hartman Theater, of which she was artistic director, closed in the late 1980s. She enjoyed several succes d’estime, including a beautiful production of Three Sisters by the Pan Asian Repertory Company, but a year ago, after losing her house in Stamford and relinquishing the custody of her two children to their father in Seattle, she finally gave up and was lucky enough to find a new artistic director’s position opening up in Sarasota, Florida.

If the situation is grim for the actors and directors, for technical staff it is even worse. Eva Schegulla is a stage manager, who for several years juggled her theatrical work around her day job in international marketing at Abbeville Press. When she took the bold step to launch out into the theater full time, the producer of her first show absconded without paying salaries and the union bond bounced, leaving the cast and backstage crew deep in debt and obliged to prosecute a lawsuit with no certainty of successful recovery of their just deserts.

Anne Davis is a set designer who persevered through years of backstage sexual harassment to establish herself. She lost thousands of her own dollars in a similar fiasco with an unscrupulous producer, as well as her backup job in a costume shop. Today she makes ends meet by costuming heavyweight wrestlers, including Hulk Hogan.

Such a state of affairs has a particularly dampening effect on the most important group in the theater, the producers. Jerome Robbins’ Broadway won six Tony awards and played to 90 percent of capacity for two years. But its expenses were so high that when it closed it had earned back only $4.8 million of its $8.6 million cost, leaving its investors dependent on a national tour to break even.

Historically, the great engine that drove the New York theater business was that hundreds of playhouses across the country were supplied with shows “direct from New York” by fiercely competitive producing firms like the Shuberts and Klaw and Erlanger’s Theatrical Syndicate. This forced such firms to build theaters in New York City for their exclusive use. As the demand for new material skyrocketed so did the number of new theaters, nearly ninety of them built in the fifty years up until the Great Depression.

That world is gone, and a different set of economics dictates the growth (or lack of it) of the theater in New York today.

With landmarking, the Broadway theaters should physically survive, but it will take ingenuity to fill them. In an age of octoplex movie theaters, 132 channel cable television systems, and the now omnipresent VCR, people can watch stars perform in their living rooms at a fraction of the cost and without the bother of coming down to old Broadway.

Thus, when people do come to the theater, it is in search of something more. And this explains why in the 1990-91 season musicals accounted for 67 percent of attendance and 75 percent of gross receipts. Those who can afford it will come, if what they are seeing is bigger, brighter, and flashier than what they can see at home.

If times are so hard, what is the answer? To flourish, Broadway needs three things: a more glamorous setting, lower costs, and a continuing flow of artistic energy.

Today’s theater district is a gem (in more than a little rough), an environment more gritty than glamorous. The Times Square Redevelopment Plan has been stymied by the regional recession and consequent construction halt. The Times Square of the 1950s, replete with delis, automats, newspaper stands, cigar shops, and nightclubs, is gone. Little old ladies no longer sip their noontime martinis as black-uniformed waitresses swirl around them at Schraffts. The Stork Club is gone, and while Vincent Sardi is gallantly attempting a resurrection of his venerable haunt, much of the area’s character has been lost. Today’s Times Square is not so much a flashy honky tonk as a menacing collection of strip joints, pornography shops, pimps, drug dealers, muggers, and street people, which only serves to discourage the potential theatergoing audience further.

High costs, on the other hand, discourage both audiences and innovation. Theaters are expensive to operate and maintain. The landmarking laws have restricted the theater owners options. Those stars who do make it onto Broadway in this day and age have agents who expect them to be paid salaries equal to Michelle Pfeiffer’s latest film deal. Added to this are the extremely high union costs involved in putting plays on Broadway. Mega-hit producer Cameron Mackintosh gets agitated discussing the subject of wildly disparate union rules and wage scales between New York and London:

Union costs in London are much lower than in New York. It’s ludicrous to have house minimums for musicians in New York. One of the reasons I couldn’t go into the Broadhurst with Five Guys Named Moe is that that theater has a 16-man minimum. Part of the point of Five Guys is that there are only six musicians. It’s madness to pay for another ten musicians just because the union says so. That would never happen in London. There, if you only need a pianist, then you pay for the pianist.

Then there’s the crewing here—how many people it takes to get the set in and run the show. In England you pay for what you want. If you need twenty men for the first few days and then three or four for the next, you can do that. The demarcation here between someone who can pull a curtain and someone who can press a button is just not reasonable. I know the unions are there to protect their membership, but the only thing that really protects the membership is if the theater is healthy.

To survive over the long term, Broadway must cultivate a newer, younger generation of theatergoers. Lower costs would not only allow more shows to turn a profit, and encourage innovative productions, they might allow lower ticket prices, opening up the Great White Way to New Yorkers with ordinary pockets and without corporate subsidies.

But, as important, high costs tend to stifle the artistic ambitions of playwrights, directors, and producers. In the end, Broadway is not driven by economics so much as by imagination. To encourage a new generation of dreamers, and ensure a steady influx of new shows, the three major theater organizations have combined with the unions to create the Broadway Alliance, a consortium to put on shows that otherwise would never get to Broadway. So far it hasn’t worked terribly well. The alliance’s one critical success, an acclaimed production of Our Country’s Good, did not last long, but the mere fact that it got produced at all was a testament to the industry’s willingness to try new approaches. Others, including Mackintosh, Manhattan Theater Club, and Lincoln Center have formed the Alliance for New Musicals—in effect nurturing and bankrolling the development of promising ideas—to assure the flow of future productions in that genre.

The Producers’ Group is another organization that meets regularly to network and discuss innovative strategies. A younger generation is emerging, including Elizabeth Williams (Les Misérables, Into the Woods), Michael David (Guys and Dolls), and Valerie Gordon (Crazy For You). Additionally, entertainment companies and overseas corporations are increasingly coming onto the Broadway scene, to sew up ancillary rights at an early stage by investing relatively small upfront funds in the original productions. These are all positive developments.

Meanwhile, one of Broadway’s secret weapons is Off-Broadway, which continues to be a place where dreams can come true outside of the inflexible wage scales and other vagaries of doing business on the Great White Way. One of the patent absurdities of the present Tony award system, in fact, is that Off-Broadway shows are not eligible for the awards. They should be.

Off-Off Broadway, if not a living either, is also the lifeblood of the theater and a gold mine of new talent. The Times lists as many as forty shows going on around town each week. These range from the laughably bad (I remember an Australian play about a drugged racing greyhound which, along with the fleas in the theater on East Third Street, rendered one Valentine’s night decidedly unromantic) to the outright dangerous (Dr. Mwambozo’s performance in the Polysexuality Conference at The Kitchen in 1981 came to a quick end when the deranged looking Doc gashed himself in the neck with the jagged glass from a scotch bottle he had just broken, and then overturned a newly slaughtered calf’s head, so that the hundred mice trapped inside it could escape into the audience; as the ultrahip-downtown-audience-turned-terrified-mob stampeded for the exits, Dr. Mwambozo emptied his pistol in their direction shouting, “This is art”).

Yet Off-Off Broadway has often played an invaluable role in showcasing new talent and daring productions. This is the 25th anniversary of the death of Joe Cinno, who started Off-Off at his tiny cafe on Cornelia Street. John Guare remembers:

Cafe Cinno was an extraordinary place. Cinno was a steamfitter working in a laundry from 7 A.M. to 4 P.M. Then he went into his kingdom, his little paradise on Cornelia Street, and turned on the lights. It was an insane attic filled with Christmas lights and photographs of movie stars. I didn’t know him, but when I got out of the Navy I brought these two plays there while he was getting ready for a show. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but we’re only doing plays by Aquariuses.” I said, “I can’t believe it. My birthday is February 5th. I’m an Aquarius. Here’s my driver’s license.” He looked at it and answered, “All right, you open the second week in October.”

As much as it needs Broadway, the theater needs the likes of Joe Cinno, Joe Papp, and Ellen Stewart (of nearly bankrupt La MaMa) who will stand behind tomorrow’s stars, struggling to emerge. Without them the great moments of theater will be harder to find.

What are the great moments? Everyone has his own, of course, but my list of the past dozen years would include Ian McKellan’s electrifying portrayal of Salieri in Amadeus, with the stunning final transformation of his face into a mask of death as the lights fell. Zakes Mokae’s as the waiter Sam in Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys, mournfully telling young Harry that by spitting in Sam’s face Harry is really hurting himself, underlined the tragedy of apartheid in a way no news report ever could. Elizabeth McGovern was an enchanting Helena in the Public Theater’s Bahia-based Midsummer Night’s Dream, the most successful production of its Shakespeare cycle. And for towering performances, I will never see Cyrano de Bergerac again without remembering Derek Jacobi’s stunning performance in the role in the fall of 1982.

As for this year, there are many feasts. A gifted artist who gives the lie to Robert Lantz’s claim that there are no theater actors is Philip Bosco, and he teams with Vincent Gardenia and Karen Valentine to provide a riotous evening in Breaking Legs at the Promenade that proves yet again how wrong the critics can be. Another theatrical actor who has blossomed in recent years is Nathan Lane, nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls. Harry Groener, who left the Rialto for prime-time TV in 1988, returned triumphantly as the star of Crazy for You, garnering a Tony nomination. (The actual award went to Gregory Hines for his sensational performance in Jelly’s Last Jam.) Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa richly deserved its Tony as best play. Blue Man Group put on the culmination of all downtown performance pieces at the Astor Place Theater on Lafayette Street. Gene Hackman lent presence to a poorly directed version of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden. Five Guys named Moe was short and good-humored, and gave the theater district a cheery new musical bar, so how bad could it be? And although he narrowly missed a Tony nomination, Spiros Malas won Broadway’s heart in the Goodspeed Opera’s production of The Most Happy Fella at the Booth Theater.

In fact, there are recent, astonishing signs that audiences are responding once again to the magic of theater. There were 26 shows playing on Broadway this spring and another twenty-five playing Off-Broadway. These numbers are about double those for 1991. In the last week of April more than 220,000 theater tickets were sold, more than in any single week since 1981. Box office receipts for the entire month of April were the highest of any four-week period in theater history. And this had a positive impact on the entire neighborhood. Local restaurants reported a 25 percent increase in business.

The Republic, a theater built by Oscar Hammerstein and later taken over by David Belasco, was where Abie’s Irish Rose had a run of 2,327 performances in the 1920s (with the help of discount tickets sold through Gray’s drugstore chain), and may be the first of the converted theaters to come back. Reopened by Billy Minsky as a striptease establishment, and later used as a porno theater renamed the Victory, the theater has been returned to showing Hollywood triple features. In 1990 the Durst Organization cleaned up the theater for the limited engagement of Crowbar, the first live drama on 42nd Street since 1950. If the Times Square redevelopment goes according to plan, the Victory, its oldest theater, should be the first of Broadway’s lost theaters to be found.

Broadway may just be in the midst of one of those inexplicable comebacks, proof that, in the theater, anything can happen.

Those inclined to be pessimistic about Broadway’s fate should remember the tale of the late J. P. McEvoy, a playwright who wrote several of Ziegfield’s Follies in the 1920s. He then made the terrible mistake of backing his own play. It flopped. Facing financial ruin, he decided to do the rational thing and commit suicide. Retiring from the Algonguin Round Table after lunch one day, he went upstairs and opened the bedroom window. It was late in October, and the year was 1929. At just that moment, a window opened in the hotel across the street and a body flew out head first, fell to the ground, and was surrounded by a crowd. “Just a moment,” McEvoy said to himself, backing away from his window.

As he always did at moments of crisis, he took a nap and at five returned to the lobby to look at the evening papers. Thumbing through one, he got to page 46, where a discreet headline read, “Wall Street Broker jumps to his death on 43rd Street.”

“Hmm,” McEvoy grumped, “for page 46, it’s not worth it.”

He lived and wrote for another thirty years.

The New York theater often seems close to committing suicide, too. Although, as Cameron Mackintosh says, it is a resilient beast. The theater districts of other American cities are long since gone, after all, while here in New York the industry struggles on.

A season like the present one, combined with a few simple steps on the part of self-interested (public and private sector) participants, can help it continue to do so. More union wage-scale concessions, additional incentives for producers, lower ticket prices, the completion of the Times Square redevelopment scheme, and expanded young audience programs are the elements of a good start and within reach. For all the energy, the glamour, and the magic Broadway hath wrought, the theater should do more than endure in this town: It can and should prevail.

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