Theatre

Will the next Broadway hit be Broadway itself?

RONALD BRYDEN January 23 1978
Theatre

Will the next Broadway hit be Broadway itself?

RONALD BRYDEN January 23 1978

Will the next Broadway hit be Broadway itself?

Theatre

If silence were imaginable in New York, one would say that Broadway is holding its breath. Fingers crossed, it waits for the February 16 opening of On The Twentieth Century, Hal Prince’s new musical based on the classic Hecht-MacArthur comedy of 1933. The grapevine is alive with rumors that this will be the big one. Who knows? It might even be the blockbuster that brings back the golden age when all America seemed to be standing in line for Guys A nd Dolls, Kiss Me Kate and South Pacific, and Broadway really was Broadway.

There are similar hopes and rumors every year, of course. The New York theatre lives by dreams of hit musicals as elderly White Russians dream of a Romanov restoration. The difference this year is that the sick old warhorse has managed to rear itself up on two legs. A Chorus Line, the hit of two seasons ago, is still playing to 99% of capacity. Annie, last year’s winner of seven Tony awards, sells standing room nightly and is booking into 1979. Their success has sent freshets of gold tinkling through the grimy gulleys of midtown Manhattan, filling restaurants, mingling scalpers with the hustlers of Times Square, setting other box offices humming with their tumaway business. One more major hit, one more leg to stand

on, and the ancient nag might get up and run as she hasn’t run for two decades.

Optimists point to other signs of renaissance. Broadway’s business, after years of decline, has turned around. The gross for this season has already topped $100 million. That’s money, not people, of course, and all it tells is that tickets which cost eight dollars 10 years ago now cost $16 and upward. But 26 Broadway shows are currently running, compared with 23 last January and 18 in 1973. Ifit’safarcry from the 64 New York theatres that flourished in the Twenties and from the legendary years of post-war, pre-television prosperity, after so many winters of discontent it smells like spring.

But its flowers are still mainly snowdrops, pale and frail. Most of the straight plays have no more than three characters, two only one. Few musicals boast enough bodies to populate a Shakespearean court. The costliest show in town, The Act (top price $25), has a cast of 13, fewer than many Manhattan nightclub cabarets. The fact that one of them is Liza Minnelli, raucous and elfin in red-white-and-blue glitter-suits, compensates insufficiently. Even scenery is spartan. Bleak has become chic. Not that size and expense guarantee Broadway quality. The most lavish play this season is a disaster, William Gibson’s Golda\ a coarse-grained, grossly sentimentalized“partial portrait” of Israel’s former premier. “Partial” means that Mrs.

Meir is shown spending the Yom Kippur war brooding not on strategy (“How can a woman decide between generals?”) but on her past and whether she was a bad Jewish mother. In its haste to acquit her—was she not a mother to her people?—the play skates as quickly as possible over the awkward, fascinating reality of a hawk-faced woman who turned her back on her marriage for socialist politics, and on America for Zionism. Anne Bancroft gives a broad, clever impersonation of laconic, chainsmoking old age, talking tough to conceal a heart of halvah. It gets what it deserves: an ovation clearly directed less at the actress than at Mrs. Meir herself, reliably rumored to have detested the piece.

Much of Broadway’s problem is that of New York politics: minorities. Pitch your play for the Jewish, black or feminist vote, and you’re home free. Try for the broad, melting-pot majority and you’re making a gamble. That there is still a majority audience is proved by the success of Dracula, a stylish revival of the popular old melodrama which puts its faith in the universality of the myth of the incubus. Frank Langella, superbly flamboyant as the crypt-haunting Transylvanian count, incarnates it memorably: the night-coming demon-lover of every maiden’s erotic dream, smiling darkly over her virgin pillow, reducing daytime, flesh-and-blood rivals to shadows. Unfortunately, the play’s producers have hedged their bet by appealing in their choice of designer to another minority. Edward Gorey’s grey, Gothic follies, rife from cornice to the minutest embroidery with sly bat motifs, are brilliant High Camp. But where Gorey’s Dracula is civilized fun, Langella’s belongs in the uncivilized halls of nightmare.

Neil Simon deals with the minority problem by pretending that all New York is one vast, gossiping Jewish family. His genius is that he makes it work. The cun-

ning with which he creates belief in a world where everyone has enough mutual friends to communicate by rumor has to be seen in New York to be appreciated. Five minutes into Chapter Two, you’re convinced you must know someone who knows widowed George (Judd Hirsch) and divorced Jennie (Anita Gillette), so warily converging on second marriage. The chain of offstage acquaintance which brings them together is so plausible you can’t believe their lawyers, opticians and old NYU classmates aren’t sitting in the dark around you, watching how their alliance will pan out. In other words, Simon provides one of the theatre’s greatest thrills: the sense that the stage is the centre of a reality, a meeting point where all the strands of the life surrounding it knot in coherence. The catch is, it only works for New York: the city has become Simon’s minority. To preserve the family feeling, his characters can talk only family business and only in the family idiom: that bright, mechanical New York wisecrack (half-cliché for reassurance, half-insult for attack) which excludes everything beyond the tribe. To talk seriously of art, say, or politics, or religion, is impossible. Designed as a fence against seriousness, Simon’s argot reduces them to cliché or raillery. His huge skill with his chosen audience has never been sufficiently recognized—in New York it’s taken for granted, elsewhere it’s meaningless. But it’s also his cage. Creating a reality for New Yorkers means excluding most of reality.

Grasp that dilemma, and you understand most of what’s puzzling about Broadway today: why the musical, with its large, comic, up-front acting, remains its triumphant art form, and why the mainstream of modem American acting, psychological Method realism, seems to have vanished from it as if it had never been. The nearest thing to Method acting on Broadway at the moment is the playing of Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in a modest two-hander, The Gin Game, about two wrangling old people in a welfare home. With beautiful subtlety they expose

the couple’s vanities and pretensions, paring through layers of falsehood to the revelation that both are paupers, in the home at the state’s expense. “I made a mistake,” says the old man quietly. “I got ill. The hospital got all my money. Then I made another mistake. I went on living.” Truth of that kind cuts too close for most Broadway audiences. The silence into which it falls is deafening with discomfort.

No other new play in New York provides The Gin Game's sense of reality. It’s the work of D. L. Cobum, a new playwright from Texas, and it’s an interloper on Broadway, sneaked in there from successful productions in Louisville and New Haven, where the serious American theatre is still alive and well. What Broadway is about is Annie, the hottest ticket since My Fair Lady 20 years ago; an antique comic strip lovingly reworked into an O. Henry fairy tale of the old New York where poverty was Irish, shawled and picturesque, stray dogs were always adopted by winsome orphans and winsome orphans by boyishly jolly millionaires with private lines to President Roosevelt.

You can’t dislike it. Its nostalgia is too innocently frank and it glows with success in a city that makes success a synonym for healthiness. It will run for years, make stars of its cast and millions for its backers and join Oliver! and The Music Man as every school’s favorite Christmas show. Meanwhile around the corner Twentieth Century tunes up: a fairy tale of the golden days when New York producers could stop the crack Chicago-New York express to pick up orchids for their ladies, and Broadway really was Broadway. It still is. If dreams are your business, you can’t afford to wake Up. RONALD BRYDEN