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Broadway Ballyhoo

The Main Stem is seeing a surge of new shows, but is it good for business?

Twenty-one productions are scheduled to open on Broadway this spring, nearly as many as opened in the first six months of the season. And an unusually high number of Hollywood celebrities will ride into town with the productions, raising expectations among some that Broadway may once again become a vibrant part of New York’s cultural life—and worrying others who fear the ascendancy of a new star system.

Among the plays and musicals debuting this month are producer Cameron Mackintosh’s latest London import, Five Guys Named Moe; a new Streetcar Named Desire featuring Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange; August Wilson’s Two Trains Running; George C. Wolfe’s musical about jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton, Jelly’s Last Jam, starring Gregory Hines; and William Finn’s March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland. These shows join last month’s premieres of new plays by Neil Simon, Herb Gardner, Ariel Dorfman and John Guare, and the star turns of Alan Alda, Glenn Close, Gene Hackman Richard Dreyfuss and Judd Hirsch.

The spring surge led New York Times editorial writers to declare in a giddy moment that “the old hip hooray and ballyhoo are coming back to Broadway.” But several trends leave seasoned theatre observers less sanguine about the long-term health of Broadway. The age of the blockbuster musical may be coming to a close, some producers say, as the recession and diminishing audience interest take their toll. The only major new musical productions currently running are revivals of proven successes, such as The Most Happy Fella, Man of La Mancha and Guys and Dolls, there are no clones of Phantom of the Opera or Miss Saigon in sight—a heartening development, perhaps, for those who view the monster musical as a detriment to theatre art, but bad news for investors.

Even after all the new shows open, numerous Broadway theatres will remain dark unless producers rush in with non-scheduled productions. The vacancy rate has led some New Yorkers to devise alternative uses for the neglected theatres. The Shubert Organization has offered the Longacre Theatre, dark since the spring of 1990, to the city rent-free for three years as a place to process minor criminal offenders. Predictably, the proposal met with opposition from certain quarters—Actor’s Equity, Save the Theaters, the Society of Stage Directors & Choreographers, and Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians—who felt that it would be well nigh impossible ever to regain the house for theatrical purposes.

Some theatre professionals are also embroiled in a controversy over ticket-selling. With the support of the Nederlander Organization, Ticketmaster, the country’s largest ticket-sales service, set up shop in February at New York’s trendy Bloomingdale’s department store. The new outlet offers day-of-performance discounts ranging from 10 to 75 percent. The move enraged the not-for-profit Theatre Development Fund, which for 20 years has offered half-price tickets at its popular TKTS booths. TDF president David Holbrook blasted the project as a “blatant attempt to undermine the mission and good work” of his group. (Part of TDF’s revenues goes toward service-oriented programs such as the Theatre Access Project, which assists the handicapped.) But Ticketmaster CEO Fred Rosen responded that the new service was simply “giving customers an alternative” to what he saw as TDF’s monopoly on the discount-ticket business.

In late February, TDF returned the volley with an alternative of its own. Until the last week of June, TDF will make available discounts to a wider range of Broadway and Off-Broadway productions on the basis of a new two-tier pricing system. Before the plan took effect, TKTS booths sold tickets only at half-price, for only a limited number of shows. Now, tickets to the most popular productions will be available earlier in their runs, at a 25-percent discount. Holbrook told the New York Times that “besides increasing the numbers of shows and tickets available at the booths, the two-tier price scale is expected to provide additional income to producers and theatre owners. We hope this will have the eventual benefit of stimulating the production of more new shows.”

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