Half the theaters may be closed. New musicals may fizzle out before they get a chance to dazzle. But not all is doom and gloom on Broadway.
One recent blustery afternoon more than 1,000 people endured the cold for more than half an hour, waiting -- patiently and eagerly -- for tickets to shows.
Dale Smith, a tour guide from Columbus, Ohio, had some tickets to unload. Walking briskly down Broadway from the half-price TKTS booth under the flashing Coca-Cola sign at 47th St., he shouted the name of the musical into the wind.
"Sunday in the Park With George!"
"Sunday in the Park!"
"Yes," he sighed, half frozen, half annoyed, "it is a long title for a musical." He agreed, nodding rapidly, that it would be easier to handle the title "Cats," "Dreamgirls," "42nd Street," even "Torch Song Trilogy" -- any number of other shows people want tickets to. But almost everyone back in Columbus agreed that the Stephen Sondheim musical about the making of a Georges Seurat painting was the one to see this season.
Six people had dropped out, though, and their tickets were up for grabs.
"That's not half price."
"I want to recoup my investment."
"This is the half-price line."
"There are no half-price seats for this show."
When the TKTS booth opened in 1967, it was heralded as a major breakthrough for the masses looking for a night on the town. In spite of sporadic opposition from the two big theater organizations, Shubert and Nederlander, same-day sales of half-price tickets to Broadway and off-Broadway shows have climbed to more than $1 million a year.
Every day at 3 p.m., the orange and white concession booth -- as much an icon of Times Square as the famous tower from which the ball drops on New Year's Eve -- opens to the public. Under the familiar TKTS logo, blown up in three-foot letters, a crew of young actors hands out flyers, free critiques and tips on where to dine on a budget. The crowd often forms as early as 1.
The big hits rarely offer cut-rate seats, even though some evenings the houses are not full. This year "Sunday in the Park With George," "Cats," "Torch Song Trilogy" and "La Cage aux Folles" have seldom been listed at TKTS. If they were, the price of a seat would drop from the standard range of $35-$47.50 to $17.50-$23.75. For an off-Broadway production, the half-price rate is $11-$17.
More than a cheap seat at a show, the TKTS operation provides free performances of New York street theater. As the line stretches along Broadway there is a feeling of a shared mission, of getting a bargain -- and experiencing the roar and razzmatazz of Times Square from a protected traffic island in the middle of it all.
" 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' is here," Wanda Macmum of Toronto tells her friends. Sure enough, in spite of rave reviews, there are $17 seats for the August Wilson drama about racism in an all-black recording studio. Here for a week of theatergoing, Macmum has already seen "Noises Off!," a comedy about a British-style vaudeville troupe ("It was excellent!"), and "Hurlyburly," the David Rabe drama of drugs in fast-lane Hollywood ("Good, but too long").
Bundled in lavender and pink down coats, clutching wallets firmly planted in their pockets, five teen-age girls from New Jersey glance at the evening's offerings and giggle about the prospects of seeing "Oh! Calcutta!" "No," says the one with braces on her teeth, "we're not going to see that play. We're going to see 'A Chorus Line.' My parents told us to."
"I don't wanna see 'Dreamgirls,' " a small child tells his parents. "You're going to see it and you're going to like it," the father snaps back.
Terri Orth-Pallavicni, an actress working on "something" she doesn't want to talk about, delivers sidewalk critiques of more serious plays as she hands out coupons for the musical "Tap Dance Kid." Near the top of her list is Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" ("Good, solid theater"). She hasn't seen but has heard "good" and "bad" about the Dario Fo satire "Accidental Death of an Anarchist," which ran last season in Washington. "Glenngarry Glen Ross," the David Mamet play about real estate agents grabbing at each other's throats, is "excellent -- superb performances."
But Orth-Pallavicni reserves fulsome praise for a British import. "Go see 'Cyrano'!" she exclaims. "It's fantastic, breathtaking," she says of the Royal Shakespeare Company production of "Cyrano de Bergerac," throwing her arms up and scattering imaginary tickets into the hot-dog-popcorn-bus-fume-cheap-perfume-saturated air that is Times Square, even in the cold.