AS '82 slams into '83, minus signs abound. But if you look hard enough into the theatrical horizon, plus signs are there.
Just before Christmas, the season took a dip that had traditionalists shuddering. Four new productions arrived on parched Broadway. Already three -- "Monday After the Miracle," "Almost An Eagle" and "A Little Family Business" -- are gone and, a London import, "Steaming," has a chancy future. Eleven of the usually busy playhouses are dark and only four new exhibits, "Cats," "Good," "Twice Around the Park" and "Foxfire," seem to be holding on.
This dip of 9 percent in New York and 13 percent from road productions in 1981 comes exactly a year after the commercial theater's highest grosses in history.
Mainly, costs have gone out of all reason. Weekend ticket prices of $25 to $50 certainly limits -- to put it blandly -- potential customers. On the road, only the smash musical hits with major stars -- Yul Brynner in "The King and I," Lena Horne as herself and Carol Channing as Dolly -- have been filling the big theaters that have now been played, often several times over, by such relatively fresher material as "Evita," "A Chorus Line", "Sugar Babies" and "Annie."
And all of this is having a depressing effect on the Kennedy Center which, since its opening 11 years ago, has been largely housing traveling attractions. Now the source is drying up.
For visiting or semisponsored ventures, the center this year made some disastrous choices, the current "On Your Toes," "Little Johnny Jones," "Tartuffe" among them. Its musicalized "Colette" closed on the road and with the Broadway windup of "Annie" in New York today, in which it had a sizable investment, Kennedy Ceter income will be reduced. Of the once four concurrent "Annie" companies, only one remains on tour.
Far more alarming for the center are gaffes that might have been avoided.When Henry Denker's "Outrage" was booked in earlier than originally planned, more sophisticated management would have thought twice about those two pre-Christmas weeks, traditionally the thinnest of the year. With no subscription audiences to ensure at least some trade, box-office results were virtually nil. Resuming after a dark week has been difficult, but wish it well.
This is wholly unfair to the play, which takes an intelligent and gripping approach to a contemporary social question: Does justice do America an injustice? With an exceptionally strong cast and production headed by the splendid Peter Evans under Ed Sherin's direction, it has a chance to survive.
"On Your Toes" suggests once again that musical comedy doesn't suit the Opera House. Its stage and spaces are marvelous for ballet and opera, but I've yet to be satisfied with its musical plays. Because it originally was designed for the Eisenhower, the Rodgers and Hart musical is distanced by the black frame necessary for the larger stage. Didn't anyone realize that while the 1936 original was a hit, the 1954 revival was a disaster? Some of the "On Your Toes" casting is pure amateur night.
This ill-chosen revival does seem jinxed. Its original '36 director, Worthington (Tony) Miner, died in New York while the Center was crediting George Abbott with the first production. Natalia Makarova was hit by a falling scenery weight and she's unlikely to dance again for months. And the center's long-established, staggered starting hours were jammed into half the time with inevitable traffic tangles.
If the Kennedy Center presently is in a mess, there is one good thing going in it. Martin Feinstein's Washington Opera is now the fifth most active opera company in the land, 94 percent sold for its 11-week season of 57 performances. This company goes back more than two decades, but its spurt under Feinstein has been phenomenal.
Plus signs show up on Baltimore's theater scene. Not only is Center Stage firmly established and confident enough to do new works, but the 2,683-seat Lyric has been brought back to life under the aware, sophisticated leadership of Hope Quackenbush, pushed by dynamic Mayor William Donald Schaefer.
The Morris Mechanic's subscription list now is over the 20,000 mark, assuring three-week runs and as eager a supply of new productions as any East Coast city. The Kennedy Center's subscription list is smaller, even in this larger market.
Also on the plus side, even though it's dark this season, is the future of the National Theatre. Besides undergoing extensive renovation, the National has the assurance of experienced booking by the Shubert Organization from New York. Whatever else may be said about New York theater, the Shuberts remain the major dynamic commercial force and it is vital for Washington that the Shubert firm is committed by booking the historic E Street house.
If the country's commercial theater, for generations a world leader, is now in the doldrums, at least nonprofit regional theater gives one heart. While cutbacks may collapse a few, the Reagan budget cuts have not been quite so sharp as anticipated.Clearly, the accent on local support, laid down by Kennedy Center chairman Roger L. Stevens when he was serving as the first chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, has proved far-sighted and productive.
Illustrating this vitality on the regional front is Arena Stage, a forerunner in that pack and an immense influence on all the others. Arena is undeniably Washington's major theatrical institution.
Now into its 32nd year, Arena Stage has been hitting a higher plateau within the past season. For any regional house to be home to two concurrent creations such as "K-2" and "Animal Crackers," which it was last spring, is achievement enough, but its record continues. I thought its production of "On the Razzle" was superior to Tom Stoppard's farce, and I salute Arena for doing its "Cymbeline," if only to show why it is one of the least of Shakespeare's works. Even though David Chambers' concept didn't work, others have failed before him and the attempt has to be made every so often.
The Folger Theater Group also has been making strides under the new leadership of John Neville-Andrews. The notion to borrow Richard Bauer from Arena Stage for the Folger's "The Merchant of Venice" proved that cooperation between the city's theaters can and does work, and the linkage with the Folger Consort for the current splash of "A Medieval Christmas Pageant" swiftly establishes what will become a Folger tradition.
The Source, the Studio and the Roundhouse have developed individual approaches to the limitations of small budgets, and d.c. space has found the talents for small musical revues.
New Playwrights' Theatre, risking a fiscal campaign that would determine existence or extinction, won enough generous donations to continue and, it turns out, to thrive, with its discovery of Cornelia Ravenal's intimate musical, "Out of the Reach of Children." For a house that does only originals, "Children" seems to be one of its happiest inspirations.
A glaring minus is nationwide managerial shortsightedness. Now making a stab at banding together to increase attractions for dark houses, managements certainly missed a major bet with "The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickleby." Cleveland's Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival got the American rights to this unique theatrical experience. It enjoyed a holdover run, has just resumed its American career in Chicago, with David Purdham recreating his Cleveland title role. Kansas City's Missouri Repertory Theater also has its own production of this coming up in mid-March. It's dispiriting that commercial firms didn't catch what a full-scale U.S. tour might have done with this Dickens.
Chicago also has another bright revisionist view. Though Tom Kempinski's "Duet for One" was a London smash, it failed in New York with Anne Bancroft as the star. Now the North Light Company has invited Eva Marie Saint to play the starring role under the direction of her husband, Jeffrey Hayden, opening in mid-January.
There's also enthusiasm from Los Angeles and its Ahmanson Theater, where Neil Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoir" appears, according to playwright Ernest Thompson, "to be a breakthrough for a playwright people take for granted and the critics for rides. This must be Simon's best."
Finally, another plus, this one for the CBS telecast of "The Kennedy Center Honors." Producers George Stevens Jr. and Nick Vanoff, their writers and director Don Mischer have given this increasingly impressive series an ingredient the Kennedy Center was created to celebrate and rarely has achieved, a touch of class.