"Good times, bum times, I've seen them all and, my dear, I'm still here," sings one of the aging chorus girls in the Stephen Sondheim musical, "Follies." If you wanted a theme song for the 1984 Washington theatrical year, that could be it.
The Kennedy Center weathered one of the worst years in its history and announced in September a deficit of nearly $2 million for fiscal 1984. It was the first red ink on the ledgers since the Center opened in 1971, and while ballet and opera attractions, traditional money losers, contributed to it, so did three plays: Arthur Kopit's flawed drama about the nuclear arms race, "End of the World"; Vinnette Carroll's free-form black musical, "When Hell Freezes Over I'll Skate"; and David Pownall's "Master Class," in which Stalin took it upon himself to give music lessons to Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Audiences stayed away in droves.
Meanwhile, across town, the refurbished National Theatre had its best year ever, raking in $5.7 million with "42nd Street" and then a whopping $12 million with "Cats." The astronomical grosses reflected escalating ticket prices (the $40 top is becoming commonplace). But more than 500,000 spectators were willing to shell out for the kind of big Broadway shows that are the National's province. ("Cats" was a 27-week sellout, while the 13 1/2-week run of "42nd Street" operated at 99 percent capacity.)
Among the institutional theaters, the Folger Theatre found itself on thinning ice. Having long enjoyed solid support from the Folger Library (under the library's former director O.B. Hardison), the company was confronted with a new library director (Warren Gundersheimer), who did not seem to manifest a particularly keen interest in the fate of theater. It didn't help the future relationship (or the budget) when "Crossed Words," the Folger's traditional holiday pantomime, folded two weeks earlier than scheduled. Arena Stage, on the other hand, successfully launched its own private endowment program. Then in September, it pulled down a $2 million, five-year matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which, among other things, will allow it to expand the company and employ actors 52 weeks a year (as opposed to the prevailing 40-week contract).
A severe shortage of performing space made life precarious for the area's little theater groups, not that precariousness wasn't already a way of life for them. The Source, threatened with eviction from the biggest of the three facilities it operates on 14th Street NW, was most immediately jeopardized. The good news came in late fall, when eviction proceedings were dropped and Source was given the opportunity to buy the building itself, although that seemed to pose a whole new set of problems.
The Warner Theatre continued to make do with road shows -- some ("Torch Song Trilogy") distinctly better than others ("Little Show of Horrors"). Ford's Theatre could proudly claim the one-man romp, "Jeeves Takes Charge," in which Edward Duke played a whole manor house of P.G. Wodehouse characters. But its annual spring musical, "On Shiloh Hill," was a theatrical mess on a par with the disaster it chronicled, the Civil War. By the fall, Ford's was relying on revivals of past hits to keep afloat.
But there, too, the distinct possibility of a turnaround loomed ahead, when Ford's producer Frankie Hewitt hired New York-based director-choreographer David Bell to serve as artistic director, the first in the theater's history. Significant changes in personnel occurred elsewhere. Harry Bagdasian, the founder of the New Playwrights' Theatre, resigned after 11 years at the helm, and Arthur Bartow took over -- immediately raising the performance standards (the good news) but also taxing an already shaky budget (the bad).
The most far-reaching appointment, however, took place at the Kennedy Center, when chairman Roger Stevens, more determined than ever to establish the American National Theater Company within the marble complex, hired 26-year-old Peter Sellars to preside over its fortunes. In doing so, the 74-year-old Stevens was not only bridging a half-century age gap, but a sensibility gap nearly as wide. Sellars is alternately viewed as an avant-garde genius and Peck's bad boy of the theater. What his impact would be on the generally conservative Center was hard to predict (his first production is due in the spring), but it seemed safe to say that the place was in for a shaking up.
After a decade of lobbying, Stevens finally persuaded Congress to cancel $34 million in compound interest on the construction bonds that financed the original construction of the Center. That, in turn, allowed him to forge ahead with his plans to set up a private endowment for the Center, more good news in the making. Artistically, the Center could console itelf with the Dustin Hoffman "Death of a Salesman" revival, one of the year's hottest tickets. Hoffman was surprisingly effective as a scrappy Willy Loman, but the revelation of the production was John Malkovich's sublime interpretation of Biff. And if the Center couldn't come up with musicals to match the National's, it at least produced some popular stars -- Lauren Bacall ("Woman of the Year"), Carol Channing ("Jerry's Girls") and Anthony Quinn ("Zorba").
While most of the year's fare was not particularly memorable, several of Arena's shows merited (and got) wide attention: a revival of "Three Sisters," as luminous and fragile as memory itself; "Accidental Death of an Anarchist," a wonderfully antic political farce that allowed Richard Bauer to surpass himself as a madman with a shopping bag full of disguises; an eye-opening, heart-stopping mixture of Greek tragedy and gospel music, "The Gospel at Colonus"; and the latest addition to the lineup, "Passion Play," Peter Nichols' devastating account of modern-day adultery.
The Folger's most intriguing show was a 17th-century heroic melodrama from Spain, "The Mayor of Zalamea," given a starkly evocative staging by Michael Bogdano. New Playwrights' double bill of "Gardenia" and "Lydie Breeze" combined to tell a fascinating story of an idealistic 19th-century commune coming apart. The Woolly Mammoth managed to shock and entertain with "Marie and Bruce." Horizons scored with "Top Girls." The Studio artfully plumbed the dark sexual ambiguities of "My Sister in This House"; and the Source turned up a pleasantly deft murder mystery, by a local author yet, Stephen Hayes' "The Shady Side."
But there were more than enough clinkers in between to color the season mediocre. The worst home-grown show had to be "River Rats," a squalid comedy at the Source about the Washingtonians who live in houseboats on the Potomac. The most pointless import: an utterly insipid revival of "The Hasty Heart" that traveled to the Center all the way from the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater in Jupiter, Fla. Its only distinction was affording President Reagan, who'd starred in the 1949 film version, a trip down memory lane. The casting blunder of the year: Martin Landau, who found himself hopelessly entangled in the swirling capes of "Dracula" at the Eisenhower.
The year also saw the formation of the Helen Hayes Awards -- named for the actress who was born in Washington and got her professional start here. The first awards, which are intended to be the local equivalent of the Tonys, will be handed out in May. There was no doubt that the judges would find performances and stagings to honor. But as of the year's end, one couldn't exactly point to the surfeit of candidates that makes for a good horse race or, in this case, a suspenseful envelope-opening.