It was not just the hot ticket of 1987, it was positively incandescent.

Riding a tidal wave of publicity, the French-born, British-honed musical "Les Mise'rables" pulled into the Kennedy Center Opera House at the tag end of 1986, then proceeded to shatter box office records. Theatergoers were begging to get in; presumably some were borrowing (the top ticket went for $40). And at least one resorted to stealing -- making off in the darkness of night with the huge "Les Mis" banner that waved briefly from the center's roof.

In 63 SRO performances, the musical grossed a princely $4.7 million, dwarfing the center's previous champ, the musical "My One and Only," which racked up $2.8 million in 45 performances. Across town at the National, "Cats" demonstrated its staying power, or what the trade refers to as "legs." Having already played 29 capacity weeks here in 1984, it came back last summer for 10 more and chalked up a gross of $4.2 million.

Elsewhere, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale, the business of the theater was equally robust. "Nunsense," in which a badly decimated convent of nuns sang, told jokes and tap-danced, perked along for 18 1/2 profitable weeks at Ford's Theatre, running up $1.1 million in sales. Arena Stage, which prefers not to release box office figures, did turn-away trade with "All the King's Men" and a daring "Crime and Punishment," staged by exiled Soviet director Yuri Lyubimov.

Even the 89-seat Horizons Theatre came up with the biggest hit in its 10-year existence, the feminist musical "A . . . My Name Is Alice," which sold out for 13 weeks, grossed $45,000 and, at closing, had a waiting list of 183 names in the event the show reopens in the new year.

What the box office figures suggested is the accelerating polarization of the theater: Nothing sells like a smash and you still can't give the flops away. But the middle ground -- meritorious, if less than sensational, productions -- is being seriously eroded. Israel Horovitz's "North Shore Fish" (at the Studio), Robert Anderson's lovely "I Never Sang for My Father" (at the Eisenhower) and "Ourselves Alone," Anne Devlin's fierce drama about the Irish rebellion (at Arena) all had much to commend them and deserved far larger audiences than they generated. But the year's evidence seemed to indicates that Washington theatergoers, more than ever before, are waiting to see which way the wind is blowing before laying their money on the line.

Some of that may be a legacy of Peter Sellars, who promised miracles when he was brought in to reinvigorate the Kennedy Center in 1984, bolted after less than two turbulent seasons and was recently quoted as saying that "theater is not a form that has much to do with culture. It has become financially impossible and nonsensical for audiences, performers -- everyone." Maybe, but Sellars has made it harder in Washington for the innovators, who find themselves grappling with the skepticism he left in his wake.

In 1987 the Kennedy Center reverted to its more conservative, Broadway-oriented ways ("Arsenic and Old Lace," "Sherlock's Last Case") and even went so far as to mount a production of "Shear Madness," a mindless participatory murder mystery, in the Theater Lab, the scene of some of Sellars' more audacious experiments. The search for a replacement for Chairman Roger Stevens was finally concluded in July with the announcement that former Time Inc. executive Ralph Davidson would take over the reins in February 1988.

Davidson apparently was anointed by the trustees for his financial expertise; he has little theatrical experience and his suggestion that he wouldn't mind seeing comic Jackie Mason's one-man show at the center raised an eyebrow or two. It was certainly difficult to imagine the center without Stevens, who has been its guiding light from its inception, taken his lumps, weathered crises and somehow prevailed with his fumbling charm intact.

Impressive as some of the year's box office figures were, the greater significance of 1987 lay elsewhere. The city's smaller theaters, having fought long and hard for attention, were striking real roots. The Studio Theatre led the way when it took a 10-year lease on a former automotive repair shop at 14th and P streets NW, promptly sank $600,000 into renovations and in October opened the portals on what is the handsomest small theater facility in town. The Woolly Mammoth moved into the Studio's former quarters at 1401 Church St. NW, which gave the peripatetic company its first home base in years. Up 14th Street, the Source Theatre, showing increased signs of stability, deposed founder Bart Whiteman and purchased its Mainstage theater.

If it seems to be the fate of live theater to dangle by a thread, the thread seemed a little stronger in 1987. New companies sprouted -- the most promising being the Potomac Theatre Project, which couldn't have chosen a worse time to open (the dead of summer) or a more out-of-the-way playhouse (the Castle Arts Center in Hyattsville), but still managed to attract attention with two fiercely political plays, "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine" and "No End of Blame."

The plucky Round House Theatre, in Silver Spring, ran up a string of unusual and provocative hits ("Filthy Rich," "The Nest," "Rum and Coke" and "The Fairy Garden"). The Woolly Mammoth could take pride in "Life and Limb," a daffy comedy set in New Jersey and Hell, which are not necessarily one and the same place, and "Savage in Limbo," a bar play for our confused times. Horizons examined the fallout of the Vietnam war on the home front in an unflinching production of "Still Life."

For all that, the small theater landscape was not without clouds. The Touchstone Theatre lost its home in Arlington; the New Arts Theatre was reduced to an occasional staged reading; and the New Playwrights' Theatre, under its new artistic director, Peter Frisch, faced the same old problem: unearthing worthy scripts.

It was a year marked by heightened social concern in the theater. The AIDS crisis was explored in "As Is" (at the Studio), "A Dance Against Darkness" (at the D.C. Cabaret) and, indirectly, in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" (at Arena). When it was originally performed, Miller's play about the Salem witch trials was widely viewed as a response to McCarthyism; but it is really about hysteria overpowering reason, and as such had a frightening pertinence all over again. Many local theaters went further, scheduling benefit performances to raise funds to combat a scourge that has taken a tragic toll in the arts.

The issue of nontraditional casting also came to the fore in November at a daylong seminar at Arena Stage, sponsored by the League of Washington Theatres. The seminar sought to investigate alternative ways of populating plays that are usually performed with all-white casts. Can George and Emily in "Our Town" be black? What happens if Harold Hill in "The Music Man" is black and Marian the Librarian is white? Or if Alceste in "The Misanthrope" is a hearing-impaired actor, talking in sign language? Provocative questions.

What the fallout will be remains to be seen. (Arena, for one, is talking about a "racially enhanced" company for next season.) No doubt strides need to be taken. On the other hand, progress has already been made at the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger, the Source, the American Showcase Theatre and Gala Hispanic Theatre.

The influence of Broadway, apart from a few selected blockbusters, waned in 1987, but then Broadway itself has been waning for a long time. Judd Hirsch and Cleavon Little recreated their heartwarming performances as feisty octogenarians in "I'm Not Rappaport" (at the National). Joel Grey was back -- 20 years older, but no less corrupt -- as the leering emcee in "Cabaret" (at the Opera House). And Derek Jacobi gave another of his tour de force performances in "Breaking the Code" (at the Eisenhower), although the play didn't quite live up to its subject, the homosexual genius Alan Turing, who cracked the Nazis' code in World War II. Still, the fabled days of out-of-town tryouts were long gone. As chronicled in Arena's splendid revival of "Light Up the Sky," in fact, they provoked deep feelings of nostalgia, along with the abundant hilarity. Yet Moss Hart's mirthful play is a mere 28 years old.

Director Bob Fosse made a point of coming here to put the cast of "Sweet Charity" through a last-minute brush-up rehearsal. Then, hours before the musical opened at the National, he was stricken with a heart attack outside the Willard Hotel and died shortly afterward. Occurring just a few months after choreographer-director Michael Bennett's untimely death, Fosse's demise left the Broadway musical theater reeling.

The best Shakespeare at the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger was a wistful "Love's Labor's Lost." The company also announced the creation of a new theater honor -- the Will Award, named for you know who -- to be given annually to someone who has contributed significantly to the field of classical theater.

Among the year's misguided projects, however, you had to count the Folger's "The Witch of Edmonton," a piece of Jacobean claptrap about sorcery and Devil worship. The score by the brothers Gerswhin for "Lady Be Good!" hadn't lost any of its luster in 63 years, but the revival (at the Eisenhower), mounted by the Goodspeed Opera House, was bereft of lustrous performances. Where is Michael Feinstein when you need him?

If the trend was toward spectacle, some of the year's most successful outings were nonetheless one-man shows. At the National, Ian McKellen talked about his love of Shakespeare, performed bits and pieces from the Bard's plays and then coaxed audience members up on stage for a brief acting lesson. He was such a hit that Olney Theatre brought him back for an equally popular summer engagement.

Barbara Rush stumbled with her one-woman show "A Woman of Independent Means" (at Ford's) and Colleen Dewhurst, playing Carlotta Monterey O'Neill, had to work to overcome the script of "My Gene" (at the Terrace). However, British monologuist David Cale, largely unknown here, found an enthusiastic following at the Studio with his vaguely autobiographical fable "The Redthroats." As for Stephen Wade, he was still strumming his banjo at Arena's Old Vat Room after five years.

That's not so paradoxical as it may seem. As the sets get bigger and special effects grow more dazzling, the human connection becomes increasingly important. We go to the theater, after all, to see people. If we don't believe in Jean Valjean (though actor Colm Wilkinson made sure we did), all the turntables in the world won't make "Les Mise'rables" pay off.

A performer taking to the stage and making it his own is still what the theater's about. Everything else is frosting.

Washington's Loss Is New York's Gain ... Again: James C. Nicola announced he'd be leaving his post as Arena Stage's producing associate this February to head up the New York Theatre Workshop. In recent seasons, Nicola has directed some of Arena's best shows (including the current "Light Up the Sky"), but he has also shared his talents with a number of the smaller theaters in town. Arena sometimes has a reputation for aloofness, but Nicola has done a lot to defuse it. "He's a great crossover person," said one Arena official. "His presence has certainly enhanced our reputation with the local theaters."

Beat the Drums Loudly: Besides "Les Mise'rables," the year's most popular musical, the Kennedy Center hosted the year's most dismal, "Satchmo," which purported to tell the life of Louis Armstrong. It was promoted with all the gimmickry of the circus coming to town, which was not surprising, since it was produced by big-top impresario Kenneth Feld. After limping through its pre-Broadway engagement here, it blew its last note in Boston.

The Year of the Strip: The big theatrical breakthrough of the 1960s was stage nudity, and at times 1987 seemed like the 1960s all over again. Caron Tate recalled her days as a topless dancer in "Bumps." John Michael Higgins performed the year's most hilarious striptease in "The Fairy Garden." Robert Emmet dropped his trousers in "No End of Blame." And Randy Danson and Robert Westenberg showed more than their talent in "Ourselves Alone." Unlike in the 1960s, however, no one batted an eye.

Glasnost Slightly Before Its Time: Exiled Soviet director Yuri Lyubimov claimed that he had received feelers about resuming his post as head of the Taganka Theater in Moscow. They came as he was directing the year's most memorable show, a swirling, nightmarish production of "Crime and Punishment" at Arena Stage. His theatrical imagination was such that a bloodstained door, moving about the stage seemingly of its own accord, was as haunting as all the multimillion-dollar scenic wonders of "Les Mise'rables."

Washington's Gain Is Still Washington's Gain: New York and Los Angeles were no less a magnet in 1987 for Washington performers. But many opted to stay and work the local vineyards. More power to them. If you were looking for skillful acting, you had to look no farther than Stanley Anderson and Casey Biggs ("All the King's Men"); Jennifer Mendenhall ("Savage in Limbo"); Constance Fowlkes ("Still Life"); Jerry Whiddon and Michael Wells ("Filthy Rich"); Jane Beard and T.J. Edwards ("Life and Limb"); Alan Wade ("No End of Blame"); Tana Hicken, Mark Hammer and Richard Bauer ("Light Up the Sky"); and Sandra Bowie ("A ... My Name is Alice") -- just to name a few.

Pass the Alka-Seltzer, Please: Even Richard Thomas' John-Boy charm couldn't make Howard Fast's "Citizen Tom Paine" palatable. The critics sneered, so the Kennedy Center tried to market it as the people's choice. If not the year's worst play, "Chili Queen" was at least the year's worst play by a famous person -- newscaster Jim Lehrer of "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour." It aborted its run in the Terrace Theater after two weeks. For pretentiousness above and beyond the call of duty, New Playwrights' "Idioglossia" was hard to match.

Hire That Woman: In a full-page ad to promote "Citizen Tom Paine," the Kennedy Center solicited admiring quotes from actual audience members. "Every member of that cast," said one woman, "reeks with talent."

They'll Be Missed: Among those who passed away in 1987: longtime Arena actress Leslie Cass; Kennedy Center public relations executive Leo Sullivan; and jack of all theater trades Jack Guidone. We're all a little poorer.