British theater snobs have typically mixed feelings about the increase in overseas visitors to London. On the one hand, they like to tell patronizing if apocryphal stories about the American couple who went to see "Les Mise'rables" and complained there was nobody called Les in it, or gloat about how some gullible tourists, unable to get into "Cats" (Andrew Lloyd Webber's musicalization of T.S. Eliot's twee little verses), were sent along to "another show by the same fellow" -- not a new Lloyd Webber spectacular, but a grueling evening of Eliot's more severe poetry.

On the other hand, these same people are usually the first to complain if, as in times of international tension, Americans stop coming. The truth is that the massive turnabout in West End fortunes in recent years is due in considerable part to American enthusiasm for London theater. On any afternoon, the queue for the Leicester Square half-price ticket booth is peopled almost exclusively by Americans, arguing the merits of "The Phantom of the Opera" over "Follies" or "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" over "Serious Money."

London theater is already relatively inexpensive. Last year Tim Rice's musical "Chess" set a new top ticket rate of 20 pounds (about $36.50), a lead that so far other shows have not chosen to follow. You can still see "42nd Street" for as little as 3 pounds ($5.50), and anything above 10 pounds ($18) will ensure you pretty decent seats. Apart from a handful of big hits, it's usually possible to get into most shows, particularly in the early part of the week (London productions run Monday to Saturday; on Sunday the West End is dead).

There are exceptions, of course: Lloyd Webber's latest hit, "The Phantom of the Opera," is sold out until July, while "Cats" advises advance booking with the slogan, "The longer you wait, the longer you'll wait." But both these shows are likely to be running well into the 21st century, so what's the hurry? There are at any time up to 90 other productions -- West End, fringe, Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre -- in central London. Much of it is, naturally, complete junk but, even so, nowhere else matches London's level of production.

In other capitals, theaters drift from crisis to crisis, going dark for long, often indefinite periods. In London, in contrast, most theaters, crumbling wrecks until a few years ago, have been restored to their original elegance: Even if the show is lousy, you can admire the de'cor and study the posters of the theater's most famous productions. In the past few weeks alone, three houses have reopened: the Royalty, with an all-star revival of "The Importance of Being Earnest"; the Playhouse, with a rather gloomy British musical; and the Cambridge, with a Christmas production of "Peter Pan" with two popular TV stars.

"Stars," incidentally, are no guarantee of anything, and those theatergoers who buy tickets purely on the strength of a big name are laying themselves wide open to disappointment. There are no West End performers who, in the manner of Gwen Verdon or Liza Minnelli, have shows tailored to their screen roles. There are several good reasons for seeing Charlton Heston as Sir Thomas More in "A Man for All Seasons" or Stephanie Beacham in the RSC's "The Rover," but being a fan of Jason and Sable Colby is not one of them.

Similarly, devoted admirers of Laurence Olivier's Richard III or Hamlet should steer well clear of "Time" at the Dominion Theatre. This show is a sort of rock-concert-cum-intergalactic-courtroom-drama, in which the Earth is on trial because it manufactures nuclear weapons -- and it's every bit as banal as it sounds. Olivier's contribution is not live but computer-generated -- a huge Easter egg descends from the ceiling and opens to reveal a giant hologram of his head -- a feat of technology not entirely problem-free (on opening night his nostrils were in the wrong place). The show's popularity rests on the various performers who've been enticed to costar with Olivier. David Cassidy has just completed his stint, and among the names expected next year is John Travolta.

"Time's" combination of slightly passe' rock music plus laser technology neatly encapsulates the twin characteristics of the modern British musical. A decade ago, London musicals were as awful as they had ever been -- soupy operettas or capering musical comedies about earls chasing chorus girls. Even the locals preferred the U.S. imports. Now, the wheel has come full circle: London is the world's major producer of musicals and, ironically, Americans are among their biggest boosters.

Audience reactions to these lavish technomusicals vary wildly, but a travel agent who specializes in theater tours informs me that his American customers overwhelmingly prefer "Chess" to "Phantom." "Chess" is the one about East versus West as played out in an international chess tournament. It's a show you can go to again and again, if only because Tim Rice never seems to finish rewriting it, cheerily describing the 18 months since opening night as "the most expensive workshop in the world."

"Chess" has some attractive numbers, but generally, if you like witty and romantic show songs, most of these spectaculars are disappointing. "You could throw away every song in 'Cats' except 'Memory' and it wouldn't make any difference," Jule Styne, composer of "Gypsy" once said.

What is memorable in the new British shows? The feline acrobatics in "Cats," the furious roller-skating in "Starlight Express," the underwater lake in "Phantom of the Opera" -- as Andrew Lloyd Webber's critics like to sneer, you leave the shows whistling the set. Even when the music is appealing, the words are nondescript. Lloyd Webber has worked his way through more lyric writers in 10 years than Richard Rodgers did in 60.

For his new show, however, Lloyd Webber is reunited with his collaborator on "Song & Dance," Don Black, Britain's most distinguished lyricist and the first British songwriter to win an Oscar ("Born Free"). Black and Lloyd Webber are adapting David Garnett's Bloomsbury novel "Aspects of Love," which will be tried out in July at Lloyd Webber's Sydmonton Festival.

Lloyd Webber is the man most closely associated with Britain's musical revolution, but equally important is the contribution of Cameron Mackintosh, producer of both "Cats" and "Les Mise'rables," currently vying for the title of most successful show in theater history. I love Broadway, but in recent years, with "Woman of the Year" and "La Cage aux Folles," I have had the feeling I've seen it all before. Whatever you think about British shows, you can't accuse Mackintosh of following formulas.

Take "Les Mise'rables." "Somebody gave me a tape of some songs in French, a language I don't speak, adapted from a Victor Hugo novel I've never read, all about revolutionary France. I can't even pronounce the name properly. But I was just taken by the immense theatricality of the idea," Mackintosh said.

It was a typical Mackintosh touch to assign the lyrics of "Les Miz" to Herbert Kretzmer, a London critic much admired but who has not written a West End show for almost 20 years. Such apparent eccentricities have almost all paid off at the box office.

Mackintosh's two latest hits are "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Follies," a 1971 Broadway flop about aging Ziegfeld showgirls. But the London production is not a revival. "I suggested to Steve {Sondheim} and Jim {Goldman}," Mackintosh said innocently, "that they might just like to take another look at the show." The result of Mackintosh's "suggestion" was that the story was completely rewritten and several new songs were added. Personally, I preferred the tougher original to its more innocuous reworking, but the difference is clear: On Broadway, the show lost $600,000; in London, it's a smash, set to run for years and almost certain to be successfully exported to America. Mackintosh has turned Sondheim, a consistent money-loser for American producers, into a commercial proposition.

One of the consequences of London's present ascendancy in musicals is the number of U.S. writers following their audiences to London. Not since the 1920s, when Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Hammerstein, Kern and Porter all wrote for the West End stage, have so many American showfolk been working in England. This week, at the Lyric, Hammersmith, Charles Strouse unveils "Lyle the Crocodile," a children's musical that could prove as successful as his earlier hit, "Annie." At Leicester, "Fat Pig," a new musical by Henry ("Dreamgirls") Krieger, has just had its out-of-town premiere. And next year Cy Coleman, Burton Lane, Joseph Stein and Mort Shuman will all be opening their new shows in London. Among them, these writers are responsible for such classic American musicals as "Sweet Charity," "Barnum," "Finian's Rainbow," "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris." Broadway's loss is London's gain.

Shuman has teamed up with Don Black to write "Budgie," which opens in February and stars Adam Faith, a pop singer turned actor. Set among the lovable lowlife of Soho, "Budgie," Don Black says, is intended to be a sort of London "Guys and Dolls." At least it's a London musical on a London subject. Most British shows could come from outer space for all they have to with the country.

Some American writers have gone all the way and moved here permanently. That the author of such "British" shows as "My Fair Lady" and "Camelot," the late Alan Jay Lerner, should have chosen to live in London is no surprise. But it did seem cruelly symbolic of British dominance in musicals when Mark Bramble, author of such quintessentially American show biz fables as "42nd Street" and "Barnum," settled in London.

"I like going to the theater here," he says. "It's not an event you have to plan. Friends ring up at 6 and say 'Let's see a show,' and off you go. But I'm also at the stage of my life where I want to work a lot, and, because of the economic factors in American theater, most of the work is now in London."

Bramble says that of all the various "42nd Streets" playing around the world, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane production is his favorite.I'm not entirely sure I agree, but it does seem to indicate a growing expertise in the staging of American musicals. A recent revival of "Wonderful Town!" by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green delighted its authors. "It was very relaxed," said Green. "You didn't have the feeling that here were a lot of actors trying very hard. They just did the show very naturally."

Another Comden and Green revival has just opened -- "Bells Are Ringing," unseen in Britain for 30 years. Many of the jokes (about Tab Hunter and Marlon Brando) are now virtually incomprehensible, but the characters -- an answering-service girl and her clients -- are engaging and the show does have two great ballads, "Just in Time" and "The Party's Over." The production is at the Greenwich Theatre, so, if you've been to see the National Maritime Museum and the Cutty Sark, it's a nice way to round out the day.

The splashiest revival of the season will be a lavish "South Pacific," which opens at the Prince of Wales' in January. In the meantime, the best old show in town is the RSC's production of Cole Porter's "Kiss Me, Kate" at the Old Vic. But the staging is efficient rather than inspired, and choreographer Ron Field's Busby Berkeley appetite for repeat choruses becomes tiresome: If they're Too Darn Hot, why don't they stop leaping about?

Apart from old musicals, London producers have grown fond of American comedies, such as George Abbott's 1930s farce "Three Men on a Horse," revived by the National Theatre. Elsewhere, for the visitor, London comedy is no laughing matter, although it's certainly a revelation to anyone who thinks the English sense of humor is Noel Coward being frightfully witty in smoking jacket and cigarette holder.

The title is usually the giveaway. The classic example is "No Sex, Please, We're British," which after 16 years (the world's longest-running comedy) finally folded, just a few months ago. Taking its place are "Run for Your Wife" and "When Did You Last See Your ... Trousers?" In this dramatic genre, there comes a point when the hero, having lost all his clothes, is forced to dress up as a woman. He will then be chased around the stage, either by a bisexual policeman or a man in a gorilla suit or (in "When Did You Last See Your ... Trousers?"), just to be on the safe side, both. These are time-honored conventions, but they are baffling to the outsider. In most countries, sex is, well, sexy; to the English, sex is a big joke -- and one that usually backfires, too.

The British predilection for men dressed up as women is particularly puzzling. Just opened at the Strand for what will doubtless be a long run is Dame Edna Everage, the Australian housewife superstar who hurls gladioluses at "her" audience and is accompanied by a man with disgustingly stained trousers, Sir Les Paterson, Australian cultural attache' to the Court of St. James's. This is a brilliantly satirical act, but those unfamiliar with the Dame may just be left cold.

At least Dame Edna flies her own colors. An American friend of mine arrived in town recently, bought a new Oscar Wilde biography and thought she'd go see Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" starring Dr. Evadne Hinge and Dame Hilda Brackett at the Whitehall Theatre. Having assumed that Dame Hilda was a great star of the London stage -- like Dame Edith Evans -- she was stunned to discover that the show was, in fact, a ghastly sendup of the play, with Wilde's epigrams replaced by laxative jokes. It was not until near the end of Act 1 that she realized that both Dr. Evadne and Dame Hilda are men. Neither the program nor the play's billing gives any indication of the transvestite travesty lurking within, a sobering reminder to any visitor never to buy tickets for a comedy without first making extensive inquiries. Generally speaking, American humor travels better than British.

Specializing in more sophisticated comedy as well as intelligent drama is the new Royalty Theatre Company, whose latest presentation, "The Living Room," is something of a curiosity, a rare venture into theater by novelist Graham Greene.

The 1988 season represents an even rarer venture: absolute democracy in the West End. Next year's program will be decided by the public, voting for the plays they'd most like to see revived. True, the company drops a few hints ("Charley's Aunt," Noel Coward, Terence Rattigan), but it's no secret that it's wide open to suggestions for a suitable vehicle for two of its most distinguished members, Vincent Price and his wife Coral Browne. If you've any ideas, drop the company a line (the Royalty Theatre, London WC2).

The Royalty's give-'em-what-they-want policy is the latest symptom of an increasing cautiousness towards new drama. This may owe as much to the Almighty as to hostile critics or indifferent audiences. This year, two of London's most adventurous theaters, the Tricycle and the Bush, burned down, the former during the run of "Burning Point," the latter at the premiere of "Effie's Burning" (not for nothing are actors pathologically superstitious). Both theaters plan to reopen next year and resume their policies of "good contemporary plays," otherwise in short supply at the moment.

The flagship of new drama should be the National Theatre, but for the past few seasons under Peter Hall the company has lacked any sense of artistic direction. Sir Peter, like a petulant child, has spent much of his time launching erratic and ineffective attacks on what he sees as the stinginess of the government subsidy. To many of us, though, recent productions have suffered not from too little money but too much. The National has displayed an inordinate fondness for slight "community" plays, which it then buries in large casts, tons of scaffolding and specially commissioned jingly-jangly music. There is a depressing sameness about too many of its productions.

Things may improve next year when Sir Peter hands the reins over to Richard Eyre. Until then, the National's only truly first-rate production is its revival of "A View From the Bridge," Arthur Miller's melodrama of incest and treachery. Michael Gambon is magnificent; there is no better performance in London.

The best of the new plays is Caryl Churchill's satire on the City of London, "Serious Money," although it's mildly disconcerting that what's meant to be a savage indictment of City morality gets its biggest laughs from the yuppie stockbrokers and futures traders in the audience. But don't worry, for those who don't understand a word of financial jargon, the play comes with a fascinating glossary of City terms. This show has had a bullish reception at the box office, thanks to the continuing topicality of the City -- first, the Guinness scandals, then the market downturn (actually predicted by the play).

And then there's always Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap," the world's longest-running stage production, still here after 35 years. The show is now a tourist attraction, just like Madame Tussaud's. And just like Madame Tussaud's, the characters are pretty lifeless. More ritual than drama, it is a painful couple of hours, just for the pleasure of being able to boast, "I've seen the world's longest-running play." My advice is, tell people you've seen it and go see something else.

Dame Agatha's torch has been passed to Jeffrey Archer, Tory politician and bestselling novelist ("Kane and Abel"). His first play, an inoffensive courtroom drama, is one of the hottest tickets in town, thanks to Archer's uncanny knack for attracting publicity. Shortly before the play opened, his own courtroom drama ended when he received a 500,000 pound libel settlement after a newspaper claimed he had slept with a prostitute. Archer is a likable chap, and one has to admire his nerve. During the out-of-town run, things were't going so well. Instead of doing a total rewrite, he made one minor change: He swapped the order of Act 1 and Act 2. Hey, presto! The play became a smash. Even Shakespeare would have been impressed.

But, on balance, Archer is good for British theater. He makes money for his producers and ensures that they can afford to gamble on more radical work. The range of drama available to the public is constantly expanding, and these days theaters turn to the most surprising sources to fill their houses. Those Broadway writers whose shows folded after two nights and lost $7 million might like to take heart from the latest dazzling revival by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Ben Jonson's "The New Inn" -- unseen since its first-night fiasco in 1629. Who says there are no second chances? Mark Steyn is a theater critic for The Independent in London.