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Monday, 5 June, 2000, 13:56 GMT 14:56 UK
Broadway's curtain call
Phantom of the Opera on Broadway
Phantom of the Opera remains a popular example of the traditional musical style
By BBC News Online Entertainment Correspondent Tom Brook

The Tony Awards - Broadway's equivalent of the Oscars - capped a New York theatre season which has broken box office records.

Total grosses stand at an all time high of $603m (421m) - up by more than 2.5% over last year.

I think every year Broadway is dying a little bit more

Eartha Kitt

Jed Bernstein, president of the League of American Theatres and Producers says he is very impressed with the turnout by theatre-goers.

"Seating capacity ran at 78%, which is remarkable. Day in and day out, almost eight out of 10 seats have been filled."

Many critics say it's been a strong season led by some impressive revivals in both plays and musicals.

But behind the boasts is the disturbing reality that theatre admissions are in fact down and box offices have broken records largely because of an increase in ticket prices.

Musical poverty

Some of the season's big name attractions are far from optimistic. Eartha Kitt, nominated for her part in a new musical, The Wild Party based on a Jazz Age poem, says: "I think every year Broadway is dying a little bit more.

The Music Man
The Music Man: Just one successful revival
"The Broadway theatre, the live theatre, is not catering the public as it should be."

Kitt partly blames high ticket prices but Broadway veteran Howard McGillin, the current Phantom of The Opera, believes the problem lies elsewhere.

"We're not seeing the kind of new musical that certainly I love, that I've been raised on, you just keep hoping that something is going to change," he says.

There has been a lot of lamenting over the health of the traditional American book musical, which seems to be a vanishing phenomenon.

This year the four productions which were nominated for the coveted best musical Tony had little in common with old-fashioned Broadway crowd pleasers.

Eartha Kitt
Eartha Kitt arrives at Sunday's awards
Contact won four Tonys, including the best musical prize. The show is a dance play from Susan Stroman - one of Broadway's hottest director/choreographers - in which all the music is pre-recorded and nobody sings.

James Joyce's The Dead is a play, now closed, which features Irish songs. Swing! is a dance review and The Wild Party has very little dialogue.

No one disputes that some of these productions are extremely creative and entertaining, but they hardly fit the standard definition of musical.

Some of the most celebrated musical productions this season have in fact been revivals of Kiss Me Kate and The Music Man.

Kiss Me Kate
Revival time: Stars of Kiss Me Kate
McGillin believes their success proves that audiences still want the traditional musical.

"People still want the same thing when they go to see a musical, I think they want music, with dancing, with singing," he affirms.

Fresh talent

The dearth of new American plays on Broadway is also raising alarm bells, particularly in a season when stagings of old works have garnered much of the critical praise.

Most notably, revivals of Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten and Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing.

"New American plays are being performed in regional theatres all around the country, the difficulty is to find a space for them here," says Patrick Stewart, currently starring in Arthur Miller's The Ride Down Mt Morgan on Broadway.

Patrick Stewart
Stewart: Regional US theatre is thriving
Stewart believes it's become too risky for producers to bring the work of an unknown American playwright to Broadway because it is just too much of a gamble.

Whether it's in a new play or a revival, those who do make it to Broadway find it a heady experience.

British actress Jennifer Ehle won the best actress in a play Tony for The Real Thing having previously performed the same role in London. She found audiences in New York openly admire Tom Stoppard's work.

"Everybody just absolutely adores it," says the actress. "People really embrace Tom's work here and sort of find an optimism and warmth in it that I don't think people always respond to in England."

Jennifer Ehle
Jennifer Ehle: A winner for The Real Thing
Opinions really diverge when it comes to assessing the current health of New York theatre.

Variety, the entertainment trade paper, this week wrote in gloomy terms of Broadway theatre admissions going into a "free fall".

But Jed Bernstein remains optimistic. "The more entertainment technology evolves, the more that live storytelling and live theatre is going to stand apart," he says.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between, with Broadway - once described as "the fabulous invalid" - somehow just managing to reinvent itself sufficiently to flourish in the competitive world of virtual reality, DVD and the internet.

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