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The End of an Uncertain Broadway Season

May 31, 1985

NEW YORK (AP) _ The Broadway theater officially ends its lackluster 1984-85 season today, beset by economic uncertainty and bedeviled by a shortage of new hit shows.

The season was disappointing in quantity as well as quality, with only 33 plays or musicals opening between June 1, 1984 and May 31, 1985. Two years ago, there were 50 shows.

That shortage has seriously affected Broadway’s annual awards mania, which flowers at this time of year. For example:

-For the first time since the Tony awards were founded in 1947, three categories - leading actor and actress in a musical and choreographer - were eliminated because of a lack of competition. The winners of the other Tonys will be announced Sunday.

-The New York Drama Critics Circle, the major theater critics organization in the New York metropolitan area, declined to give awards for best musical or best foreign play.

-The Drama Desk, an organization of theater critics, reporters and editors, dropped four of its annual awards, including those for best musical and best director of a musical.

Overshadowing the entire season was the absence of a new hit musical. Of the eight musicals that opened this year, only Yul Brynner’s ″farewell engagement″ of ″The King and I″ demonstrated much box-office clout, and it will close June 30 because Brynner has decided to call it quits after more than 4,500 performances.

Even the season’s most critically acclaimed musical, ″Big River,″ the favorite to capture the best musical Tony, has not been selling out and is a questionable bet for a long run.

The stakes are high for both theatergoers, spending as much as $47.50 per ticket, and producers, who must contend with escalating production costs. ″The Three Musketeers,″ one of the season’s most celebrated flops, dropped nearly $4 million in less than two weeks. ″Harrigan ’n Hart,″ a small musical, cost more than $2 million, and died after five performances.

The same high costs exist for straight plays, too. Neil Simon’s ″Biloxi Blues,″ the season’s one smash comedy, cost $850,000.

Ticket prices have climbed along with production costs. ″La Cage aux folles″ and ″Grind″ have a $47.50 top ticket price. A revival of Eugene O’Neill’s five-hour ″Strange Interlude″ reached $50, while the Rex Harrison- Claudette Colbert production of ″Aren’t We All?″ charges $42.50 for its best seats.

Because of the paucity of new hits, Broadway has had to depend on its musical successes from past seasons, and most of them have been around for a while. ″42nd Street″ begins its fifth year in August. ″Cats″ opened in October 1982. Even ″La Cage aux folles″ is 2 years old. And that granddaddy of them all, ″A Chorus Line″ arrived on Broadway in June 1975.

Two plans to reduce production costs emerged this season. A new standard contract was devised for playwrights and producers. It gives the playwright a larger advance in exchange for a lower royalty fee until the show has recouped its investment.

A second plan, initiated by producer Morton Gottlieb, lets a producer sell only 499 seats in a larger theater, in exchange for keeping ticket prices under $30. In return, actors, unions and the theater owners take lower salaries. Results, so far, have been inconclusive. Gottlieb tried the idea with a short-lived drama, ″Dancing in the End Zone,″ and it is being used again with the currently running comedy, ″Doubles.″

Some Broadway observers believe the creative and production crisis is only temporary, a problem that can be cured by the arrival of a few big hits. They cite the fallow days of the 1974-75 season, before the arrival of ″The Wiz″ and ″A Chorus Line,″ as an example.

″I believe it’s cyclical. Granted we have some problems - the general cost of productions and the price of the tickets,″ says Allen Becker, director of the BMI Musical Theater Workshop. ″But we’ve been through this before. In the days right after ‘Hair,’ everyone thought only of doing rock musicals and it didn’t work.″

Others, however, are not so sure.

″The audience is drying up,″ said Frederick Zollo, producer of ″Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom″ and ″Hurlyburly,″ two of the contenders for the Tony award for best play.

″The legitimate theater is not part of peoples’ lives today. And the less people are interested in the theater, the less desire there is to write for the theater.

″We’ve lost that interest and either we gain it again or put up with seasons like this one for the rest of time.″

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