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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

Can Broadway survive without big stars?

That cold wind is not all meteorological. This is, after all, January on Broadway, the annual tundra recognizable by vanishing tourists, dying shows and the shiver of stage doors slamming shut.

Last week, few were surprised to learn that the $8-million revival of "Ragtime," which was not selling well, would end its brief run on Sunday. In my count, that makes 15 plays and musicals gone between early December and the end of this month. (Make that 16, if you include "Broadway Bound," the Neil Simon revival that closed before it opened when its remarkable companion piece, "Brighton Beach Memoirs," collapsed after a week of audience disinterest.)

Before too much crepe is hung, however, we need to remember all the hand-wringing that accompanied the closing of 14 shows last year around this time. And the 2008-09 season - in the depths of economic catastrophe - ended with a counterintuitive all-time high of $943 million in gross ticket sales and, even more delightful, a corresponding high in quality.

So, yes, this is probably just another of Broadway's scary seasonal transitions. Last spring perked way up with more than 20 new productions. And here we are again, with at least 18 shows hovering eagerly over the emptying theaters.

But I sense a different kind of nervousness this time. I'd love to be wrong, but there seems to be an unease that comes less from Wall Street than from decisions made inside Broadway itself.

The huge winners this fall were "A Steady Rain," a two-man cop drama starring Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman, and Jude Law in an otherwise so-so "Hamlet." "A Steady Rain" was completely sold out for its limited 12-week run, with the average ticket price of $149. According to Bloomberg.com, anyone who invested $100,000 in the two-man, 85-minute play had $165,000 when it closed Dec. 6.

That's great news, isn't it? Lots of people were excited to spend lots of money to see interesting drama, just as they did for sold-out months to see James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis in a brutally fun-filled 80-minute comedy, "God of Carnage."

But recast now with merely fine actors (including Christine Lahti and Jimmy Smits), last season's Tony winner played to 69 percent capacity during the recent box-office bonanza known as Christmas week.

So I'm asking: Has the fabulously successful introduction of huge Hollywood stars distorted theatergoing appetites? How big a star is necessary to light that fire under customers, in this economy, now that producers have inflated ticket prices for everything, regardless of the size and celebrity of the offering?

In other words, is the star market threatening to bite Broadway on the butt? Such well-reviewed, lovable but no-star shows as "Finian's Rainbow" and "Memphis" are struggling to get noticed amid the growling bigger-and-bigger star hunger.

As much as I'd like to believe that the wonderful Angela Lansbury and brilliant Stephen Sondheim pushed the drab revival of "A Little Night Music" to near-capacity business on Christmas week, realists among us know the crowds are coming to see Catherine Zeta-Jones. What a relief that she's worth it.

But rejection of anything without star currency has been particularly violent in recent months. The death of the Simon revivals was especially brutal, but "The Royal Family" never got the spotlight it deserved. And I'm sure that admirers of "Ragtime," "Superior Donuts" (closing today) and "In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play" (closing next Sunday) feel comparably overshadowed by monster celebrity.

It is impossible to know how the spring season will weather the onslaught of more stars. More to the point, could a revival of "A View from the Bridge" be done today without Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson? How interested would audiences be in "Fences" without the wattage of Denzel Washington? How big does the dazzle have to be to sell a new play?

Thus far, the season promises five new plays, including the devilish pairing of Christopher Walken with wild Irish playwright Martin McDonagh in "A Behanding in Spokane" and the transfer from London of Lucy Prebble's financial satire, "Enron." There are firm dates for the much-anticipated "Sondheim on Sondheim" revue, and for "The Addams Family," starring Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth. And there are enticing rumbles, but no confirmation, about Twyla Tharp's Sinatra musical, "Come Fly With Me," and "American Idiot," a rock opera with Green Day's music and the director from "Spring Awakening."

There is financial uncertainty (and the first deficit since 1992) at the Roundabout Theatre Company, the ever-expanding nonprofit institution whose fate determines the health of its three Broadway houses: the American Airlines Theatre, Studio 54 and the new Henry Miller's Theatre, where the Roundabout's awful "Bye, Bye Birdie" closes Jan. 24.

Meanwhile, the Shubert Organization has made an unusual in-house development arrangement with independent producers. Fred Zollo and Robert Cole, responsible for "A Steady Rain," have agreed to supply big stars and short runs in exchange for prime Shubert theaters. Is this a shortsighted solution to looming Broadway problems, or will it sprinkle the problems with stardust and make them disappear? Ask again at Tony time.

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