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Can Broadway rebound again like after 9/11?

A No. 1 show: John Cullum was flush

A No. 1 show: John Cullum was flush with excitement in ?Urinetown: The Musical,? which gave Broadway audiences a good laugh after 9/11. Credit: Newsday / Ari Mintz

The first Broadway opening after 9/11 could not have seemed like a worse idea.

It was little more than a week since the towers collapsed. Times Square was still a ghost town and theatergoers had to pass wall after pleading wall of "have you seen?" and "lost" posters and photographs to get to . . . what?

"Urinetown: The Musical"? This was no time to welcome a satirical little futurist-nightmare that bashed capitalists, police and politicians - all the symbols Americans had suddenly begun to love so much. I remember how guilty I felt during the first few laughs.

But after that, it felt wonderful. This preposterous show, which went on to win three major Tonys, was deliriously inappropriate, but also witty and adorably original. For me, that's how the decade really started in the theater - with a lesson on the restorative power of live artists and audiences together in a room.

The theater, like the country, has gone through plenty since then. Although Broadway appeared last season to have ridden out the worst of the economy, the autumn mostly made it on the slippery backs of big movie stars and big old musicals.

We've lost playwrights August Wilson, Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter and Wendy Wasserstein.

We've lost many of the most attractive Off-Broadway commercial theaters, sold for real estate because producers came to believe they could only thrive on high-profile events in big-money theaters.

The word of the decade has been "branding" - that is, searing Broadway into the international consciousness as synonymous with Theater. This appears to be working splendidly, so far, for the commercial theater, though I worry about the longer-term impact of unchecked ticket prices - for plays without stars as well as big shows. I also worry about the loss of cachet and cash in Off-Broadway and off-Off-Broadway, where the most innovative work has always begun.

The bloated decades of British mega-musical spectacles by Andrew Lloyd Webber, etc., are over, at least until his upcoming sequel to "Phantom of the Opera." In their place has been the rise of smart and original musicals. Except for "Billy Elliot," they're American and attracting new young audiences.

In 2003, Broadway survived bitter contract negotiations with the musicians union, but I wish I could say that live music were being well-represented in the recent crop of reduced "chamber music" revivals. In 2007, the stagehands went out for 19 days, shutting down most of Broadway. Producers will say that the settlement is not unrelated to the astronomical rise in ticket prices. Others say otherwise.

After years of malignant neglect, the country has a president who defines arts goals. President Barack Obama persuaded Rocco Landesman, high-rolling head of the Jujamcyn group of theater owner-producers, to run the battered but still-politicized National Endowment for the Arts. And last year's death of Gerald Schoenfeld, powerful president of the Shubert Organization, has left control to company veterans. The coming years may have as much drama in the executive offices as on the stage.

 

SEVEN THINGS TO REMEMBER

 

1. THE NEW AMERICAN MUSICALS

Among these: "Spring Awakening," "Movin' Out," "Passing Strange," "Grey Gardens" and "In the Heights." Each, in its own bold way, defied the tastes for theme-park musicals and tracing-paper adaptations of movies. So there's hope.

2. WE LOVE HUGH

Let's not trash every TV and movie star for just being a crass box-office draw. The good ones are crass box-office draws and dramatic dynamite. Six years before Hugh Jackman joined Daniel Craig in "A Steady Rain" this fall, Jackman was spectacular - singing and dancing - as Peter Allen in "The Boy From Oz." I will forever respect the quiet dignity of Julia Roberts in her unfairly maligned Broadway debut in "Three Days of Rain."

3. LINCOLN CENTER

So much of my most cherished theater has come from the Lincoln Center Theatre. Top on the list must be "The Coast of Utopia," its astoundingly audacious and beautiful three-part, eight-hour productions of Tom Stoppard's adventure story about nothing less than progressive thought in 19th century Russia. The theater's revival of "South Pacific" (still running) is an object lesson how both to revitalize and honor classic material.

4. EDWARD ALBEE

It is hard to remember that, not so long ago, Albee was not considered fashionable in this city. The master of articulate grown-up theater, who turned an unthinkable 80 in 2007, has been a thriving presence here all decade. We have seen major revivals of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," "Tiny Alice" and "Seascape." His new plays have included "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" (Tony Award), "The Play About the Baby," "The Occupant" and "Peter and Jerry" (prequel to "The Zoo Story"). And another new one, "Me, Myself and I," opens in the spring.

5. STEPHEN SONDHEIM

Equally ridiculous is that Sondheim will turn 80 in March. The decade has had Broadway revivals of "Sweeney Todd," "Company," "Follies," "Assassins," "Sunday in the Park with George" and, this month, "A Little Night Music." Most amazing, however, was the Kennedy Center's summerlong Sondheim festival in 2002 - six fully staged musicals in a once-in-a-lifetime chance to imagine the Sondheim Repertory Company that a sensible theater would have created and nurtured years ago.

6. JOSEPH PAPP'S LEGACY

Every time I go to the Public Theater or Shakespeare in the Park, I am again grateful that Papp's theater-shaking institutions have been continued with such care, imagination and ambition by George C. Wolfe and, since 2006, by Oskar Eustis. They've been very different leaders, but each has brought a rigor that these precious institutions deserve.

7. LINCOLN CENTER FESTIVAL

I've stopped complaining that the Lincoln Center Festival makes me stay alert in Manhattan in July. From its historic Pinter Festival in 2001 through last summer's unforgettable seven-hour memory play, "Les Ephemeres," by Ariane Mnouchkin, this has been an invaluable international journey.

 

SEVEN THINGS TO FORGET

 

1. ETIQUETTE HAS SUCH A QUAINT SOUND TO IT

In the theater, however, bad behavior is out of control. Phones are ringing, people are texting, tweeting, taking photos and videos. David Hyde Pierce said that, during the 2007 run of "Curtains," a family passed a bucket of chicken along the front row.

2. MEDIOCRE REVIVALS OF GOOD MUSICALS

Memories and potential new audiences are being squashed by lackluster stagings of "Guys and Dolls," "Pal Joey," "West Side Story" and, most recently, "Bye, Bye Birdie."

3. MUSICAL ADAPTATIONS OF HIT MOVIES

For every "Hairspray" and "Billy Elliot," there are millions spent trying to reproduce "Footloose," "Saturday Night Fever," "9 to 5" (add your own special favorite cloned loser here). For every "Lion King," there's a "Tarzan" and "Little Mermaid" and, for all its sweetness, the thoroughly unnecessary "Shrek."

4. "AMERICAN IDOL"-IZATION

The "American Idol"-ization of singing styles and reality-TV casting are creeping their way into Broadway. Fantasia was terrific in "The Color Purple," but that revival of "Grease" made the Rosie O'Donnell version seem like high art. If casting directors are feeling threatened, imagine how professional drama schools must feel.

5. GREED ISN'T GOOD

When Mel Brooks invented the idea of scalping "The Producers" himself by charging $480 for something called premium seats, we thought it was a greedy aberration. Now all the producers do it. As Max Bialystock liked to say, "I want that money!"

6. NO MORE VAMPIRE MUSICALS, OK?

While the creators of "True Blood," "The Vampire Diaries" and "Twilight" (OK, let's not forget "Buffy") grasp the primal allure of the undead, Broadway is splattered with the remains of "Dance of the Vampires," "Dracula, the Musical" and "Lestat."

7. MALL MADNESS

Why does Broadway need those hideous, traffic-clogging, thoroughly alienating pedestrian parkways? Mayor Bloomberg, tear down this mall.

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