YOU COULD SAY that Broadway sits in the shadow of Times Square, but that’s not really true because a million flashing lights cast no shadows. And Broadway doesn’t exactly sit. By day, she lies low. In hard times, she even slumps. But most every night at about 8 o’clock when the curtains go up on the 30-some-odd stages that comprise the theater mecca of the world, Broadway skips and struts and kicks and leaps and flies.
This year being no exception, Broadway’s offerings are exceptional. It’s true that there aren’t as many plays running this year as there were the last few seasons (mostly a result of escalating production costs), but most of the plays on the boards are quality stuff. A slow-starting season has finally matured into a healthy mix of comedies, dramas and musicals, with more than a dozen new productions and fewer revivals than in recent stale years. And the high price of taking a show to the Great White Way has produced an equally-if not more-exciting selection of off-Broadway theater. With acompetitive air fares less expensive than they have been, now is an excellent time to take to the City for a theatergoer’s Christmas, Hanukkah or New Year.
Those people given to Christmas refuge (and who can blame them?) may not enjoy being in New York during the holidays. Who needs the rude salespeople and threatening throngs at Macy’s or the scrappy Santas who lurk at every corner? Why suffer gritty sleet and snow, shifty pickpockets and the inevitability of no empty cabs in sight? For those people, there’s Vail. Or the Caribbean. Or the calm of their own Christmas trees in their own living rooms. Fine. But can anything compare with the feeling of a bracing wind on your face as you walk up Fifth Avenue, the sight of a hundred ice skaters in Rockefeller Center or the thrill of jumping into a taxi, Playbill in hand, having just seen the show that your friends will be talking about after it wins a Tony next June?
Many of the following plays and musicals had not opened when we went to press, and a few may close, so by all means check The New York Times, The New Yorker or New York magazine before you go. Also, more new productions will probably open in December and January, so save a night or two of theatergoing for something you haven’t heard about. You can discern a lot from the newspaper reviews. After all, it’s much more exciting to be one of the first people to see a fresh, new show from the seventh row than to catch Cats from the back row of the balcony.
OUR TOP CHOICES
Brighton Beach Memoirs. Critics who had been tough on Neil Simon, Broadway’s most prolific playwright, praised him highly for rising above what they considered facile, if well-executed, comedies to create Brighton Beach, a warm, fleshed-out, very funny play about two families living together during the Depression. At the center of the play is young Eugene, the wry narrator of this autobiographical story, who can’t decide if he wants to play professional baseball or become a writer. Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd. (212) 757-8646.
A Chorus Line. Now the longest-running production in Broadway history (having surpassed Grease’s 3,388 performances two months ago), this is a musical that should be seen. A single white line on an empty stage forms the background as well as the primary symbol of a story about an audition for a dance chorus and the joy and pain of doing what you have to do. Michael Bennett’s staging and choreography are immediate, innovative and always spectacular. It’s one singular sensation. Shubert, 225 W. 44th. 239-6200.
Dreamgirls. Another Michael Bennett production, Dreamgirls is a tight, dazzling musical with a somber underside about the rise of three black singers (a la the Su-premes) who move from poor girls’ soul music during the early Sixties to Motown-like stardom with more than the harmony lost in transition. Imperial, 249 W. 45th. 230-6200.
La Cage aux Folles. This is the musical that people are standing in line to see, and those who’ve seen it say it’s worth the wait. It’s an old-fashioned musical with a not-so-old-fashioned subject: George and Albin are lovers. Albin is a man-a female impersonator in the St. Tropez nightclub that George owns. George’s son by an earlier marriage wants to marry the daughter of a gay-hating city official and, well, the parents of the girl want to meet the parents of the boy. The sets and costumes, they say, are magnificent; the chorus girls (mostly boys) are well-heeled; and the music is terrific. Palace, Broadway and 47th. 757-2626
Little Shop of Horrors. It’s hard to have more fun at the theater than at this doo-wopping sendup of Fifties schlock sci-fi movies. Seymour is our drippy but likable hero; Audrey is our dippy but likable heroine; and Audrey II is the man-eating plant (likable still) that by the end of the evening “devours” the entire theater. The script is intelligent and clever, and the music is a delight. Orpheum, 126SecondAve. 239-6200.
My One and Only. Last spring, Frank Rich of 77m; New York Times called this “the only musical of the season that sends us home on air.” Another of the Saturday night sellouts, My One and Only is a boy-meets-girl romance based on the film Funny Face. It’s enhanced infinitely by the capricious choreography of Tommy Tune, the fine dancing of Tune and Twiggy, and the blissful music of Gershwin. St. James, 246 W. 44th. 398-0280.
’night, Mother. In Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, a mother attempts to save her daughter after the daughter tells her that she’s going to commit suicide. This may be American theater at its best, an unaffected presentation of real passion that is never hokey or maudlin and is more enjoyable to watch than it may seem. Golden, 252 W. 45th. 239-6200.
On Your Toes. “The best dancing and the best music and lyrics on Broadway,” says Clive Barnes, theater critic for The New fork Post. Veteran director George Abbott has revived Rodgers and Hart’s 1936 musical with great flair and the invaluable choreography of the late, great George Balanchine, former artistic director of the American Ballet Theater. Virginia, 245 W. 52nd. 977-9370.
Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You. Christopher Durang’s offbeat wit is at its scathing best in this hilarious one-act play about Sister Mary, who is teaching a peculiar version of the catechism to a young boy, the audience and finally to a group of fallen ex-students who pay her a visit. The gentle sister keeps a handgun in her habit. This provocative play has a curtain warmer, The Actor’s Nightmare, which blithely laughs at the perils of a poor sap who, having wandered into a play filled with an incongruous assortment of past famous characters, is expected to know his lines. West-side Arts, 407 W. 43rd. 541-8394.
Torch Song Trilogy. Author-actor Harvey Fierstein has fashioned a riotous comedy about the trials of an awkward but charming homosexual named Arnold, who, in the course of three one-act plays, comes to embrace-to some people’s surprise-some of the most old-fashioned values to be espoused by a playwright in 25 years. The intelligence and maturity underlying the humor made Torch Song the obvious candidate for the Tony Award for best play of the ’82- ’83 season, which it won. Helen Hayes, 240 W. 44th. 221-6425.
Amen Corner. A musical based on James Baldwin’s play about a woman who becomes a preacher in Harlem during the Fifties. Nederlander. 208 W. 41st. 921-8000.
American Buffalo. Al Pacino stars in this smart, grisly three-man play set in a junk shop in Chicago. David Mamet’s script has been praised for its sly but incisive concern with American values. Booth, 222 W. 45th. 246-5969.
Brothers. In the only new American-authored play to open so far this season, Carroll O’Connor plays a union leader in a New England shipbuilding town. Royale, 242 W. 45th. 239-6200.
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. Critics have been particularly impressed by the latest production of Herman Wouk’s tense courtroom drama, and audiences are liking it as much (perhaps more) than they did when it debuted in 1954. Circle in the Square, 50th west of Broadway. 581-0720.
Cats. A frolicking, expertly designed musical by Andrew Lloyd-Webber, with lyrics taken from a lighthearted T.S. Eliot poem. Cats barely has a Structure and has little substance, but it does have an incredible set, wonderful music and exuberant staging and dancing. Winter Garden, 1634 Broadway at 51st. 239-6200.
Doonesbury. Cartoonist Gary Trudeau has written words and music for his now-famous characters who inhabit our newspaper and who help us through modern living. Kate Burton stars. Biltmore, 261 W. 47th. 582-5340.
42nd Street. Frank Rich called this long-running extravaganza, which is directed and choreographed by the late Gower Champion, “this brilliant showman’s final perfect monument to his glorious career. Yet, we simply grin and bear the forced gaiety of the plot-advancing scenes while waiting for the dancers.” Majestic, 245 W. 44th. 246- 0730.
The Glass Menagerie. John Heard, Amanda Plummer and the amazing Jessica Tandy star in this brand-new revival of Tennessee Williams’ poignant story of the deluded Amanda Wingfield and her children. Eugene O’Neill, 230 W. 49th. 246-0220.
Marilyn-An American Fable. A new musical about Miss Monroe. Minskoff, 200 W. 45th. 869-0550.
Nine. This lavish if icy musical directed and choreographed by the always inventive Tommy Tune follows an Italian film director and the 21 women who planet and provoke his life. It won the Tony for best musical in 1982. 46th Street Theater, west of Broadway. 221-1211.
Noises Off. Michael Frayn’s spoof of theater as seen from the wings of a stage where a motley British acting troupe is performing a sex farce called “Nothing On.”
The reviews from the play’s long London run were raves. Brooks Atkinsin, 256 W. 47th. 245-3430.
The Rink. Terrence McNally, the very funny playwright, and John Kander and Fred Ebb, the songwriting team responsible for the music of Cabaret, have created a musical about a mother and daughter in Cone Island. It stars Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli. (The theater had not been announced when we went to press.)
Tuscaloosa’s Calling Me… But I’m Not Going. An updated revival of a 1975 off-Broadway musical about loathing and loving New York. Scheduled to open December 15. Music Box, 239 W. 45th. 246-4636.
You Can’t Take It With You. Another Depression-era family (this one even more eccentric than the last) in a funny, endearing play by Kaufman and Hart that was first produced in 1936. Plymouth, 236 W. 45th. 239-6200.
Zorba. In 1964, the story of Zorba the Greek made for an award-winning film. In 1968, it made for a weak Broadway musical. With some minor plot changes and two new songs added, it is reputed to be quite lively, mainly a result of the huge presence of Anthony Quinn, the same lusty, wise Zorba of the movie. Broadway, 1681 Broadway. 239-6200.
Two British imports-both plays and both likely to be big hits based on their successes in London-have, at press time, not yet announced their theaters. The first is Beethoven’s Tenth, a one-man show starring Peter Ustinov (who also wrote the script) as the great musician himself, who has come back to take a look at the modern world. The second is by Tom Stoppard, who is considered to be one of the important playwrights of this and the last three decades. It’s called The Real Thing, and it’s about an arrogant playwright (Jeremy Irons) and the woman he has an affair with (Glenn Close) and then marries. This American production is being directed by stage and film director Mike Nichols.
Off-Broadway does not refer to any and all New York productions running somewhere other than in a Broadway house. It refers to a designated set of several dozen professional theaters and is vital to the theater scene. With considerably smaller facilities and lower budgets, off-Broadway theaters are often the testing ground for new plays, some of which go on to Broadway. OB is where you’ll find less-mainstream, more innovative works and, frankly, productions that are sometimes better than Broadway’s. Most Broadway houses are located near Times Square in midtown Manhattan, but off-Broadway theaters are everywhere, many in Greenwich Village. Plays and theaters that aren’t Broadway or off-Broadway are called off-off-Broadway.
A Backers’ Audition. Putting on a New York show starts with money, and this new comedy reveals that the financing of a production can be more theatrical than the production itself. Manhattan Theatre Club, Upstage Theatre, 321 E. 73rd. 472-0600.
Fool for Love. Sam Shepard’s well-received love story of sorts. Jack Kroll said in Newsweek: “A classic rattlesnake riff. Shepard puts the hunger, the pain, the anger and the crazy joy on stage so you can taste it.” Circle Repertory, 99 Seventh Ave. South 691-6226.
The Lady and the Clarinet. Stockard Channing is Luba, who tells us that she is looking for love; the clarinet tells us how much. LucilleLortel, 121 Christopher. 924-8782.
The Last of the Knucklemen An Australian play about men in a mining camp in the outback, starring Dennis Quaid and Kevin O’Connor. American Theater for Actors, 314 W. 54th. 279-4200.
Quartermaine’s Terms. A play by Simon Gray about a school in Cambridge, England. Jack Kroll called it “hilarious and terrifying.” Playhouse 91, 316 E. 91st. 831-2000.
Taking My Turn. A musical celebration of life’s golden years. “Pleasure for everyone,” said John Simon in New York magazine. Entermedia, 189 Second Ave. 475-4191.
True West. The rivalry between two brothers in modern-day Southern California is the crux of this popular, serious play by Sam Shepard. Cherry Lane, 38 Commerce. 989-2020.
Yellow Fever. A comic mystery about a Japanese private eye in Canada. 47th St. Theater, 304 W. 47th. 586-2696.
Two plays whose theaters had not been announced at press time:
Lenny and the Heartbreakers. A new musical that gives us Leonardo da Vinci as a computer artist. But of course.
Fainting Churches. This play, starring Elizabeth McGovern and Marion Seldes, received rave reviews during its limited run last season.
Carmen. Bizet’s classic opera directed by the iconoclastic Peter Brook in a radical, 80-minute staging. Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center, 140 W. 65th. 762-7600.
Forbidden Broadway. Cabaret entertainment. A cutting parody of prominent Broadway characters past and present, (Dolly, Annie, Evita, etc.) This long-running hit is reputed to be very good. Palsson’s, 158 W. 72nd. 595-7400.
THERE’S NO getting around it: Ticket costs are high, and the hottest shows have the steepest prices. La Cage aux Folles, for example, costs between $32.50 and $45 per ticket, if you can get them. (Scalper’s prices are as high as $125 each.) Broadway ticket prices range from $20 to $45; $30 is about average. Off-Broadway tickets run between $12 and $27, averaging about $22.50. At the TKTS ticket booth in Times Square (at Broadway and 47th Street, 354-5800), you can stand in a line, which usually moves fairly quickly, and purchase that-day-only tickets for half their regular price. Some of the biggest box-office draws aren’t available at TKTS, but many shows are.
Tickets can be purchased at the box offices in theater lobbies or over the phone, if you have a credit card. Ticket charge services, such as Chargit (944-9300) will take telephone orders for most of the shows with the addition of a service charge. Many of Manhattan’s better hotels, such as the Plaza, have in-house ticket services and information about the productions. Your travel agent also may be able to buy tickets for you.
With phone purchases, it’s becoming almost impossible to know where you’ll be sitting, aside from the general designations that accompany price-front-left orchestra, forward section of first balcony, etc. Usually, if you go into the theater itself to get tickets, you can look at a seating chart. Most Broadway and all off-Broadway houses are small enough that all the seats are good. Still, you should consider going with your second-choice play if it means getting seats considerably closer to the stage than at your first choice. Likewise, the $5 or $10 saved by sitting at the back of the balcony may be scant compensation for bad sightlines, blurry images and lost words. The seat considered prime, by the way, is the seventh row, center.
Cancellations and standing-room policies vary from theater to theater. Some theaters won’t sell empty seats that have already been purchased; others will. Some keep a waiting list; others require that you stand in line. In the case of a play or musical that you simply must see, go to the box office and politely ask if there is any way you can buy a ticket. They can give you the bottom line, and on more than one occasion, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. A willingness to sit by yourself may also get you in. But don’t worry-despite all the press about shows being sold out nine months in advance, tickets can usually be obtained fairly quickly.
Gobbling down dinner, then rushing out-of-breath to the theater is no fun. Plan an early meal at a midtown restaurant, of which there are hundreds, or eat a late lunch and enjoy an after-theater supper, which many New York restaurants provide. Some restaurants cater to theatergoers by honoring an early reservation and pacing the dinner so that you get out in plenty of time for the show.
Dressing up for the theater is no longer de rigueur, but many people do, and jeans still stand out, at least in the Broadway houses.
One more thing: You may see advertisements for a new play that is in “previews.”This refers to the first two weeks of a runbefore the official opening, which gives theshow a chance to warm up before the criticssee it. But it doesn’t mean that the show isin rehearsal and is often the best time to seea production, especially since you may notbe able to get tickets if it’s later declared asmash.