STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: 30 Seasons Later

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: 30 Seasons Later The Broadway season officially opened the last week in September with the arrival of three plays, Dr. Cook's Garden, Keep It in the Family, and The Song of the Grasshopper."

The Broadway season officially opened the last week in September with the arrival of three plays, Dr. Cook's Garden, Keep It in the Family, and The Song of the Grasshopper."

So wrote William Goldman, in his landmark book "The Season," in which he detailed the 1967-68 Broadway semester. Can it really be 30 years ago since that last week in September gave birth -- and immediate death -- to those three aforementioned plays?

Yes. And a re-read of "The Season" -- for my money, the best book ever written about Broadway -- shows how much the business has changed since Goldman sat at his typewriter.

"The bulk of openings take place during a six-month period (from late September through late March) . . . You don't know what hard is until you've sat through junk in April." -- Last season's musicals and this season notwithstanding, April has become the month when most of the blue chippers open, to make the most of the televised Tonys.

"Sex comedies are probably more closely associated in the public's mind with Broadway than any other kind of show except the musical" -- Now they're all on TV, sometimes in the movies, and rarely on or off Broadway. "The average length of a musical from conception to opening night might conservatively be set at two years." -- Those were the good old days!

"I only hope (Clive Barnes is) dispensed with before these words reach print." -- Well, it took a decade before the Times let him go, and a couple of years before the Post picked him up. But Goldman might not be as angry anymore, now that Barnes' power has been significantly diminished.

"(Neil) Simon is still too concerned with the easy laugh, the entertainment piece ... (He) is interesting perhaps not so much for what he has written, but what he is going to write next." -- Since then, he's often stretched himself in Chapter Two, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Broadway Bound, and Lost in Yonkers, among others. Who knew he'd eventually win a couple of Tonys and a Pulitzer?

"Even Neil Simon was growing disenchanted (with Broadway)." -- Well, he wouldn't officially take that stand until a couple of seasons ago with London Suite, which he took off-Broadway. But he's become re enchanted enough to put his Proposals at the Broadhurst.

Simon's first attempt at a play with substance: "My personal feeling is that Simon might possibly be like Philip Barry and better. I think that Simon, if he wants to, can do what Barry never managed: put it all together under one roof, into one play."

"My guess is that neither (Harold Prince nor David Merrick) is that hungry anymore. In their own field, they are a little legendary; what's left to prove?" -- Prince would go on to direct Company, Follies, Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Evita, Phantom of the Opera and Kiss of the Spider Woman -- which proved quite a bit. Merrick, even as of 1996, was producing State Fair, which was an effort least to prove he still had it in him. And 17 years ago he sure proved quite a bit when his 42nd Street was the town's hottest ticket.

Re Hal Prince: "He has turned to direction lately at which he does not excel to the extent he does as a producer. Whether his directing will damage his producing record is at this point unknown." -- Prince pretty much stopped producing, and concentrated on directing, with which he certainly has come to excel.

"Just as our parents cannot explain Abie's Irish Rose to us, I think we are going to struggle slightly to explain (Hello) Dolly's success to our children." -- To a degree. Today's kids may not like Dolly as much as the British musicals and Rent. But Dolly has had three Broadway revivals, countless road tours, stock and amateur productions, making some fans in subsequent generations.

"I don't think Pinter is ever again going to have another Broadway success unless he comes packaged with Olivier or Scofield." -- Indeed. Betrayal made a little money, but there hasn't been much box-office demand for other Pinter plays. For that matter, we haven't had many to see, because he doesn't write as much anymore.

The Mousetrap opened (in London) in 1952. That's not a typo." -- It still isn't, for the Agatha Christie thriller is still playing in the West End. Who'd have predicated THAT?

"Seeing a London production rids [producers] of the necessity of judging a script's literary standards." -- Now they abrogate that responsibility by seeing a regional theater production.

"It cost $7.50 to sit in the orchestra of Portrait of a Queen." -- Now it would be at least $40 more.

"Scuba Duba, Your Own Thing, Halfway up the Tree, Everything in the Garden got movie sales." -- Except that none ever reached the screen. Ironically enough, the 8-performance flop The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald became a made-for-TV movie in 1977.

"Joseph Papp's Public Theater, where Hair started, had a good season." -- And would have many more in the '70s, headed by That Championship Season and A Chorus Line.

"Circle-in-the-Square leased the Henry Miller's Theater." -- And couldn't make a go of it, so the building went dark, and eventually went disco. So Circle-in-the-Square went to 50th Street, where it ultimately couldn't make it, either.

"The crazy thing," (author Bruce Jay Friedman says about his Scuba Duba when the play enraged one patron enough that he stormed the stage), "is that at one time we actually toyed with the idea of having someone get up like that out of the audience and have it be part of the play." -- Audience participation is now accepted genre in the theater, thanks to 'Tony 'n' Tina's, Grandma Sylvia's, and even Forever Plaid, which did exactly what Friedman predicted, when it recruited a patron to come up and play Heart and Soul.

"Broadway has only one repertory company. It's called the APA." -- Would that it had at least 'only one' now!

"Barnes 'thought it was splendid that Chayefksy has given his play [The Latent Heterosexual] to a regional theater, thus putting these theaters in the critical spotlight', which, is exactly where these theaters ought not to be. When regional repertory starts becoming a hit-or-miss business like Broadway, we might as well throw in the sponge." -- Like it or not, that's what happened.

"(There was) a Drama Desk luncheon on which contemporary forces will have the chief effect on the popular theater of 1975." -- Well, in musical theater, it was certainly Michael Bennett, who opened A Chorus Line that year -- but isn't once mentioned by Goldman, despite his Tony nominated work for that season's Henry, Sweet Henry.

"If Jack Lemmon returned to Broadway in 1980, when his movie fans had aged into theatergoers, he'd run a lot more than 36 performances (than his play Face of a Hero ran in 1960)." -- In fact, when Lemmon returned in 1978 with Tribute, it ran 212 performances, and could have done plenty more had Lemmon decided to stay with it.

"The limited engagement is a promising thing. If major stars can be induced to play Broadway for 10 or 12 weeks, I think it's the best that can be hoped for. The star doesn't lose too much money, he can exercise his theatrical muscles." -- Both the Roundabout and the Weisslers (Grease!) have proved that.

"Paul Newman acted here a few years back; maybe he will again." -- Newman has done a number of wonderful things both as an actor and philanthropist, but appear on Broadway is not one of them. Nor, with Newman just passing his 72nd birthday, does the prospect seem likely.

"(Peter Masterson is married to) an absolutely marvelous girl named Carlin Glynn." -- We'd all learn that in 1979, when Glynn was en route to winning a Tony for her Miss Mona in Whorehouse, co-written and co directed by her hubby.

"The (Actors' S)tudio over the years has been (Peter Masterson's) salvation." -- Indeed, for that's where he did the Whorehouse workshop that was attended by Stevie Phillips, who then signed it for Universal Pictures and took it to Broadway.

"A child is what Eileen Atkins plays. It may not be what she is, but it's what comes across, and it will probably always be what comes across." -- No, Atkins has turned in so many wonderful performances that the 1995 Drama Desk nominating panel just had to give her an award, not just for Indiscretions, but also for Vita and Virginia, each of which starred her in a mature role.

"One of the most important events of the Broadway season was the blockbuster success of Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band. It would be marvelous if this success started Broadway toward a sexual freedom it has never attained." -- This is in a chapter called "Homosexuals" -- which, 23 years later, would be accepted enough to be the word that began Falsettoland.

"Generally, the homosexual doesn't have to hide quite as much as he once did. Like the lot of most minority groups, his is slowly improving. Not to the point where, for example, a performer or writer can come out and flatly admit it." -- Another breakthrough! Harvey Fierstein, Larry Kramer, and Paul Rudnick, take a bow.

"Most of the shows with the biggest advances turn out to be stiffs ... Harold Prince says, 'Historically and forever, the show with the biggest advance is the disaster of the season.' -- No , not forever, as the record breaking run of Cats has proved -- not to mention Les Miz, Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon.

"There is one theater on 48th street." -- Well, now there are two, with the glorious renaissance of the Walter Kerr. But the Longacre is so seldomly booked that 48th Street may as well still have one.

"The Broadway (Theater) is too big. Everybody in the business knows that. You simply cannot fill the Broadway, there are too many seats, and you can't get it sold out enough to make tickets scarce and `hot.'" -- The Shuberts now wish all their houses had as many seats as the Broadway. Three of the Broadway's biggest smashes in the last 20 years -- 'Evita,' 'Les Miz,' and 'Miss Saigon,' have played there.

"There is a new culture hero in our land ... And what (Mike) Nichols is, is brilliant. Brilliant and trivial and self-serving and frigid. And all ours." -- Nichols' best stage work may have been behind him, and maybe even his movie work, too, but he's one of the few directors who'd be welcome on many a Broadway and Hollywood project.

"It requires twice as much money today [$500,000] to do a musical as it did 10 years ago. A fortune." -- That wasn't I, you understand, who wrote the word "fortune." When we hear of a musical today that costs seven times that, we know it's being done on the cheap.

"(The authors) of Here's Where I Belong were unknown." -- Two of them, Terrence McNally (book) and Alfred Uhry (lyrics) have gone on to write Tony winning plays.

Carl Fisher, Prince's general manager said, "I don't know how much more ticket prices can go up." -- How about more than five times the $12 top then in effect?

(Fred Golden, a press agent, said), "I think there'll soon come a day when, if we get good from the papers and bad TV, we'll close on Saturday." -- Not yet. You still have your best shot if you get a rave from the Times.

"There are Plaza Suite seats for $3." -- Now there's either a line or a lottery to get $20 seats, though they are admittedly in the first two rows, rather than in the last two.

"Plaza Suite seats were rumored to be going for $60 a pair." -- That's about what you'd pay now at TKTS.

"Who really cares about actors, anyway? We, dear God, do not want to know how they work." -- We sure did in from 1975 to 1990, when A Chorus Line played a then-record-breaking run.

"A musical must run six months at absolute capacity to break even." -- Two, three, four or more times is now the norm.

"I'd lower (prices) for Wednesday and Thursday nights and raise them for the matinees." That's happened, in a way, when you take TKTS into consideration, and, sadly enough, when you see that attenting a Saturday or Sunday afternoon show won't save you a dime.

"Streisand will return to Broadway when Hollywood comes to Dunsinane." -- She'd only been gone a year-and-a-half, but Goldman knew.

"The new legitimate theaters, besides being new, will have an even greater potential: They will be housed in skyscrapers. That means, God willing, that for the first time a theatre will not have to produce the paralyzing income it needs annually as a real-estate venture." -- Yes, but who knew that the Gershwin, Marquis, and Minskoff theaters would be so charmless?

"In the next few years, more and more Broadway producers will take straight plays and put them in off-Broadway houses." -- Indeed! There are many more currently off-Broadway than there are on.

Regarding critics: "These people are failures in life. It's a second-rate job, folks. Being a drama critic on Broadway wouldn't keep a decent mind occupied 10% of the time. So you don't even get second-raters. You get the dregs, the stagestruck." -- Ouch!

"When you hit, you are almost set for life. Any business that can hold out that promise is going to be around for a while." -- Still true. Don't look for Broadway to disappear anytime soon, thank the Lord.

Of course, the saddest part of reading "The Season" is seeing all the illustrious names who were then working, but are no longer with us. George Abbott, Don Ameche, Jean Arthur, Pearl Bailey, Ingrid Bergman, Kermit Bloomgarden, David Burns, Gower Champion, John Chapman, Paddy Chayefsky, Cheryl Crawford, Sandy Dennis, Marlene Dietrich, Melvyn Douglas, Alfred Drake, Judy Garland, Walter Kerr, Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, Geraldine Page, Joseph Papp, Robert Preston, Lee Remick, Arnold Saint-Subber, Alan Schneider, Michael Stewart, Jule Styne, Kenneth Tynan, Richard Watts, and Tennessee Williams. We still remember them all 30 years later, and will 30 years hence.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey critic for the Star-Ledger
You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com