American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1969-2000

By Thomas S. Hischak | Go to book overview

ACT TWO, 1975–1984
EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN

1975–1976

With the approaching Bicentennial celebration, it was not surprising to find several revivals of American classics in New York. But there must have been more than patriotism behind all the theatrical looking back this season. One half of all the entries on and off the Street were revivals, and a good number of new works were nostalgic (or anti-nostalgic) pieces. There were plays looking back at the Old West with a cockeyed pessimism and others examining the follies of youth and more innocent eras; plays about the recent Vietnam nightmare continued to be presented, and there were already works trying to figure out the crazy 1960s. Reminiscing seems to have been the theme for the season.

Without a steep rise in ticket prices, box-office figures rose 20 percent over the previous season because more theatres were open and running. During the week of January 4, Broadway brought in a record $2 million. By the end of May the TKTS Booth in Times Square was responsible for over $600,000 worth of ticket sales for Broadway and off Broadway shows. But the profit margin was still hazardous, and several critical and even popular hits lost money. While there were no megahits like last season's Equus or Same Time, Next Year (not to mention the musical A Chorus Line, which moved to Broadway in July), it was still possible for a play to break even before the end of May.

But nostalgia and box-office records couldn't hide the fact that, after the revivals and British imports, Broadway presented only ten new American plays, and most of those were transfers from Off Broadway or originated in regional theatres. Off Broadway did better with twenty-six new American scripts, a good number of them worthwhile. (Six of the eight non-musical Best Plays came from Off Broadway this season; the other two were London imports.) So maybe downtown theatre wasn't dead after all. Certainly Off Off Broadway was alive as the Circle Repertory Company, the Manhattan Theatre Club, and other groups edged closer and closer to Off Broadway. The hazy line between the two venues was getting hazier.

The Broadway season started with the transfer of last season's drama The First Breeze of Summer (3-2-75) on June 10. It only ran forty-eight additional performances, but its venue was, inexplicably, the huge Palace Theatre. Central Park's Delacorte began this season of revivals with a Hamlet on June 18 that divided audiences and critics right down the middle. Sam Waterston played the prince in a modern production complete with European uniforms and goose-stepping guards. The twenty-eight showings were so well attended that producer Joseph Papp had the production revised and moved to Lincoln Center in December.

The first American classic revival was, appropriately enough, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (2-10-49) on June 26 at the Circle in the Square Uptown. George C. Scott directed and played Willie Loman, and he was showered with adulation for both efforts. Scott played Loman like a feisty King Lear, fighting and hissing with life, rather than the more fatalistic approach usually seen. James Farentino and Harvey Keitel were deemed a competent Biff and Happy, but most critics were disappointed in Teresa Wright's Linda Loman. The drama played in the small house for eight weeks.

The New York Shakespeare Festival's second Central Park entry was The Comedy of Errors on July 24. It was enjoyable enough but caused no fireworks as Hamlet had. Neither was there much excitement over the Broadway revival of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth (11-18-42) on September 9 at the Mark Hellinger. The first of five American Bicentennial revivals sponsored by the Kennedy Center in Washington and the Xerox Corporation, this lackluster production di

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