GETTING THROUGH BY THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH
Theatregoers in 1969 seemed to be polarized into two extremes: those desperately trying to hold on to the old ways and those bored with the traditional and applauding anything different, irreverent, and outspoken. Of course, the same fragmentation could be seen in America in general as the war in Vietnam divided generations, neighbors, intellectuals, and, alas, theatre audiences. Established Broadway playgoers could support a traditional evening on Broadway if they could be assured of its entertainment value. And the avant-garde had Off Off Broadway, where they were guaranteed an experience that would not be conformist. This left Off Broadway as the only reasonable middle ground.
The problem was, Off Broadway was in deep trouble. While the number of new American plays produced off Broadway (fifty-three this season, though many of those were one-acts) held close to previous years, ticket prices were rising (tickets lower than $5 were scarce), production costs were soaring, and the small houses could not turn a profit. At the end of the 1969–1970 offBroadway season, not one of the 119 plays, musicals, revues, imports, or revivals had earned back its initial investment, though many of these were non-profit productions never intended to do so. (Only The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-theMoon Marigolds would eventually become a hit by playing into the next season.) Seven offBroadway plays closed on opening night. Another ten lasted less than a week. Only eight non-musicals ran 100 performances or more, the old milestone number, but not one that could guarantee a profit in the 1970 theatre market. Also, Off Broadway was facing an identity crisis. Conservative suburbanites coming to the city thought Off Broadway too risky; the young and adventurous playgoers were finding it too square. Off Broadway had been the savior of the New York theatre in the 1960s, but by 1969 it was struggling, and the struggle showed all season long.
As for Broadway itself, the shrinking number of productions had been so steadfastly predictable for so many seasons that few moaned about only twenty-one new American non-musicals on the Street this season. Ticket prices were rising there as well (an $8.50 top for plays), and a non-musical production as complex as Indians cost over $240,000 to mount. But that also was to be expected, and audiences accepted the prices, if not cheerfully, at least resignedly. After all, it was still possible in 1970 to make a killing on Broadway with a non-musical. Low-cost hits like Butterflies Are Free and The Last of the Red Hot Lovers were brought in under $100,000 each and were able to realize profits in the reasonably near future.
The line between Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway was still pretty firm, but a few shows crossed over it, moving from a church or a loft to a legitimate off-Broadway house. Non-profit theatre companies struggled, none more so than the ever-unprofitable Repertory Theatre at Lincoln Center. But these groups measured success in terms of outstanding new plays, not box-office receipts. Sad to say, they provided none this season. Of the ten Best Plays, only one came from a theatre company, The Serpent from the off-offBroadway Open Theatre Ensemble, and it ran a total of three performances.
The 1969–1970 season saw the musical Company open new doors in musical theatre and lay the groundwork for A Chorus Line and many other conceptual musicals of the future. Nothing close to that happened in New York for the nonmusical theatre. The best offerings were fairly traditional. Playwrights like Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson were performed, but their best work was still ahead of them. All that audiences could do was decide which side of the fragmented American theatre they were on and then patronize it accordingly.