Howard Lindsay in Life With Father
Howard Lindsay in Life With Father
As always, I had a great time at FutureFest, the play contest that I've attended at the Dayton Playhouse for the past nine years. Six playwrights are brought to town, where they see their new works on their feet. The scripts are performed by community theater actors who, much more often than not, give professional performances. Once all six have been mounted, four other judges and I decide on a winner. This year, we chose Farragut North by 27-year-old Beau Willimon, a Brooklyn lad who worked for Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign. Willimon's riveting play gave us a hint as to where Dean and his supporters went wrong.

Before this year's festival, new artistic director Adam Leigh decided to helm a panel discussion about the death of the Broadway play: It was called "The Drama Surrounding Plays" and subtitled, "Where Does This Leave Theater in America, in Big Cities, and in Dayton?" I was asked to be on the panel and immediately thought of what I'd heard -- or hadn't heard -- during another such discussion at Ohio University in May. There, I was asked to give feedback on eight budding playwrights' new efforts. We talked at many a lunch and dinner, as well as before and after performances. They were all bright and terrific, and they never once mentioned the word "Broadway." The closest anyone came was Aaron Carter, who asked me, "What playwriting trends are there in New York now?" But the way he said that indicated to me that he didn't necessarily mean Broadway.

Who can blame him? There's no question that the play is no longer the thing where Broadway's concerned. During the panel discussion, I recalled the week in September 1963 when four plays opened in just seven days: The Irregular Verb to Love, The Rehearsal, Bicycle Ride to Nevada, and Luther. And it wasn't the only time that year that four non-musicals opened in one week. More to the point, the all-time "Top 10 Longest-Running Plays on Broadway" list is the same today as it was on June 13, 1982, the day Deathtrap finally called it quits:

1. Life with Father (3,224)
2. Tobacco Road (3,182)
3. Abie's Irish Rose (2,327)
4. Gemini (1,819)
5. Deathtrap (1,793)
6. Harvey (1,775)
7. Born Yesterday (1,642)
8. Mary, Mary (1,572)
9. The Voice of the Turtle (1,557)
10. Barefoot in the Park (1,530)

When you compare that to the "Top 10 Longest-Running Musicals on Broadway" list -- discounting Oh! Calcutta!, which was certainly not a musical (or a play) -- as they stood on that very same date and today, you see a huge difference:

June 13, 1982:
1. Grease (3,388)
2. A Chorus Line (2,841)
3. Fiddler on the Roof (3,242)
4. Hello, Dolly! (2,844)
5. My Fair Lady (2,717)
6. Man of La Mancha (2,328)
7. Oklahoma! (2,212)
8. Annie (2,153)
9. Pippin (1,944)
10. South Pacific (1,925)

August 10, 2005:
1. Cats (7,485)
2. The Phantom of the Opera (7,301)
3. Les Misérables (6,680)
4. A Chorus Line (6,137)
5. Disney's Beauty and the Beast (4,636)
6. Miss Saigon (4,092)
7. Rent (3,856)
8. Chicago (3,627)
9. 42nd Street (3,486)
10. Grease (3,388)

Quite a difference, no? "The first shall be last" isn't just a Biblical quotation from Matthew; it also applies to musicals, as Grease has gone from the top of the Top 10 to the bottom. The total number of performances of the Top 10 Longest-Running Musicals is now 50,688, which means it has nearly doubled over the past 23 years. And let's not forget that the play list contains only one title, Life with Father, that opened at a theater with more than 1,000 seats (the now-razed Empire, which had 1,099) while every musical on the list opened at a theater with more than 1,000 seats. The smallest is the Nederlander (1,164), where Rent is still doing boffo business.

Furthermore, the total number of performances figure for the Top 10 Musicals increases each week, since four of them are still running. (Indeed, Phantom of the Opera is just 184 performances shy of the top slot!) And in a mere 19 weeks, The Lion King will push Grease off the list, at which time half the list will be made up of currently running shows. I don't believe that's happened since the earliest days of Broadway.

So there are now three things in life of which anyone can be sure: Death, taxes, and the fact that no non-musical play will ever run longer than Life with Father. The play with the best chance now is Doubt, which would have to run until December 2008 just to crack the Top 10 and until January 2013 to hit the top of the list. Does anyone out there think that this will happen?

In Dayton, I stated my theory about all this. In the old days, the Hays Code prevented movies from "growing up," so if you wanted to see adult themes and topics, you had to go to Broadway. Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour was about lesbianism but you'd never know that from its first movie version, These Three (1936). Meanwhile, you could get musicals at the movies as well as on Broadway. When TV first arrived, it too skirted adult themes and topics, plus it often presented book musicals (some from Broadway, some originals) and musical revues (i.e., all those variety shows). Now we can see and hear adult themes and topics on network TV, not to mention cable. These days, it's the musical that's all too sadly missing from television. You want to see and hear people dancing and singing? Try 41st to 54th streets in New York City. You want to hear about sex, drugs, and violence? Prime time at 8, news at 11.

People often mourn "The Death of the Broadway Play," and I see their point. But two other points come to mind, as I told the Dayton audience. First, the cast of the Broadway play has shrunk considerably: Life with Father had 16 characters, Tobacco Road had 11, Abie's Irish Rose had 21, while many newer plays have just four or five characters and might get lost on a Broadway stage. In a small Off-Broadway house, a play often has more impact and makes a theatergoer feel more a part of the action. (I have to mention that another of the Dayton judges, my TheaterMania colleague David Finkle, made an excellent point: hearing an audience of 1,000 theatergoers gasp at some of Doubt's lines was far more potent than hearing a couple of hundred people do the same thing at Manhattan Theatre Club.)

My second point? The non-musical play is alive and well throughout the country, for we have all those wonderful regional theaters. I'll bet there are more professional performances of plays in aggregate now than there were in Broadway's heyday. A week after my stint in Dayton, I was off to the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. As you'll read in my next column, I had an extraordinary time there at shows in which no one sang a note.


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