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September Chill

New York theater attempts to carry on despite a severe box-office chill in response to the attack on the World Trade Center.

By New York City

Theatergoers walking down West 44th Streetfollowing Broadway performances on Friday, September 14(Photo: Michael Portantiere)
Theatergoers walking down West 44th Street
following Broadway performances on Friday, September 14
(Photo: Michael Portantiere)
Whereas "curtain up" has always been a cheerful theater phrase, the threat of "curtain down" seems to be hovering over New York City in the wake of the World Trade Center disaster. Already, four shows have announced that they will close this weekend due to a drastic drop in ticket sales: A Thousand Clowns, The Rocky Horror Show, Stones in His Pocket and If You Ever Leave Me, I'm Going With You. A fifth show, Blast! had announced its closing this coming Sunday prior to the attack on the trade center; considering its provocative title, it may not have lasted much longer under the present circumstances.

The effect of the slump seems to be almost a theater-wide phenomenon. David LeShay, communications director for the Theatre Development Fund, says that business at the Fund's TKTS booth were off by approximately 50 percent last Thursday, when Broadway theaters resumed performances; he reported that 1,835 tickets were sold, which was actually more than had been anticipated.

Although the theater community, like the rest of the civilized world, is in a quandary about what to do next, no extreme measures have been taken as of this writing. It's been reported than the League of American Theatres and Producers has asked for a waiver of closing-notice requirements; according to Bruce Cohen, spokesman of Local 1 of IATSE (the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees), that request is the only formal one made so far. The buzz has been that producers are also asking the Broadway unions for across-the-board salary reductions of anywhere from 30% to 70% percent, but no concrete proposals have been made.

Details are hazy today because many officials, including League chief Jed Bernstein, are observing Rosh Hashana and are not in their offices. The message on Bernstein's answering machine notes that further announcements will be made tomorrow (Wednesday, September 19). Actors' Equity Association's executive director Alan Eisenberg, who presided over joint union meetings on Friday the 14th and Monday the 17th, has issued the following statement: "Without question, this is going to be an extremely tough time for everyone. We're looking at a variety of ways that we can help sustain the theater through this crisis, especially on a short-term emergency basis."

Eisenberg also echoed Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who has been prompting people to go to the theater and even made a crack during one of his pronouncements about the sudden possibility of obtaining tickets to The Producers. Giuliani has apparently made other off-the-cuff comments about getting relief for the theater; but Wally Rubin, director of theatre for the Mayor, says he has no official word. "We are exploring avenues" for aid and amelioration, he says, adding: "It's going to take some time--not a lot of time." As of yet, neither the League of American Theatres and Producers nor the League of Off-Broadway Theatres has done anything extensive in terms of mounting a "get-the-tourists-back" campaign. Bruce Cohen, who is also a member of ATPAM (the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers), said: "If they can't think of a way, maybe [our] union should."

It seems that many shows, both on and off Broadway, have been looking at their contents for possibly disturbing aspects. Some minor changes were made in this past weekend's performances of Urinetown, which concerns a revolution of the common people against capitalist forces. The producers of tick, tick...BOOM! are said to be thinking about how to advertise that show while somehow de-emphasizing its troublesome title. Meanwhile, they are running a line of copy that extols "Jonathan Larson's new musical about daring to hope and following your dreams." (The line isn't new, but it certainly has different connotations now.)

Money to help relieve the devastation of the tragedy is pouring in from various sources. A portion of the proceeds from the Broadway Flea Market, which was postponed from this Sunday (the 23rd) to next Sunday (the 30th), will be donated to the Twin Towers Fund and the American Red Cross. The Shubert Organization has given $1 million to the Twin Towers Fund, plus $10,000 to each of the families of the 14 firemen lost from Battalion #9, which operates out of "The Broadway Firehouse" at Eighth Avenue and 48th Street. And benefits are springing up everywhere. For example, The Storefront will hold one at the Metro Baptist Church, 410 West 40th Street, on Monday, September 24, at 8pm; entertainers signed to appear so far include Stephen Schwartz, John Bucchino, David Friedman, David Sabella, Amanda Green, Natalie Douglas, and James Beaman. Tickets are available at the door, with a suggested donation of $20; "pay more if you can, less if you must."

As to the full effect of the tragedy on theaters outside of New York City, we'll have to wait and see. A press release announced today that the Repertory Actors Theatre (ReAct) in Seattle has canceled its production of Coming Attractions by Ted Tally, "a pre-Reagan era, black comedy musical set in New York which satirizes how the American media sensationalizes crime and mass murder." On the other hand, a spokesman for the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey reports that the theater's weekend performances of A Chorus Line played to 100% capacity audiences.

Those looking for other bright signs might be buoyed by a story told by Alfa-Betty Olsen, who was publicly thanked by Mel Brooks during this year's Tony Awards ceremony for her contributions to The Producers. Because she is known to have a relationship with the show, however remote, Olsen received a phone call a day or two ago from the parents of a friend. They told her they had long ago planned a trip to Manhattan and were definitely not going to cancel it. They wondered: Could she get them tickets to the Nathan Lane-Matthew Broderick blockbuster?


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