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Legitimate Concerns, More than 21 Years Ago

Filichia thumbs through a 1980 copy of Variety, marveling at how much the theater industry has changed over the past two decades. logo

There I was at work, walking to get my mail, and what did I spy on someone's desk? A copy of Variety -- but not just any copy. It wasn't a recent edition printed on glossy paper but one from long ago, printed on regular newsprint. I checked the date and found it was the Wednesday -- ah, yes, Variety used to be published on Wednesdays! --edition from October 15, 1980. The price of $1 seemed high to me but then I noticed that this was a 342-page "6th Annual MIFED Film Market Review" (referring to the annual Milan Film Market), one of those overpriced issues that are vehicles for big, expensive ads.

Meanwhile, under that trademark logo was the headline, "NEW PIX MARTS MAY ALTER SALES." Never mind "Pix"; I wanted to see what was happening in "Legitimate," as Variety has called the professional stage for longer than I can remember. There was the section, from pages 328-332. So, I thought, let's see what the business was like a generation ago.

The section started with reviews of two shows that opened on Broadway the week before: The Suicide, a new translation of a Russian play, and Division Street, a new comedy by Steve Tesich, who'd recently won an Oscar for Breaking Away. Of the first play, then-critic Hobe Morrison wrote, "There's a single effective scene in The Suicide, last Thursday night's opening at the ANTA Theatre. It's questionable, however, whether anyone out front will still be awake by then." Of the second, he reported, "'I don't believe any of this,' says the rattled leading character during the first act of Division Street, Wednesday night's opening at the Ambassador Theatre. It's one of the few sensible lines in Steve Tesich's boisterously unfunny little play." What Variety wouldn't be able to report for a while is that The Suicide shuttered after 60 performances, while Division Street would only make it to 21.

But the column to the right showed that other Broadway shows were raring to go and booked at theaters -- 19 productions, an astonishing slate by today's October standards. Banjo Dancing was set for the Century, which is now part of a 46th Street hotel; Fifth of July had cast a then-healthy Christopher Reeve (who would, ironically enough, play a character who used a wheelchair) and was set for the Apollo, part of what we now call the Ford Center; The Life had a lease at the Morosco and Perfectly Frank at the Hayes, both theaters still functioning back then but soon to be demolished; A Lesson from Aloes was going to the Playhouse, now gone as well; The American Clock would come to the Biltmore, which would be dark in less than seven years and would go another dozen more before its rehabilitation plans were announced; The Pirates of Penzance was heading for the Uris, which would stay around but be renamed the Gershwin, just as the aforementioned ANTA would become the Virginia. (One other eventual name change was in the list, too -- not for the theater but for the play itself: The Curse of Kulyenchikov, Neil Simon's newest comedy, would use that title only during its Boston tryout and would change to Fools before it arrived at the O'Neill.)

The next column brought news of "Shows Abroad." One, Errol Flynn's Great Big Adventure Book for Boys ("an entertaining revue-type show") didn't go very far, while another, Duet for One ("movingly written and performed"), would come to Broadway for a brief run. The other show was a revival of Rattle of a Simple Man, a play that first graced Broadway in 1963 with Tammy Grimes; but here was a pre-Tony-winning Shirley Valentine, Pauline Collins, making her way and being tabbed "stylish and appealing."

Page 329 has such headlines as "McCann-Nugent among Busiest B'way Producer-Manager Teams." They've since broken up, but two stories on the same page involved their shows. They were headlined "Morning's Revival Recoups 375G Nut" and "Elephant Payoff 181% on 300G Nut" -- painful to read, not only because it costs three or four times as much to do a straight play on Broadway these days but also because both Morning's at Seven and The Elephant Man were revived this season with far less financially felicitous results. There's also news that "Cinci House Dedicates Double Theatre Setup," and it's good to know that both are still doing nicely under the umbrella name of Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. There's a squib that "Fred Nathan Resigns as Co-Touter of 42nd Street," then Broadway's hottest ticket. Actually, Nathan, then a young tyro and now deceased, was originally the sole press agent on the show; but when producer David Merrick saw that he had a mega-hit, he brought in the much more experienced firm of Solters, Roskin, & Friedman, made Nathan feel irrelevant, and shamed the young man into "resigning."

Page 330 brings "Casting News." Barnum was "seeking singers/dancers who have some circus ability" while David Copperfield (the show would eventually shed that first word) said "all roles open." Off-Broadway, such now-forgotten titles as Alice, American Days, Close of Play, Coming Attractions, and Heartland were optimistically hiring. One show had its casting announced, stating that "Brandon Maggart, Charles Levin, and William Morrison will have featured roles in One Night Stand, the Herb Gardner-Jule Styne musical opening Nov. 9 at the Nederlander." But it didn't; it closed in previews.

Page 331 reviewed "New Shows in Stock." Ever hear of The Cowboy and the Legend? Tuck Milligan played the former and no less than Eartha Kitt portrayed the latter in a Florida production. The review said the show "could develop a trendy appeal," but this was not the case. Fate wasn't much kinder to Lady of the Diamond, a play that seems to be much like the Bull Durham movie that came out some years later -- about a woman who is just crazy for ballplayers. Its playwright, Mark Berman, hasn't done as well as his director on the piece, one Jack O'Brien, or his leading lady, the then-little-known Christine Baranski -- "a splendid choice for the title role, a cross between a tomboy and a bimbo." Appearing as one of the ballplayers: John Goodman.

There was a list of "Off-Broadway Shows," including Bonjour La Bonjour, a production at the Phoenix (now defunct). I'm Getting My Act Together was occupying the downtown Circle-in-the-Square (now a classroom). One Mo' Time was housed at the Village Gate (now a convenience store) and A Funny Thing Happened was set for the Equity Library Theatre (now long-gone, too). Oh, well -- let's look at the bright side: Look Back in Anger was at the Off-Broadway Roundabout, which became a big Broadway organization. The Vikings was at the Manhattan Theatre Club's old home in the East '70s, far less commodious and accessible than the one they have now. The Fantasticks had then amassed a run 20 years, five months, and 12 days -- and, though no one knew it then, it was less than halfway into its eventual run.

The final page listed London shows; there's The Mousetrap, of course, but also My Fair Lady, Oklahoma, and Private Lives, all of which are back on Broadway now or coming soon. As for "Touring Shows," Annie had three companies, while The Best Little Whorehouse and A Chorus Line each had two.

But wait -- where were the grosses? How interesting it would be to see that 42nd Street was setting a house record with a gross that would cause concern for any musical today (including 42nd Street), for the top ticket price was then $30. But alas, at the top of the page was "No Grosses This Week -- because of the early deadline for this special Mifed issue."

A younger Andrew Lloyd Webber
There was something interesting, though, tucked in a lower left-hand column. Headline: "Cats Dance Musical from T.S. Eliot Verse." The three-paragraph story said that the show was "scheduled for West End presentation next spring" though "no cast has been set and no theater designated." It went on to mention such names as Cameron Mackintosh, Trevor Nunn, and Gillian Lynne before citing its composer, adding that "Webber, in collaboration with lyricist Tim Rice, has composed several pop operas for legit, among them Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, and Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." Dontcha just love how they identified him, implying that we didn't really know who he was and needed to be reminded? Yes, a lot has changed since October 15, 1980!


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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