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Under Fire, Broadway Goes On Offensive

February 18, 1986|CLARKE TAYLOR

NEW YORK — Broadway theater owners and producers have taken the unusual step of publicly defending themselves in the face of criticism that the season to date has been as bleak as its predecessor--in large part due to high ticket prices.

The 1984-85 season was commonly considered among observers to be one of the worst ever.

"We have been under fire, and frankly, we're feeling a little gun-shy," said Harvey Sabinson, executive director of Broadway's official trade organization, the League of American Theaters and Producers, in acknowledging at a press conference that the league was releasing the results of an eight-month economic study to deflect recent criticism.

The study, outlined at the theater district's Marriott Marquis Hotel by one of its authors, economist William Baumol, concludes that tickets are up less than the cost of theater operations, less than the purchasing power of consumers and far less than soaring production costs. In recent years, Broadway ticket prices have risen at an average rate of 13% per year, according to the study.

Nevertheless, at a top price of $47.50 for musicals and $40 for dramas, theater attendance so far this season has dropped, reportedly by as much as 25%, with paid attendance falling below 50% capacity. On a recent weekend, for example, tickets were readily available for all Broadway shows except the long-running musical "Cats" and Lily Tomlin's one-woman show, "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe," the one unqualified success of the season.

Comparing current Broadway prices to the rise in the cost of shoes and groceries, as well as such non-essentials as the movies, league officials strongly defended what they consider a reasonable rise in ticket prices.

At the same time, they stayed clear of such topics as theater profits in recent years and the psychological impact of ticket prices, however justified, on theatergoers. These subjects were raised but, as officials pointed out, were not figured into the new study. Officials also skirted the subject of the theater season's quality to date, which many here believe goes hand in hand with the increasing reluctance on the part of consumers to buy high-priced tickets.

According to the league, the number of plays and musicals to open on Broadway by April 30, the official close of the current season, will about match last season's total of 33. Fifteen of the 21 shows already opened are still running, but several are too new to have proved themselves and three are set to close soon. No new show is scheduled to open this month, but six plays and three musicals will open before the end of the season--"including some hits," according to the league.

Of those currently running, however, three are revivals, two are British imports and two more--including the popular import "Tango Argentino"--are more dance concerts than musicals.

There is one home-grown new play that has aroused genuine interest: "I'm Not Rappaport," starring Judd Hirsch and Cleavon Little. But even the four new musicals still running--a slight improvement over last season's musical showing--have not generated great excitement within theater circles here. They are: "Jerry's Girls," a revamping of several past musicals by Jerry Herman; "Singin' in the Rain," a musical version of the classic movie; "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," a "solve-it-yourself" musical play, and Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Song and Dance."

All of this has led many in the theater community to observe that this season, like last, has not stirred the kind of excitement that draws audiences to Broadway, especially at the current ticket prices.

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