Broadway thriving despite recession

But what will next year bring for the Great White Way?

If this is how a recession affects Broadway, well then, bring it on!

There was much gnashing of teeth in January when a record number of productions closed and left the Rialto looking barren indeed. But since then, some strange things have happened even as the economy continues to struggle to find a foothold.

Broadway grosses are holding their own, with fairly minimal boxoffice dropoffs, and some shows -- notably the revival of "West Side Story" -- are doing $1 million a week even in previews.

More startling still, this spring features an impressive number of openings, with virtually every theater booked. By the time the season wraps at the end of April, more shows will have opened during the 2008-09 campaign than in each of the past two years. What's more, the lineup of recently opened and upcoming productions is far more varied and exciting than usual.

There are classic works by Noel Coward ("Blithe Spirit"), Eugene Ionesco ("Exit the King"), Samuel Beckett ("Waiting for Godot"), August Wilson ("Joe Turner's Come and Gone"), Eugene O'Neill ("Desire Under the Elms") and Friedrich Schiller ("Mary Stuart"), most of which are not usually considered wildly commercial.

And the lineup of film and TV stars now or soon to appear on the boards is impressive. The list -- which, in the interest of protecting fragile egos, is in alphabetical order -- includes Joan Allen, Lauren Ambrose, Matthew Broderick, Jeff Daniels, Rupert Everett, Brian Dennehy, Jane Fonda, James Gandolfini, Carla Gugino, John Goodman, Lauren Graham, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeremy Irons, Allison Janney, Nathan Lane, Angela Lansbury, Marsha Mason, Oliver Platt, David Hyde Pierce, Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon.

Probably for financial reasons, new musicals are, however, in relatively short supply. "9 to 5," the adaptation of the 1980 film featuring new songs written by Dolly Parton, is the most lavish, while two others relatively more modest -- "Next to Normal," about a family dealing with a mother's emotional breakdown, and "Rock of Ages," featuring a score of songs by 1980s rock bands -- are transfers from off-Broadway.

Another transfer, this time from Central Park, is last year's revival of "Hair," which may or may not manage to hold on to its outdoor charms sufficiently to guarantee a healthy run at a conventional Broadway theater.

Most of these shows had announced their engagements before the economic downturn. Many, especially the ones featuring the bigger stars, are set for strictly limited runs, with the result that their theaters might be dark again before too long.

The real impact of the international financial situation might not be felt on Broadway until next season. Unless the economy improves, the difficulty of securing financing might result in a paucity of commercial productions and much less risk-taking.

Indeed, two of the first shows announced for next year are revivals of Neil Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and "Broadway Bound" to run in repertory -- not exactly groundbreaking fare.

But for sheer daring -- commercial if not artistic -- there's the new musical adaptation of "Spider-Man" due to arrive in winter 2010. Featuring a score by U2's Bono and the Edge and to be directed by Julie Taymor ("The Lion King"), the show will cost in the neighborhood of $35 million.

For that kind of dough, it will need to have some impressive web-spinning indeed.