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Sunday, 11 September 2011

Broadway, soul of New York


New York is a huge city with its own special way of life. New York and its environs have the same population as the whole of Yugoslavia. The visitor's breath is not taken away by the immense river of people which rolls through the city centre because such a sight, more impressive even, is offered by Shanghai, Mexico City, Tokyo, Peking... New York fascinates in another way - by its mixture of cultures, national cuisines, architectural styles, races, peoples... It is rightly called a ''melting-pot''. And it is really quite strange how such a mixture does not offend the eye spoil the aesthetic experience. On the contrary. It gives a taste and aroma to the city, impresses it upon the soul. And the soul of New York is Broadway, the only avenue that disturbs the geometrical harmony of the central island of Manhattan which looks from the air like a cubed block of chocolate.
At its southern end Broadway is joined to New York Harbour, a symbolic fact in itself. For immigrants, this was their first encounter with the ''promised land''. As soon as it goes inland, Broadway crosses the Chinese quarter, the most densely populated district in New York.
In the Downtown area, around Wall Street, Broadway enters its stock-exchange, business part, throbbing by day and becoming fearfully quiet and deserted by night.
Broadway then crosses Greenwich Village, the mecca of writers, painters and hippies.
In the central part of the city, known as Midtown, Broadway is taken over by foreigners, and this district is popularly called ''Baghdad on the subway''.
In the stretch from 40th to 80th Streets, Broadway is the heart of New York cultural events. Up to 100th Street, this sophisticated and bohemian part of town is reserved exclusively for Anglo-Saxons.
From 110th to 122nd Streets stretches Columbia Universety and spacious students' quarters. Further on, Broadway passes through the black district of Harlem. On certain corners, for example on the corner of Broadway and 125th, murders are literally measured by stopwatch. A white person is not a welcome guest there. At the end of Broadway, on the northern tip of Manhattan, there is a 12th-century castle. It is named the Cloister and was brought from Europe, stone by stone. One can sometimes find time for a morning walk. Broadway is a centre of very varied entertaintment. Broadway is alive at night. From early evening to dawn the next day, columns of people looking for entertainment cruise the streets. In the continual crush and bustle and merrymaking, the night soon passes.

The real Broadway is the central part of the avenue, the centre of New York and world culture, where the lights of the illuminated ads draw your attention to a new play or musical, film premiere, just-opened restaurant, the latest Canon camera. Quite apart from their commercial purpose, the brilliantly-lit advertisements create their own special atmosphere. Because of the day-and-night glare of the neon, this bit of Broadway is known as the ''Great White Way''. Its heart is the famous Times Square, which got its name in 1906 when the New York Times newspaper moved into the biggest skyscraper on the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street. The area between Times Square and 12th Avenue on the west is dotted with ''porno'' cinemas and shops with ''sex literature'' and ''requisites'', in front of which drugs are ''pushed''. there are no schools because American law stipulates that, between an educational establishment and a porno cinema, there should be a ''reasonable distance'' of somewhat over two kilometres.
Left and right of Times Square are the theatres, situated in small, ornate houses no more than two storeys high. The beginnings of American theatre go back to distant 1665, when the first amateur theatre was opened - right here in New York. Half a century later, professional companies were founded. The first actors came from England where fortune had not favoured them. At that time, the acting profession enjoyed no kind of reputation at all.
A change in the social status of actors was directly brought about by George Washington, a theatre lover and an amateur actor himself. After the War of Independence, a migration of talented actors started from England, whose arrival raised the level of acting skills and introduced fashionable clothes and fine manners. From then anwards, the reputation of the American theatre was in the constant ascendant and, in the decade from 1880 to 1890, went through a golden age: the New York boards shone with the eternal brilliance of Sarah Bernhardt and Henry Irving.
Even today, the conviction prevails in America that an actor is not an actor unless he has tested himself on Broadway. Film is something else, says Dustin Hoffmann, the realm of the almighty scissors. There is no stand-in on the stage, you can immediately see who is who. And one can indeed, at any one moment on New York's Broadway, see some of the great stars ''live'': Katherine Hepburn, Mia Farrow, Anthony Quinn, the late Yul Brinner, Liza Minnelli, Woody Allen, Racquel Welch, Dustin Hoffmann, Elizabeth Taylor, All Pacino, Robert De Niro, Jessica Lange...
Broadway drama is classical, created after the model of the English traditional theatre which, often and always profitably, guests in America. The success of the English is often without foundation, a result of the pure complex of a young nation paying respects to the ''mother from Europe''. Of course, there are also some very good productions from England. This is the case for example with Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company from London, which came in 1981 and then again this season. One of the most frequently performed playwrights on Broadway, after the eternal Shakespeare, is Neil Simon. His play Broadway Bound this year gained the theatre's highest prize - a Tony award. It was in Simon's play Private Life that Richard Burton played his last role a few years ago. His co-star was Elizabeth Taylor. The production was interesting because it seemed to the spectator that the playwright had been inspired by the private life of a well-known Hollywood couple. Taylor and Burton were so convincing that one could often not tell whether they were playing a scene from the text or a real one from their marriage. The production was also a curiosity because Elizabeth Taylor managed to secure for herself and Richard Burton the highest fee in the history of Broadway - 10,000 dollars per performance.

Musicals - the American delight
The speciality of New York theatre is the musical. The same show is given is the same house eight times a week, year after year, as long as there is an audience. And usually there is. For the tired American who works from nine to five and spents three hours each day in his car (the time needed to work from home and back (during working hours the traffic jams are indescribable)) wants to relax when he goes out. He can do that much more easily with music and dancing than an Ibsen play ''on the boards''. In addition, New York is a transit town and the musical is an American curiosity. One needs to see a musical even when the ganre is not one's taste - the sets, costumes, music and effects have been brought to perfection. The sole fault is that the majority of these shows are all cast in the same mould. The favourite theme is how to realize one's life dream and succeed on Broadway. This is the motif of the oldest New York musical A Chorus Line which has been playing night after night for a full 12 years. Another popular production is 42nd Street, a true musical story about the aspirations of millions of American singers and dancers to appear on the stage in this part of New York.
For five years now, the biggest Broadway hit has been Cats, the musical and visual extravaganza insired by the poems of T. S. Eliot. It has been billed in the press as the production to end all productions and you still can't get a ticket for love or money.
Apart from classical theatre, Broadway also has something called ''off-Broadway''. The more it differs from the classical theatre the more ''offs'' are added, so that there are also ''off-off-Broadway'' and ''off-off-off-Broadway''. These productions were once the focus of new theatre tendenciens such as familliar to Belgraders in the BITEF festival. However, the American theatrical avant-garde has been ''asleep'' for many years now. These theatre companies are now living on the breadline, offering worthless theatrical happenings - unless they bring in great star as ''bait'' to guarantee an audience and a good review. A few years ago, one such off-Broadway hit was American Buffalo starring Al Pacino. Last autumn an off-Broadway house was packed out by Robert De Niro in the production Cuba and His Teddy Bear. But these are off-Broadway exceptions. It would be more accurate to say that the sharp edge of the American left wing, the creator of off-Broadway productions, has been blunted by the strong dollar and the stable internal political situation. External disturbances such as El Salvador, Nicaragua and Libya have not provided such inspiration as Vietnam and therefore have not produced real avantgarde theatre.

Author Olivera Katanić
text was written in 1987
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