November 01, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

”The Full Monty” lives — but Broadway’s in trouble

”The Full Monty” is a big, fat, naked hit on Broadway. The critics (for the most part) love it. Audiences are going nuts. Ticket sales are through the roof. And it spells the end of whatever’s left of Broadway musicals as we knew them.

Think this is a local story, the theatrical equivalent of the Subway Series? Think again: Once upon a time, the New York stage provided Hollywood with dozens of dramatic adaptations and Technicolor musicals per year, not to mention stars as diverse as Fred Astaire, Barbra Streisand, the Marx Brothers, and Julie Andrews. With the successes of ”Ragtime” and Disney’s 42nd Street staging of ”The Lion King” a few years back, the tide began to turn: Hollywood began feeding Broadway. Sure, ”Grease” started as a stage musical, but when it was revived last decade as a revolving star franchise, it was audience nostalgia for the movie that was being traded upon.

Last year saw more Broadway producers throw the ”Grease” concept against the stage wall, but ”Saturday Night Fever” and ”Footloose” came and did not conquer. This year, they’re trying again, with ”The Rocky Horror Show” (opening soon at the Circle in the Square) and ”The Full Monty,” a scene for scene translation of the 1997 box office hit about unemployed schlubs who relocate their pride by stripping.

I’ve seen ”Monty,” and you know what? It really IS good. The score by singer/ songwriter/ theatrical newcomer David Yazbeck is tuneful, clever, funny, and moving. Even if you never make it to New York, pick up the original cast recording if only to hear the hilarious ode to assisted suicide (that’s what I said), ”Big Ass Rock.” The cast plays it for honesty and enthusiasm, not makeover cynicism, and the audience responds in kind. If the play lacks the character shadings of the movie (and if no one exudes the genuine desperation of the film’s lead, Robert Carlyle), it really doesn’t matter: This is a flattened, cartoon version of the tale that fits beautifully into a Broadway scrim. (And I love that writer Terrence McNally has created a roistering, tough old dame part for Kathleen Freeman, who you may remember from countless character parts on TV and in old Jerry Lewis movies).

The thing’s going to run for years — and it deserves to. But, with its success, the door is now open for more Hollywood ”synergy” to appear on Broadway. As a vibrant, relevant art form, the Broadway musical has been on life support for decades, and why shouldn’t it be? The cost of mounting a production makes producers consider only sure things (read: hits from other media repurposed for the stage). The cost of tickets keeps audiences from wanting to experiment. Theaters are clogged with long running circuses like the just closed ”Cats” and ”Miss Saigon” (closing Dec. 31) — hits that cater to the tourist trade and that shut out the local audience necessary to keeping the form lively (trust me, I don’t know one single self respecting New Yorker who ever went to see ”Cats,” other than to take his or her mother). And since Hollywood hasn’t made a movie musical in years (”South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” doesn’t count), there’s no pipeline to the big screen and no incentive to create one, either.

Ah, what do you care? The Broadway musical was marked for death the day Elvis cut his first record — where the average man and woman once went through their day humming songs that debuted on the New York boards, they now bop to the diaspora of sounds that flowed from the one – two revolution of Presley and the Beatles. Musicals don’t matter anymore — until you see something like, say, Stephen Sondheim’s ”Assassins” — an astounding 1991 fantasia on the men and women in history who have taken it upon themselves to try and kill a president — and the top of your head gets lifted off.

Of course, ”Assassins” was way too controversial to make it out of workshops and onto Broadway (although the cast recording is available, and well worth picking up). For now, and for the foreseeable future, we’ll have to make do with ”Monty,” dancing beautifully on the grave of what once was.

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