''Hairspray'' and ''Grease'' were hurt by the tough times but Susan Sarandon and ''Hair'' may salvage the stage

By Melissa Rose Bernardo
Updated January 09, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST

It’s called the Great White Way, but these days, Broadway is looking pretty black. Thirteen shows — including name-brand musicals like Grease, Gypsy, and Hairspray — will have closed by the end of the month. And some of their neighbors are doing disturbingly sluggish business too: Disney’s famous flying nanny, Mary Poppins, had a turbulent autumn; sales at Speed-the-Plow have slowed since star Jeremy Piven abruptly quit; even Phantom of the Opera has been playing below its usual 90 to 100 percent capacity. Blame a perfect storm of problems that include the faltering economy, aging shows, and traditionally slow January traffic. ”The mood is alternately gun-shy and hopeful,” says Hairspray producer Adam Epstein, who, due to a lack of funding, called off a Godspell revival.

Uh…hopeful? How’s that? In a dramatic twist (what else would you expect from Broadway?), the curtain is scheduled to rise on 22 productions by April 30 — the cutoff for June 7’s Tony Awards — making this Broadway’s busiest spring since 1992. ”Almost every theater is booked,” says producer Jeffrey Richards, who’s behind the about-to-shutter Spring Awakening and the upcoming revival of Hair. It may seem ironic given the current financial turmoil, but that’s what happens when stars and their schedules align: This season’s slate is packed with plays headlined by TV vets (James Gandolfini, Will Ferrell), stage pros (Nathan Lane, Angela Lansbury), and Oscar winners (Jeremy Irons, Jane Fonda, Susan Sarandon). Hey, if you’re marketing a nonmusical — particularly in this climate — you’d better have a big name on the marquee.