You’ll Never Get to Heaven If You Sell Out

I can’t remember the last time I fled a show at the intermission. I must have done it only once or twice in my life. I always feel I should stay, partly out of professional duty and partly because something might happen in the second act to lift the spirits and save the day. You never know.

But with The Look of Love , the Burt Bacharach musical compilation of 29 of his songs, with lyrics by Hal David, you know . And what you know, you knew already. That is, once you’ve heard one Burt Bacharach song, you’ve more or less heard them all.

“You’ll Never Get to Heaven (If You Break My Heart)”; “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”; “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?”; “Wishin’ and Hopin'”; “Trains and Boats and Planes”; “Anyone Who Had a Heart”; “What the World Needs Now Is Love”; “What’s It All About, Alfie?”; “Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa”- stop !!

It was like being trapped in an elevator (without Dionne Warwick). But not by Muzak alone. The production itself, sort of directed by Scott Ellis and sort of choreographed by Ann Reinking, has left almost all my colleagues unable to believe their eyes. Unless paying good money to watch The Lawrence Welk Show on Broadway, with mild titillation for tourists from Ms. Reinking’s ludicrous leftovers from Chicago , is your idea of a great night out, I’m afraid there can be no doubt that Look of Love sinks to a nadir.

But I’ve no wish to dwell further on the show itself. A bad commercial idea-and a bad commercial production-are nothing new on Broadway, and they’re easy to forgive (and forget). What is unforgivable here is that the folks behind the show aren’t commercial producers hoping for a nice profit by pandering to the bottom line. The producer is Todd Haimes’ nonprofit Roundabout Theater Company, whose very existence and raison d’être is meant to be a radical alternative to commercial Broadway.

The real nadir isn’t the Burt Bacharach show, but why Mr. Haimes produced it in the first place. And I would be asking exactly the same urgent question had the show proved a resounding success. Why this latest sellout? Or, put another uncomfortable way, what’s the excuse this time?

I’ve argued passionately before in this column that nothing could be more crucial to the future health of the American theater than the integrity of its nonprofit theaters. Despite all the pressures on them caused by dips in public funding, the beleaguered, grudging help from the National Endowment for the Arts or the battle to maintain endowments, the nonprofit theaters alone are the protectors of artistic independence and excellence. They alone are responsible for the best the American imagination can offer. They alone hold their theaters in public trust.

And what are they doing but betraying that trust by capitulating to Broadway values? Functioning like any other commercial producer, Roundabout’s Bacharach songbook is at the Brooks Atkinson on 47th Street. (The company’s actual home is the American Airlines Theater on 42nd Street.) But when was the last time Mr. Haimes truly risked anything dangerous and new? The Roundabout’s current revival of Peter Nichols’ 1968 Joe Egg is an import from the West End; there was the earlier revival of The Boys from Syracuse ; and there’s the forthcoming revival of Athol Fugard’s 1982 Master Harold … and the Boys .

Mr. Haimes is far from alone. The last five plays at Lincoln Center have all been revivals and imports. When I recently pointed that out, I was immediately informed of Jules Feiffer’s forthcoming new play, A Bad Friend , at Lincoln Center. No one welcomes back to the theater a warrior like Mr. Feiffer more than I do. But one new play doesn’t make a summer. No, the truth is that the cop-out of revivals and imports is the safest bet of all. But the outcome is an alarming loss of individuality and choice. We’re reaching the point where we can no longer tell one theater’s policy from another.

The Broadway-itis of our leading nonprofit theaters only makes the standardization worse. Lincoln Center’s main house, the Vivian Beaumont, has long since ranked as a Broadway theater, of course ( Contact ran there for two and a half years). Now the Manhattan Theatre Club is joining the Roundabout on Broadway with its new outlet at the Biltmore Theatre. What’s going on?

I still haven’t recovered from a Times Arts and Leisure piece that ran last September, “For Profit or Not? It’s All Showbiz”-a title that says it all. “The fact is,” wrote John Rockwell with a jaded sigh, “distinctions between art and commerce-if they ever had much merit-have broken down today.” In response, a friend of mine wrote a letter to Arts and Leisure suggesting they rename the section “Commerce and Leisure.” But they didn’t run it. God forbid The Times should have a sense of humor about itself.

I think the cheerless, drably defeatist Mr. Rockwell is wrong to give up the ghost so easily and claim that distinctions between art and commerce probably never had much merit in the first place. There’s a difference between the highest values we can aspire to and bottom-line commercial crap, don’t you agree? Or am I going nuts?

On the other hand, he appears to be troublingly right in claiming those distinctions have broken down today. My question is this: Do we embrace it as inevitable, like Mr. Rockwell, or do we try to preserve what’s left of our very lifeblood?

Artistic idealism and pragmatism are eternally at war. But who today is fighting the war? Who’s on the side of the angels? Even “art” has become such a dirty word that no one mentions it any more. “Producing is the intelligent expression of one’s own taste,” André Bishop of Lincoln Center told The Times . “But you can’t be too hoity-toity: your taste has to translate into something that others will like.”

Not to be too hoity-toity, but public taste is also created , and the shock and inspiring pleasure of the adventurous can translate into something that others will follow.

It has always been so. Given luck, the theater that dares to fail the most succeeds the most. Yet the colonizing leaders of our nonprofit institutions aspire to Broadway, of all sweet, desperate bordellos. They would even have us believe, like smiling politicians, that they’re saving Broadway from itself. And to that I reply: Do you know the way to San Jose? (It’s 24 hours from Tulsa.)

Bit by bit, compromise by compromise, little by not so little, the Broadway infiltration is selling out everything the nonprofits are supposed to stand for in the expansionist cause of this new art form named commerce. These are hard times for every cultural institution in New York. All the more urgent reason for our nonprofit theaters to renew public trust, rekindle their original proud artistic purpose and reject the values of Broadway.

You’ll Never Get to Heaven If You Sell Out