The Tonys may be saluting musical-theater actors next month, but everyone knows that for tuners it’s really been the year of the flying machines.

In the season’s first big musical, Buddy Holly (Paul Hipp, giving the best rock ‘n’ roll performance since Elvis Costello played the Broadway Theater a few years back) went down in a plane crash between gigs. In the final entry, Will Rogers met his end in an Alaska jaunt with pal Wiley Post. (“I still think he was the best pilot who ever lived,” Keith Carradine’s affable Rogers notes, “if you don’t count that one time.”)

With all the foreshadowing of death in both shows, theatergoers must have been tempted to shout, “Buddy! Take the bus!” or “Will, stay home with the wife and kids for a change!”

And of course there were the helicopter in “Miss Saigon” – which took off with either one too many or one too few passengers, depending on your point of view – and “Shogun: The Musical,” which pulled off a fiery crash-and-burn all itself.

The end of the Broadway season is a month away, but the artistic and financial trends are well established, and they will surely be confirmed with the Tony nominations this week. The news is terrible. After a relatively healthy 1989-90, particularly in the drama category, 1990-91 is looking dire.

If the b.o. trend holds, grosses will be down from the previous year for the first time in five seasons, and attendance will be down as well. Production dropped from 35 Tony-eligible shows last season to 26 in this term (really 25 when you deduct Penn & Teller’s perennial stint). That’s a grim 30% falloff.

The artistic balance sheet is equally dispiriting. Among the 25 shows, there were 14 “new” plays, seven musicals and four revivals. There are quotation marks around the word new because only two plays – Neil Simon’s “Lost In Yonkers” and David Hirson’s short-lived “La Bete” – were developed for Broadway, the rest having had prior outings in London or in the subsidized sector. Of the 14, just four are still running.

Among the musicals, the season was lopsided because of “Miss Saigon,” which generated great controversy and hyperbole and, not coincidentally, the biggest advance in the history of the street. David Merrick added a footnote to his biography with “Oh, Kay!” a Harlem-based revival of the Gershwin musical that ran for a couple of months, shut down, returned to a second theater, sputtered for a couple of weeks and disappeared.

The week Time dubbed “The Secret Garden” “the best American musical of the Broadway season,” the competition was the itty-bitty “Once On This Island,” the equally itty-bitty “Those Were The Days” and the “Moose Murders” of musicals, “Shogun.”

“Buddy” has been hanging on with barely half-filled houses almost since its opening, and without some words of love from the Tony nominators, it’s a goner. Both “The Secret Garden” and “The Will Rogers Follies” took serious drubbings from the critics, but both will make a go of it until the ticket buyers decide. Both shows were capitalized at about $6.2 million, and both had heavy infusions of Japanese coin.

The trend of Japanese investment in exchange for backend rights – touring and broadcast in the Far East – became a major factor in legit financing, and it remains to be seen how the trend will carry over onto the artistic side. Indeed, it was hard to watch “Will Rogers” without thinking how well Tommy Tune’s shimmy and glitter is likely to go over with non-English speaking audiences (all the producers will have to do is eliminate Will Rogers from the show).

Within this troubled firmament, a few stars shone. Lincoln Center Theater produced the Broadway premiere of “Mule Bone,” a 60-year-old collaboration between Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. After many years and many failed plans, the Broadway unions and theater owners finally installed a lowered-cost project that shrunk ticket prices to a $24 top and put a $400,000 cap on capitalization.

The first show under the Broadway Alliance aegis, Steve Tesich’s “The Speed Of Darkness,” was a fast flop. But the second, “Our Country’s Good,” was a winner with the critics and a likely candidate for good word-of-mouth; the reduced union costs give it at least a chance for survival.

In February, “Lost in Yonkers” provided the expected shot in the arm, generating b.o. worthy of a musical. Lincoln Center Theater’s upstairs transfer of John Guare’s “Six Degrees Of Separation” also earned the coveted mix of kudos and big b.o.

At $2 million, the spectacularly designed “La Bete” set a new record for straight-play production and lasted less than a month after being burned at the stake. “La Bete,” a play about artistry vs. charlatanism, was one of several shows this season that trucked in a certain preachiness, some more effectively than others.

In “Our Country’s Good,” a feckless British soldier actually believes in the power of the theater to transform both his motley company of prisoners and his philistine colleagues. The ennobling power of the theater is the subject of the flyweight delight “I Hate Hamlet,” as well, am here the bad guys come from L.A.

Another flier landed on Broadway this season, in the person of, Peter Pan, as played a vigorous Cathy Rigby. “Peter Pan” was one of two strong musical revivals, the other being “Fiddler On The Roof.” For most of its denizens, life on Broadway even in good times is as shaky as a… well, you know. With a bad economy and half the theaters already dark, it will take a more than a chopper for things to improve.

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