Theater is Broadway bound

— On the northeast corner of Eighth Avenue and West 47th Street, a large sign looming above a blue and orange construction fence proclaims "Broadway's Biggest Hits Are Just Around the Corner."

On the fence, stark white lettering offers a bit more information: "Manhattan Theatre Club on Broadway" and "Newly Restored Biltmore Theatre."

These terse statements say a lot about one of the major success stories of the theater season now coming to a close. Nonprofit Manhattan Theatre Club � or MTC � is setting up shop on Broadway, most likely within the next two years.

Quite a coup for MTC's artistic director, Lynne Meadow, and Barry Grove, its executive producer, who for the last 25 years have jointly guided the subscription-based theater through bumpy and bountiful times. And MTC's decision to up the ante and its own visibility couldn't have come at a more fruitful time.

The theater, which specializes in new work, received a total of 20 Tony nominations in early May for four of its shows � "Proof," "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," "A Class Act" and "King Hedley II." The first three started on MTC stages, while the August Wilson drama, co-produced by MTC, was offered to its 17,500 subscribers. And "Proof," already the winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for drama and the New York Drama Critics' Circle prize for best American play, is the favorite to take the best-play award on Tony night June 3.

Not that Manhattan Theatre Club has deserted its off-Broadway roots. The company still retains its two smaller theaters in the basement of City Center, where it recently renewed leases for the next 15 years. But now MTC has staked a claim to the crumbling Biltmore, a Broadway house that once was home to such long-running hits as "My Sister Eileen," "Barefoot in the Park" and "Hair."

"It doesn't change the nature of our work, but it certainly changes the picture frame," Grove says modestly of the decision to acquire the Biltmore for more of MTC's shows.

Empty for more than a decade, the theater, built in 1925, sits on West 47th Street, just off Eighth Avenue. A victim of theft, fire and water damage, the Biltmore will require extensive renovation, according to Grove, costing upward of $20 million.

About $12 million will be provided by Biltmore 47, a development group which acquired the theater and the land next to it for a high-rise apartment building. MTC will provide the rest of money, a monumental fund-raising job, above and beyond the $11.5 million annual budget. MTC hopes to open the Biltmore for business sometime during the 2002-03 theater season.

"Each of our theaters will have different strengths, and I'm sure Lynne will find the right way to use them," says Grove, talking about his working partnership with Meadow, a sturdy relationship that has lasted longer than a lot of marriages.

"We share a similar ambition," Meadow explains when pressed to explain their success.

Grove amplifies: "We are genuinely fond of each other and we respect each other's talents. They overlap and they are not identical, which is good," he adds. "Lynne is a very savvy businesswoman, but her focus is artistic. I trained and studied as an artist, but I don't feel like a frustrated artist. I feel quite satisfied and happy as a producer.

"We are about new things, which means we both like living in the present and the future, more than we like reliving the past."

"One thing I know, from years of doing this, is that different works require different venues and what is wonderful is to have the variety of spaces to suit whatever play we are doing," Meadow says.

"Audiences really want to see plays on Broadway. 'Allergist' and 'Proof' � two really different plays � are doing very well with audiences," she adds.

"Proof," David Auburn's drama about a young woman's relationship with her mathematician father, and "Allergist's Wife," Charles Busch's comedy about a frenzied Manhattan matron, were brought to Broadway with the help of commercial producers. Both have returned their million-dollar-plus production costs and are turning a weekly profit.

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