In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on lower Manhattan and Washington, Broadway literally (and understandably) shut down for business. But the amazing fact is that just three performances were lost, and two days later, the age-old adage "The show must go on" was applied and they did.

The Bleakest Moment

But they were playing to understandably depleted, demoralised audiences, and a longer term threat to the survival of this most integral part of New York's life and identity was being posed. Six Broadway shows posted closing notices for the same weekend, unable to sustain themselves through plummeting attendances, including the London import {Stones in His Pockets::E01048796670} that was about to be re-cast with local performers. Several other threatened shows requested, and received, concessions from the theatrical unions to impose 25% pay cuts across the board for a one-month period.

"This is probably the bleakest moment in Broadway history," said British producer Cameron Mackintosh, whose own Broadway perennials The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables, reliant on out-of-towners and tourists for much of their audiences, were hit particularly badly. "Manhattan needs people to come back to Broadway to say yes, we're behind you," he went on.

Audiences Return

With the inspirational New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani personally making the same call (and with $5 from every ticket purchase to the end of October going to the Twin Towers Fund that the Mayor's office has set up to benefit those affected by the tragedy), Broadway audiences started to come back. And the show themselves launched initiatives to secure their own futures.

One of the shows that was set to close, Kiss Me Kate (in a sparkling revival that is now London-bound to the Victoria Palace this month), subsequently revoked its notice when the cast and crew came up with a spirited campaign that saw them donating a further 25% of their salaries to bolstering the box office by purchasing tickets to it, in addition to the 25% pay cut they'd already agreed to. Others that did shutter - like the revival of The Rocky Horror Show on Broadway and the off-Broadway musical Bat Boy - are planning to re-open.

As Broadway - a precarious business at the best of times - showed increasing signs of resilience, some shows operating under the 25% pay-cut concession voluntarily reduced it to only 12.5%. But if it's the bottom line that ultimately counts - for the theatre here is nothing if not a business as much as it is an art - the true test of Broadway's recovery is to take its emotional temperature.

From Ground Zero to On the Ground

Visiting New York in the first week of October, I was on the ground to experience this at first hand. I was also, briefly, near Ground Zero, the site of the attack (you can get to within a block of it, right up to Broadway next to Trinity Church), and if it was indeed appalling to witness the utter destruction of an area I used to know so well, it was also immensely reassuring and encouraging to find Broadway, on and off, back to something very much like normal. Every single show I saw was packed to the rafters; and the audiences - always famous for being demonstrative in New York as they seldom are in London, with standing ovations an almost guaranteed response there - as enthusiastic as ever.

October is invariably the time when the autumn season starts with a vengeance; and even if that has been partly muted, at least in publicity terms, by the events on the larger world stage, New York's virtually insatiable appetite for all things theatrical is still intact. And that makes it, for all its flaws (in particular, the cripplingly high ticket prices), still one of the most exciting cities for any theatre-minded tourist to visit.

From Abba to Strindberg

Far from homogenised, this means that Broadway's newest theatre fare stretches eclectically from Abba to Strindberg. Phyllida Lloyd's London-originated production of the Abba musical Mamma Mia! has cloned itself at a gloriously refurbished Winter Garden Theatre (for the last two decades, the Broadway home to Cats) to offer a gloriously retro evening of pure fun that is just the kind of pick-me-up tonic New York needs. It has also, in Louise Pitre's performance as the mother, launched a mature and hugely welcome new Broadway star.

At the Broadhurst Theatre, meanwhile, London theatre stars Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren (both known in the US for their film and television work) star in a revival of Strindberg's Dance of Death, under the direction of Brit director Sean Mathias, that reveals that Broadway's infatuation with English theatre continues unabated, too. It's amazing to find the commercial template of Broadway theatre offering both this play and a revival of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler (Ambassadors, starring Kate Burton in the title role), but in the absence of the equivalent of our National Theatre, it's good to see that it does. In both cases, audiences are rewarded their attention with commendably compelling performances.

Reassuring, too, is the apparent success of the transfer of the musical Urinetown from Off-Broadway to the appropriately tacky Henry Miller Theatre that counts as Broadway, to prove that a seriously satirical musical is as welcome there as a mindlessly spectacular one like the still sparkling revival of 42nd Street (Ford Centre). If 42nd Street remains the quintessential example of a particular kind of Broadway musical, it was encouraging, too, to find that its contemporary antidote, Jonathan Larson's Rent, remains in powerfully good shape at the Nederlander, with a terrific leading man in the shape of Manley Pope.

Massively disappointing, however, is the latest from Susan Stroman, the ground-breaking director/choreographer of the ongoing hits Contact, The Music Man and The Producers, whose latest attempt to develop an original musical, Thou Shalt Not (at Broadway's Plymouth Theatre, under the auspices of Lincoln Centre Theatre), with debutante theatrical composer Harry Connick Jnr, proves to be an incoherent muddle, based on Zola's Therese Raquin. A friend who had seen it already quipped 'Thou Indeed Shouldn't' when I said I was going, and I wished I'd followed his advice.

An Eclectic Off-Broadway

Things are no less eclectic, off-Broadway, where London imports like Puppetry of the Penis (at the John Houseman Theatre, with its two generously proportioned Australians presenting their display of genital orgami) and Neil LaBute's controversial and challenging {The Shape of Things::E882991242053} (premiered at the Almeida in May and now at the Promenade with the same cast led by Rachel Weisz performing emotional orgami on Paul Rudd) have also newly arrived. Less likeable is the indigenous offering, Reefer Madness - a campy spoof musical about the dangers of marijuana - which proves to be a rather dismal attempt to recreate the energy of Little Shop of Horrors at the Variety Arts, but with none of the musical wit or panache required.