July 28--The very adult world of musical theater is making strides with a different fan base: children.
Some of the biggest Broadway hits this year have been kid-friendly -- from Matilda: The Musical and Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella to revivals of Annie and Pippin.
Appealing to audiences of all ages is essential, said Robyn Goodman, the veteran Broadway producer behind Cinderella.
"One of the core values in my business," she said, "is to bring young people to the theater."
In decades past, family musicals have occasionally found a niche: Peter Pan in the 1950s, The Sound of Music in the '60s, Annie in the '70s, Cats in the '80s and The Lion King in the '90s.
Since the new millennium, though, such productions -- Wicked, Mary Poppins, Billy Elliot and Newsies among them -- have increasingly set the pace, often generating bigger buzz than shows that are more adult-oriented.
"To attract a wide audience, family musicals should have wonderful stories and music," Goodman said, "but they can't have bad language, and kids have to relate to them in some way.
"Cinderella and Mary Poppins are classic stories that everyone has read or had read to them, and Annie and Matilda both have children in them for kids to identify with."
Other shows with youngsters in the cast include Kinky Boots, Motown: The Musical and Pippin.
As host Neil Patrick Harris joked last month on the Tony awards broadcast: So many child actors are on Broadway, the current season resembles Chuck E. Cheese.
Thomas Meehan, who won Tonys for the books of Annie, Hairspray and The Producers, said children find stage productions more thrilling "when they see 'themselves' onstage."
"Annie is onstage a lot, and when all the orphans appear in It's the Hard-Knock Life, every child in the audience is with us 100 percent," Meehan said.
Nancy Dougherty of Canal Winchester recently took daughter Hayley to New York to see Annie, Cinderella and Newsies, but she worried about Cinderella.
"I was afraid it might bore me or be too childish for my 12-year-old."
Both were pleasantly surprised, though, by the fairy tale's humorous new script and themes of female empowerment.
"It's nice when a show, regardless of (a viewer's) age level, can be thought-provoking," Dougherty said.
On Hayley's wish list is Matilda, the musical adapted from the Roald Dahl children's book about a bright girl who battles ignorant parents and a tyrannical schoolmistress.
Because the production speaks to children as well as adults with childhood memories, "Matilda finds common ground," said Rob Howell, whose costumes and alphabet-block scenery are featured in the Royal Shakespeare Company show.
"We're all frightened, we're all curious, we all like to hear stories and we can all be happy," Howell said.
Playwright Douglas Carter Beane -- who wrote a new book for Cinderella, which was first staged on television in 1957 -- said family musicals must encompass a moral.
"It's a word people are afraid to use," Beane said, "but they have to have a lesson that parents would want to pass on to their children."
"Annie is about perseverance and keeping your chin up," he said, "and Hairspray is about not how you look but who you are."
Meehan's Annie is beloved by preteens, but he and his co-creators didn't anticipate such a broad audience for their 1977 adaptation of the comic strip about a Depression-era orphan.
"We thought of Annie as an American character representing hope, resilience and honesty in hard times," he said. "We didn't think of Annie as a show for children but for adults."
Likewise, the 2013 revival of Pippin -- a coming-of-age fable, about King Charlemagne's naive son, first presented from 1972 to '77 -- is making a stronger connection with families than did the original.
The wider appeal might be attributable, at least in part, to the circus-theme staging.
"The show's sense of mystery, exciting choreography and the newly planted circus elements -- such as back-flipping through a hoop -- tie in with all ages," said Matthew James Thomas, who plays the title role.
In central Ohio, theater directors applaud the family-friendly trend.
"We need to reach out to a broader base, because these kids are our future theatergoers," said William Goldsmith, artistic director of Columbus Children's Theatre.
Goldsmith noted a danger in dumbing down shows for the sake of young audience members.
"Kids are intelligent," he said, "and they'll catch you."
Steven Anderson, producing director of CATCO, agreed:
"We always underestimate the ability of children to consume shows like Matilda, with a darker appeal."
Beginning Wednesday, CATCO will present The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a musical that appeals to adults and kids alike.
Said Anderson: "Children look for the same experiences onstage as we do."
(c)2013 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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