'Annie' and more Broadway family fun

Linda Winer

Newsday theater critic and arts columnist Linda Winer. Linda Winer

Winer is chief theater critic and arts columnist for Newsday,

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Just about three years ago, I wrote a column about Broadway's vanishing family musical. Oh, sure, "Wicked," "The Lion King" and "Mary Poppins" were still packing in the young and the restless. But the shows had been around long enough to qualify as senior members of the theater community.

In fact, the kid-friendly boom that arrived in 1994 with Disney's first Broadway movie-toon adaptation, "Beauty and the Beast," had deflated over the past decade. Although people kept having babies, and babies kept growing into potential theater lovers, the commercial theater had become distracted almost entirely by the seductions of hip, adult and multicultural audiences. I declared this terrific for us grown-ups, of course, but more than a little shortsighted about the future.

Well, forget that story, at least for now. Family shows are back. Thanks, perhaps in part, to the warm embrace of "Newsies" and "Peter and the Starcatcher" just before the Tony nominations last spring, Broadway's family values are back in a big way.

We've got the three girl-orphan shows -- "Annie" opens Thursday; "Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella" begins previews Jan. 21, and "Matilda," the British juggernaut, takes them all on in April. For the holidays, Broadway has two offerings -- a highly regarded new one, "A Christmas Story: The Musical," and the returning "Elf."

Fanning out geographically, families will find the Radio City Christmas Spectacular (and 85th birthday of the Rockettes), "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" at Madison Square Garden and the 40th anniversary of Mummenschanz at NYU's Skirball Center. Add two world-class productions of "The Nutcracker" -- the New York City Ballet institution at Lincoln Center and American Ballet Theatre's relatively new one at BAM -- and you have quite a challenge for (remember them?) families with discretionary income.

How many family shows are too many? Understandably, nobody with a rocking horse in the race wants to think -- at least aloud -- about any of them canceling any of them out.

"Don't we all wish we could predict," mused Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the Broadway League. She confirmed in a recent phone interview that "certainly, there are people suggesting there are too many," but she echoed what most of us like to believe about quality and theater audiences. "If the public likes a show, it will come to the show," no matter how many others are beckoning.

"And if I were a producer, I would look at the long-running shows," she said, referring to "Wicked," etc., and now, particularly, the success last year of "Newsies" and -- hey, you can't fight it -- "Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark." You go to Times Square and you see a lot of kids. If I had a great family show, I'd do it."

It's instructive -- and definitely fun -- to hear producers carve out niches to differentiate their shows. Gerald Goering, producer of "A Christmas Story," tells me that his musical adaptation of the 1983 movie "skews older than 'The Grinch.' We all have slightly different demographics." Based on three years of tryouts in Kansas City, Seattle and Chicago, he emphasizes the appeal of a Midwest family story in the Depression. This is his first Broadway show and one he created from the ground up. "When I take off my producer's hat," he says with endearing excitement, "even I can't wait to see how the numbers look."

Robyn Goodman, producer of "Cinderella," has noticed a coincidence in what she calls the "three shows" -- that is, hers plus "Annie" and "Matilda." "The only thing we really have in common," the veteran producer tells me, "is that we're all about abused girls with demented authority figures." When she began to do research about the musical, which has a new book by Douglas Carter Beane and turns the tables on the old prince-rescues-girl business, she says she was surprised that Rodgers and Hammerstein "are as strong a brand" as the fairy tale.

Goodman, producer of "Avenue Q" and other adults-only hits, jokes that "this is the first musical I've ever done in my life that will allow families to come." She also emphasizes that, despite a story beloved by youngsters, "this is a romance."

Even though producer Nancy Gibbs' show, "Peter and the Starcatcher," has announced a mid-January closing, she still says, "the more the better" when it comes to family shows. She says she's content that the low-tech, high-imagination little show will have run 10 months on Broadway. "This was the first Broadway show for many of these kids, and I think they'll totally come back."

She had a fascinating observation while watching young audiences watch the stage. "Computers and TVs focus where we're supposed to look. One of the wonderful things about the legitimate theater is that you have to find the right place to look. It's a great learning experience."

St. Martin is hoping that years of young-audience building are making a difference. In addition to the popular Kids' Night on Broadway (kids free with full-fare adult), the league offers Family First Nights, a program with $10 tickets for at-risk families. "Five years from now," she says, "I would bet that audiences will be several years younger."

She and Gibbs both partially attribute Broadway's new kid-friendliness to the "pendulum swinging." This seems good and right, so long as it doesn't swing so far the other way that it makes us grown-ups cranky.