Are days of big Broadway spectacles ending?

Reeve Carney as Spider-Man flies off the stage

Reeve Carney as Spider-Man flies off the stage during a preview show of "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" at Foxwoods Theatre in New York City. (June 2, 2011) (Credit: Ari Mintz)

Remember when theater news was a real helicopter landing on the stage of "Miss Saigon?"

Remember when masses of hearts thumped faster when actors dressed up as cats got propelled heavenward on a smoky platform? Remember when a Broadway musical meant singers and dancers on roller skates buzzing scary-fast around the audience in "Starlight Express," when French revolutionaries were spinning on, wow, computerized turntables in "Les Misérables" and when a falling chandelier was . . .

Oh, right. The chandelier in "The Phantom of the Opera" is still very much a part of Broadway, packing in theatergoers steadily since 1988. But the show is the only holdover from the '80s, when the British mega-musical ruled the commercial theater. Putting aside for a moment an anomalous, old-fashioned little throwback called "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," it seems that Broadway's appetite for big-budget, humongous spectacles has been replaced by intimate, much less costly musicals with offbeat subjects, multicultural / multigenerational appeal and an almost indie-film vibe.

Is this a culture story or a business story, a report on a change of taste or what the money guys call a market adjustment?

The drastic shift in Broadway fashion has been evolving most of the past decade. The tiny "Avenue Q" beat the massive hit "Wicked" for the best musical Tony in 2005, and the dark-rock groundbreaker "Spring Awakening" won over Disney's "Mary Poppins" two years later. In 2009, a lavishly down-the-middle $25-million adaptation of "Shrek" -- which, 10 years earlier, would have been a sure thing for the big-ticket family market -- ran little more than a year and lost a lot.

Impressively, according to Broadway figures for the last two weeks, "The Book of Mormon," in a small theater and capitalized at around $9 million, grossed more than "The Lion King" (said to cost $20 million back in 1998), "Wicked" ($14 million) and "Spider-Man" (at least $70 million). This was the first time the wildly irreverent hit beat the mainstream monsters, but still . . .

The depth of the sea change hit me again earlier this month, when "Rebecca," which was to begin previews Oct. 30, was postponed the day before rehearsals were to begin. Here is a lavish, $12-million musical with a Gothic romantic-mystery plot that, at least in theory, once would have been a natural for big-event Broadway.

But $4.5 million fell out when a major European investor died and the production was postponed for two weeks, with the specter of cancellation. Ben Sprecher, a lead producer who has been trying to get funding for an American or British production of the Viennese hit since at least 2009, was overseas, trying to get the man's estate to release the money and not available to be interviewed. The show originally was scheduled to open last spring, but was delayed because the producers could not raise the money.

Just consider this past season. "Once," the peculiar and enchanting little musical that virtually swept the Tonys, was capitalized around $5 million. And look at Disney, which set a standard for imaginative spectacle with "The Lion King" and delivered the less awesome but still professional "Mary Poppins" in 2007. It spent much of the first decade of the century struggling with such would-be epics as "Aida," "Tarzan" and "The Little Mermaid." Now the Disney brand has an atypical hit in "Newsies," which reportedly cost around $5 million. (Disney executives were not available to comment.)

Disney is even less conventionally invested in "Peter and the Starcatcher," the story-theater play (with music) that hardly has any scenery at all. The actors create the visuals out of props and their own bodies.

"It was very clear that this is not what people expect from Disney," says Nancy Gibbs, one of the lead producers on "Peter," which is based on a Disney children's book. "They invested in three different incarnations of the show," she told me. "We raised $4 million and don't actually know what they invested, but our arrangement doesn't work in a standard way. They come to meetings with us and give us advice like big brothers. But we are more like indie producers."

Gibbs, a first-time Broadway producer who has been general manager on such big shows as

"Wicked" and such kicky small-scale adventures as "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" (2005), believes both taste and economics have changed the scene.

Her reasoning begins with the shriveling of commercial Off-Broadway, where such a small show as the original "Little Shop of Horrors," for which she was general manager, could happily run for years. "Now the only place to go is Broadway," she says, both appreciating the possibilities and lamenting the loss. "It's an economic problem. A show that would have stayed Off-Broadway 30 years ago has nowhere else to go."

On the big plus side, she adds, "we have broadened the tastes of Broadway." And a Broadway run has a "huge impact" on the afterlife of a show on the road, in regional theaters and schools. "The Broadway brand makes a huge difference in a play's future."

But in the Andrew Lloyd Webber-dominated '80s, there were so few talented composers and book writers that spectacle stepped into the void. "The '80s were very debilitating to the industry,"

says Gibbs. "It was a time when only the British were believed to be able to make musicals, the great American art form."

Things weren't much better in the '90s, especially for Lloyd Webber. In 1995, his heavy-footed "Sunset Boulevard" tried to be a hit on the basis of an enormous hydraulic staircase and moving scenery. It was also the decade of Frank Wildhorn, the American vanilla-pudding potboiler-pop composer whose "Jekyll & Hyde," "The Scarlet Pimpernel" and "The Civil War" seem to appeal to people who found Lloyd Webber too hard. ("Jekyll & Hyde," which arrived on Broadway in 1997 after a national tour that built it into a cult phenomenon, is on another tour now with Broadway intentions.)

As the American theater began investing in young musical talent, however, kids were encouraged to want to become their own kind of Richard Rodgers instead of Bo Diddley. Broadway also has opened up to genuine rock music, not ersatz pop. Now not as many lazy producers can justify their jukebox musicals by claiming nobody is writing new shows worth seeing.

On the other hand, real estate and long runs could explain as much as economics and trend-spotting. According to Adrian Bryan-Brown, veteran press agent for many of the major Broadway shows, endlessly long runs of the old mega-musicals tie up the few theaters large enough to support the expense. "Big, big musicals require big, big space," he says, adding, "A big musical can't afford to play in a smaller theater, and the mega-ones haven't gone away. 'Wicked' ain't moving."

And certainly, nobody is writing off the future of big musicals. "Matilda," the London smash from the same Royal Shakespeare Company that once brought us "Les Misérables," is much anticipated for the spring. In general, however, Gibbs believes shows should cost less than $10 million. "It helps if you don't have to retire $15 million of production costs," she says, "but it depends on the needs of the script."

Not incidentally, the "Les Miz" musical movie, starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway, opens at Christmas. Could a big Broadway adaptation of the Hollywood adaptation be far away?