Broadway musicals stick to the safe route

Roald Dahl's "Matilda The Musical." Roald Dahl's "Matilda The Musical." Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

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Linda Winer Newsday theater critic and arts columnist Linda Winer.

Winer is chief theater critic and arts columnist for Newsday, which she joined in 1987. ...

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So much for Broadway's gallop toward cutting-edge musicals and boundary-pushing content. The season, which officially ended Thursday, did have a late rush of fascinating new plays. But when the Tony nominations come out Tuesday, the musical categories will be pale, with deeply middle-of-the-road shows and almost none of the adventure of recent years.

Although Broadway has been busy, with eight new shows and six revivals, we've basically been in a creative safety zone of conventional and family entertainment. The riskiest show, "Matilda the Musical," does have an unusually dark side to its cartoon cruelty. But this is still a kids show, inventively adapted from Roald Dahl's 1988 children's novel about a little girl genius in a world of grown-up meanies.

Of course, we can point to years of far less productivity. By Tony time in 1995, there were only two new musicals nominated -- "Sunset Boulevard" and "Smokey Joe's Cafe" -- because only two opened the whole season.

So we're not anywhere near that low. We're not really talking about serious badness. Even Kathie Lee Gifford's debut as a Broadway author-composer, "Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson," was well produced and, with the remarkable Carolee Carmello as the '20s evangelist, quite professional. It was just simplistic and deadly dull, which was conspicuously problematic in a theater world where, even after two years, the outrageous dirty-talking irreverence of "The Book of Mormon" still sells out nightly.

This past season began with "Bring It On: The Musical," a harmless hyper-gymnastic entertainment about cheerleaders. And things ended Thursday with a revival of Stephen Schwartz's sweet 1972 musical journey "Pippin." In between, the new musicals included "Chaplin," which had a banal score and lopsided story, but a breakthrough performance by Rob McClure.

Quickly opened and closed last month was "Hands on a Hardbody," an earnest slog of a show about 10 Texans competing for a pickup truck by seeing who could hold onto it the longest. That one, adapted from a 1997 documentary, did have a handful of lively dirt-kicking songs by Amanda Green and Trey Anastasio, founding member of the alt-rock jam band Phish.

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But the closest Broadway has come to a genuine pop score is "Kinky Boots," Cyndi Lauper's smashingly wicked but humane debut as a composer-lyricist. The crowd-pleasing show, adapted by Harvey Fierstein from the 2005 movie about drag queens saving a shoe factory, is full of feel-good sentiment and fine craftsmanship. Cutting-edge, however, is not even a goal.

Compare this Broadway season to the one that kicked off in 2006 with "Spring Awakening," a primal scream of a musical about turbulent puberty based, no less, on a scandalous German drama from 1891. By 2008, we had two wildly original rock hits: "Passing Strange" was composer-musician Stew's indie-rock concert, boho-art project and coming-of-age middle-class black-identity journey. And "In the Heights" was not just the commercial theater's first Latino musical written by Latinos. Lin-Manuel Miranda's blazingly ingenious poetic raps introduced new sounds for the theater, while his affection for classic Broadway honored its traditions.

This year has nothing that breaks the musical form the way the enchanting, peculiar "Once" did last season. Granted, in 2010, the very different "Scottsboro Boys" and "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" never attracted a mainstream audience to their offbeat content, but material this season didn't even try to provoke.

After seasons devoted to the seductions of hip, adult and multicultural audiences, this year returned to the family. Thanks, perhaps in part, to the warm embrace of "Newsies" and "Peter and the Starcatcher" last spring, we now have three shows -- "Annie," "Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella" and "Matilda" -- about abused girls triumphing over demented authority figures. Each is lovely in its own way, as was "A Christmas Story," the family-friendly musical-comedy adaptation of the 1983 movie. Expect it to return for the holidays.

Several new musicals this season feel like oldies. This includes producer Berry Gordy's jukebox autobiography with a lame book but lots of wonderful '60s and '70s songs performed by faux Michael Jackson, pretend Diana Ross and imitation Smokey Robinson. Even Steven Van Zandt, inextricable from Bruce Springsteen's adventures and "The Sopranos," has come to Broadway with a throwback, his tribute to genuine, mostly forgotten '60s icons, The Rascals.

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In previous years, we had extended showcase specials from Hugh Jackman and Patti LuPone/Mandy Patinkin. This year, we got Barry Manilow. Instead of revivals of masterworks by Stephen Sondheim or the Gershwins, we got Frank Wildhorn's schlock-opera potboiler "Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical" and the music-hall frolic "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."

In London right now, critics and theatergoers are fighting about "The Book of Mormon" (most critics are mixed, but audiences love it) and "Once" (apparently, everybody loves it). At the Olivier Awards, the Brit equivalent of the Tonys, competition -- thanks to the riskier Broadway of previous years -- will not be safe at all.

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