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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

'Cats' will return, but serious musicals are in trouble on Broadway

"Cats,'' the longest-running show in Broadway history, will return to the stage. Credit: AP / Nigel Teare

OK, this may well be just a coincidence. Then again . . .

Earlier this month, I was struck by the almost simultaneous announcements of the Jan. 24 closing of "The Last Ship" and the probable return next season of "Cats."

"Last Ship," Sting's ambitious Broadway debut as a musical composer, was the third serious, traditional, flawed but lavishly produced show to fail last year to catch on with audiences.

"Side Show," officially a revival but transformed into what felt like a major new musical, received better reviews than did "Last Ship," which has haunting music but a dark book. Until Sting joined the company Dec. 9 to boost the box office, the show felt muddled.

Despite the good press for "Side Show," it seems not enough people wanted to see a musical about conjoined twins, no matter how entertaining and beautifully performed. It closed Jan. 4 after just seven weeks -- one month less than the 1997 original, generally considered a flop.

Then there was "The Bridges of Madison County," a gorgeously staged and performed musical based on the cheesy but phenomenally popular 1992 romance novel and 1995 movie about a four-day love affair between an Iowa farm wife and a worldly photographer. The show ran just three months last spring and, despite its many strengths in a weak season, didn't even get a Tony nomination for best musical.

Jeffrey Richards, lead producer of "Bridges," is still not sure why the show never caught on. "It may take a year or two to know what I could have done differently," he told me in a recent interview. "This was a show that affirmed adultery while reaffirming family values," he speculated about what could be seen as a grown-up kind of mixed message. "Still, if we had gotten a Tony nomination, we might have been able to find some out-of-town audiences that embraced the novel."

I repeat all of the above because, well, "Cats" -- the triumph of spectacle over content -- is coming back.

This was Andrew Lloyd Webber's virtually plotless extravaganza that ran on Broadway from 1982 to 2000 under what appeared then to be the prophetic ad slogan, "Now and Forever." "Cats" was the first of the British mega-musicals, which means it had a simple potboiler text, music that sounded like music we had heard before, a massive (for its time) marketing budget and a big hydraulic platform that took the kitties to heaven at the finale with lots of smoke.

Thus, while today's producers of substantial book musicals torment themselves with questions about what went wrong, I can't help seeing "Cats," currently a London hit again, as a sign that flying helicopters and actors on roller skates are next.

Broadway ended this year boasting, understandably, about dazzling 2014 statistics. Attendance was up 13 percent and the total grosses, $1.362 billion, are the highest ever. The last two holiday weeks, through Jan. 4, were the highest attended and highest grossing in recorded history.

It you want to feel great about the numbers, however, best not to notice which shows are bringing in the big crowds and the bigger bucks. The top five from the last week of the season are "Wicked," "The Lion King," "The Book of Mormon," "Aladdin" and "The Phantom of the Opera." (I'm omitting "The Illusionists," a holiday visit by touring magicians that came in between "Aladdin" and "Phantom.")

Yes, "Aladdin" is new this season to the same-old list. But I doubt even Disney would say that the happy kids' show pretends to be anything but what it is.

Meanwhile, producers are perplexed that even musical comedies with familiar stories -- the well-received revival of "On the Town" and the new adaptation of the "Honeymoon in Vegas" -- are struggling at the box office.

"And that even has a star," says James Lapine, referring to Tony Danza in that movie adaptation. I had gone to the playwright hoping for historical perspective from the author, director and collaborator with Stephen Sondheim on "Sunday in the Park with George," "Into the Woods" and "Passion."

"It has always been dog-eat-dog," said Lapine, currently enjoying the success of Disney's big starry hit movie of "Into the Woods," for which he wrote the screenplay. (And, not incidentally, the movie's most quoted line for the fairy-tale prince: "I was raised to be charming, not sincere.")

Although he said he is as perplexed as everyone about the recent failure of the big shows, he speculated that, in general, the responsibility "probably falls to the producers." He worries that overproduced shows with huge budgets in big theaters are probably hurting the darker, more ambitious musicals.

He cites the success of "Next to Normal," which thrived in a small theater despite a plot about a bipolar mother. "If I am going to do a serious show, I'd have to figure out how to make it work on Broadway," said Lapine, who wrote the book for such adventurous triumphs as "Falsettos" and "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."

He adds, "I don't know if there is any composer today people make a point of going to see. Steve [Sondheim] is one of a kind."

Still, despite the insecurities that must be haunting serious producers right now, Broadway will have at least eight new musicals before the season ends April 23. Both Lapine and Richards are rooting for "Fun Home," a seriously wonderful show that won the New York Drama Critics' Circle award during its Public Theater run and is transferring to Broadway.

Richards remains optimistic about the incoming shows, but knows that audience tastes are elusive. He said that box-office success depends upon two imponderables -- "word-of-mouth and the want-to-see factor. Some shows have it, some shows don't." He believes, and I am willing to believe him, that even "Cats" deserves a re-evaluation.

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