No matter how scary our times keep getting, there is one fear we don't have these days.
I speak of the Disneyfication of Broadway. Remember this one? It crept up on grown-up theatergoers in 1994, when the gigantic kiddie show called "Beauty and the Beast" opened as the first movie-toon adaptation. Despite its tracing-paper lack of imagination and chintzy pizzazz, the musical was a huge hit that aimed to bring children back to the theater - and did just that.
There was a dangerous elegance to Disney's theme-park marketing concept. See the animated movie. Buy the video. See the ice show. Shop at the Bloomie's boutique. Hear the instantly produced original CD while wearing the T-shirt and the jacket and the quartz analog watch. All this - and tax breaks to Disney for urban renewal.
Soon, families with discretionary income - remember them? - were paying Broadway prices for multiple offspring to experience live theater. In 1997, "The Lion King" set a standard for imagination that few shows, aimed at any age, have been able to duplicate. From 2000 until last year, Disney lured families back with lesser shows, including "Aida," "Tarzan" and "The Little Mermaid." Except for "The Lion King," however, the professional but less awesome "Mary Poppins," which opened in 2007, is the only one still running. Meanwhile, "Shrek," DreamWorks' first challenge to Disney on Broadway, opened in the depth of the economic crisis last winter and closed Jan. 3 after little more than a year.
So, is the family musical over? It is this season, much of which is aimed at attracting hip, adult and multicultural audiences.
Thus far, we have had only two new musicals. "Memphis" uses original soul music to tell the story of a poor white DJ who loves so-called race music in segregated '50s Tennessee. I'm a big fan of the show and its terrific performers, but this is not for kids. (Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St.)
"Fela!," which I admired a lot more than I enjoyed, is even tougher, a hyper-energized fusion of biography and concert about Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the late Nigerian politico, rebel, hedonist and prime mover in a form of ethno-pop music called Afrobeat. (Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 230 W. 49th St.)
I count only five more new musicals scheduled until the season ends April 29.
The closest any show comes to family appeal is "The Addams Family," scheduled to open April 8 after a troubled tryout in Chicago. The cast - Nathan Lane as Gomez, Bebe Neuwirth as Morticia - sounds perfect. Still, the stated intent is to go back to the drawings by cartoonist Charles Addams, so don't expect the TV series or the movie comedies. (Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St.)
Twyla Tharp's "Come Fly Away" is the master choreographer's celebration of classics by Frank Sinatra. Like Tharp's wonderful "Movin' Out," which used Billy Joel music, this is going to tell its stories of sophisticated human-relationships through dance. (March 28, Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway)
"Million Dollar Quartet" is a jukebox musical inspired by a 1956 recording session with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley. The four not-yet-legends recorded at the famous Sun Records studio in Memphis. This is probably not recommended for children, unless they harbor a nostalgia for '50s pop. (April 11, Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St.)
"Sondheim on Sondheim" is described as an "intimate portrait" of Stephen Sondheim in this most grown-up artist's own words and music. Director James Lapine, who was Sondheim's collaborator for "Sunday in the Park With George" and "Into the Woods," has conceived this unusual structure, which will feature the return to Broadway of cabaret superstar and Sondheim specialist Barbara Cook. (April 22, Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St.)
Probably the gutsiest entry is "American Idiot," based on the Grammy-winning 2004 concept album by Green Day. The West Coast punk-rockers tell the story of Jesus of Suburbia, described by one of the creators as a powerless everyman, desensitized by a "steady diet of soda pop and Ritalin." The show, a smash at Berkeley Rep last fall, is directed by Michael Mayer, who staged the boundary-breaking Broadway hit, "Spring Awakening," and is being brought to New York by several of the show's producers. (April 20, St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St.)
What will not happen this season was arguably the most-anticipated offering. "Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark," postponed several times from its original March opening, now has been set to open in November. This will be directed by Julie Taymor, the audacious and uncompromising master behind "The Lion King," with music by Bono and The Edge. Expected to be the most expensive production in Broadway history, the show has been struggling to raise its projected $50 million price tag. ("Beauty and the Beast" set a record 16 years ago at $12 million; "The Lion King" established its own record at $20 million.)
When "Beauty and the Beast" introduced Disney to Broadway in '94, the move was explained to Newsday by then-chairman Michael Eisner. He talked about something futuristic called "this so-called information superhighway, in which you will soon be able to get 500 channels on your entertainment center." He believed there would be "an equal and opposite reaction" in which people "are going to want to gather together as a community in a big room, without a cathode-ray tube, and share a common experience."
He hitched Disney's future where it had always been, on children. Clearly, Disney is counting on them growing up and heading to "Spider-Man." But shouldn't someone be producing for the kids?