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Big ‘Change’ in tuners

West Coast embraces serious shows; Gotham goes for fluff

While Gotham digs out from the snow, California shovels the mud. Weather differences aside, there is also a big divide in the critical climates between the two coasts.

Remember “Caroline, or Change”? New York’s crix were, to be kind, mixed on the musical drama. In L.A. and San Francisco, the cities’ reviewers have been ecstatic. At the Ahmanson, Gordon Davidson booked the Tony Kushner/Jeanine Tesori tuner as part of his final season at the Music Center. The George C. Wolfe-helmed project was considered “risky,” says a rep, but musical comedies “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Little Shop of Horrors” were there to take up the B.O. slack.

In a big surprise, “Caroline” turned out to be the top grosser of the three. “It performed more like an opera on the bigger Ahmanson stage,” says producer Carol Shorenstein Hays, who now has it playing at her Curran Theater in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, musical drama has fallen on hard times in New York City. Across-the-board critical raves are reserved for pastiche, send-up tuners like “The Producers” and “Hairspray.”

This winter, their incoming campy sister, “Spamalot,” has sucked up nearly all the legit oxygen. Big features on the show appeared in the New Yorker and Newsweek far in advance of its March 17 preem.

What magazine editor, after all, could resist a musical that breaks new ground by lampooning Jews, gays and Andrew Lloyd Webber? “We had a period where only serious musicals were treated seriously by the critics,” says WMA agent Peter Franklin. “Now it would seem that the critics have a certain respect for frivolous entertainment — if it’s not pretending to be anything else — and reserve a higher, more stringent standard for shows with serious import.”

As a helmer, George C. Wolfe traffics more in musical drama than comedy, and he speculates on the continental divide over “Caroline’s” press reception. “In New York, the gossip was, does ‘Caroline’ belong on Broadway?” But, he says, “That doesn’t exist in California. … People aren’t coming to see a show that isn’t supposed to be there.”

Andre Bishop, artistic director at Lincoln Center Theater, points out, “The great Rodgers & Hammerstein shows had it both ways: They were immensely popular and serious, not to mention rather high-minded.” Those comments might apply to LCT’s next Broadway musical drama, “The Light in the Piazza” (April 18 preem), with book by Craig Lucas and music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, Rodgers’ grandson.

Playwrights Horizons’ Tim Sanford saw both the Intiman and Goodman stagings of “Piazza” and thinks this tuner could be the exception. “I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t do well here,” says the artistic director. “It’s beautiful and a crowd-pleaser. It’s high-toned, but not particularly difficult.”

Regarding comedy vs. drama in the musical theater, Sanford asks the larger question: “Why isn’t it enough for a show to aim high, be beautiful and imaginative, yet have some flat spots?”

At least a hundred operas, revived season after season at the Met Opera, fit Sanford’s description of great, flawed works.

Opera crix, of course, hone their opinions based on historic recordings and sheet music. Their Broadway counterparts don’t have that luxury. “It was unheard of six years ago for reviewers to get copies of a new play,” says Bishop. “Now that is standard. Unfortunately, due to time and money, we can’t do that with musical scores.”

With “Caroline,” California reviewers were able to study the CD before filing their notices. More difficult scores don’t reveal all their intricacies on one or two listenings. Mel Brooks’ music, on the other hand, does. That might be one reason critics have been less fawning when they returned for re-reviews.

“It is a hard time for dark musicals,” says Steven Sater. He ought to know. With Duncan Sheik, Sater has written the musical version of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play “Spring Awakening,” which focuses on a tragic love affair between two 14-year-olds. Masturbation, abortion, bad parents, death — the tuner has it all. Roundabout was going to produce it a few years ago; there was big buzz coming out of two workshops. Then 9/11 happened, and the nonprofit’s board ordered cutbacks.

New Yorkers finally get to hear “Spring Awakening” Feb. 2, when Lincoln Center’s Great American Songbook series presents a concert version at Rose Hall. Reps from Roundabout, Atlantic Theater and the Public have their tix. Will the crix greenlight?

(Zachary Pincus-Roth contributed to this report.)