NEW YORK — Times have changed on Broadway.
Once the domain of folks seeking sophisticated grown-up entertainment, the Great White Way now seems to attract almost as many tykes and teens as it does their parents and grandparents.
With the rise of ticket prices, the taming of Times Square and the influx of tourists who may not all speak fluent English, the expectations around a breakout Broadway hit more often than not have gone from adult-oriented and refined, running for a few months, to brightly colored, spectacular, and above all, durable.
While kid-friendly fare was not unknown on the Rialto, the phenomenon started in a big way in 1994 with Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” — and was helped along by the concurrent makeover of Times Square into an all-ages consumer draw.
With the Broadway floodgates flung open, family-friendly fare has continued to blossom ever since, with musicals like “The Lion King,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Mary Poppins” and up through the adolescent ranks with “Legally Blonde” and “Hairspray.”
And while a show like “Wicked” doesn’t get to be such a monster hit without tapping the broadest possible demographic, the adaptation of Gregory Maguire’s novel has found tremendous support from tweens and teenagers who identify with the troubled-yet-fabulous women in the lead roles.
James Leverett, who teaches in theater programs at both Columbia and Yale, observes that the Broadway theatergoing community doesn’t exist in the same way it used to. “There was a real kind of connoisseurship,” Leverett says. “The latest play would be the subject of discussion around dinner tables and at cocktail parties. Those things knit a certain kind of upper-middle-class society together. And I don’t think that’s true anymore.”
The sea change took place in part because of “pure economics,” says Leverett. Musical juggernauts such as “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Miserables” proved that, on a long enough timeline, a successful Broadway show could gross as much as a major motion picture given the right material.
And if you’ve targeted a family aud, your average theatergoers won’t need just a pair of ducats for date night — they’ll need to shell out for three or four tickets for an outing with the kids.
By tapping such a demo, a family show capable of transcending language barriers has a shot at becoming a steady source of income for years or even decades. And because of the falling dollar, foreign vacationers with a few euros for a night out can now meet the cost of a Broadway ticket more easily.
Director Gregory Mosher, who now runs a youth-centric ticketing program at Columbia, says that the change may be at least partly for the better.
“Let’s not romanticize that everything was ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ in 1947,” Mosher says. “I truly think that when you go to the theater for the first time, it doesn’t matter what you see as long as it’s appealing.”
Leverett agrees. “You’ll find even the most experienced Shakespearean actor telling you that as a child, he was so moved by ‘Cats.’ ”
In the same way that “Cats” fan probably grew up to become a “Rent”-head, kids who had their first theater experience watching “Beauty” are now maturing into audiences for shows like “13,” targeted at the “High School Musical” crowd, or “Spring Awakening,” which skews a little older.
The thinking is that those evolving auds in a few years might check out the new Tracy Letts or Conor McPherson plays, and take their own kids to “The Lion King.”