When It Comes To Family Musicals, Kids' Opinions Matter More Than Critics'

May 7, 2017
Originally published on May 7, 2017 10:54 pm

Creating a hit musical which appeals to family audiences is kind of Broadway's holy grail — think current long-running shows, like The Lion King and Wicked, which have run for decades, or earlier shows like Cats and Annie. Critics don't always give these shows good reviews, but that doesn't seem to matter much. Now, two new musicals are aiming to get the kid stamp of approval.

On a recent Friday evening families poured onto 46th Street after a performance of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Taylor Ponte, a tween from Manhattan, offered her thoughts: "I liked it a lot. And I liked the part where she blew up like a balloon. I liked all of it."

This kind of reaction is why Warner Bros., which is producing the show, brought it to Broadway. The adaptation of Roald Dahl's beloved children's book could be something of a golden ticket for them — creating a hit which runs for years, goes on tours in the U.S. and overseas, and sells tons of merchandise. But some of the critics weren't impressed.

"I loathed the show," says David Rooney, chief theater critic for The Hollywood Reporter. "I thought it was a complete mess."

Family musicals have been big business on Broadway, ever since Disney presented a stage adaptation of Beauty and the Beast in 1994.

"A lot of people roll their eyes about what Disney does on Broadway," says Rooney. "But I think for the most part they do it very well."

Disney shows like The Lion King and Aladdin give audiences a lot of bang for their buck.

"I think a family buying Broadway tickets want to see what they're spending their money on," Rooney explains. "They want to see a production that has energy and that has spectacle and that will dazzle the kids and I think Disney knows how to do that. They work hard at doing that. And I would imagine that Frozen is going to be along those lines."

Frozen doesn't open until next spring, but this spring, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is duking it out with a stage adaptation of Anastasia, the 1997 Fox animated film — Rooney gave that one mixed reviews.

"There's a real fluid cinematic feel to it, but the material is what it is," he says. "It's kind of clunky. It's kind of old fashioned. It's a little bit kitsch."

But it's been selling out, so it could be critic-proof — and Rooney admits it. When he saw Anastasia, the girls in the audience responded — loudly — to many moments.

And kids seem to like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, too. That show has a mostly new score by the songwriting team of Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, who wrote the successful musical Hairspray. They say adapting a film musical that people grew up with has its own set of expectations.

Shaiman says when he and Wittman told friends they were writing the score to a new version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory those friends would inevitably start singing favorite songs from the 1971 Gene Wilder film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.

When Charlie debuted in London it featured the song "Pure Imagination," from the 1971 film. For the heavily-revised Broadway version, other songs have also been added. Jack O'Brien, the show's new director, says he used "Pure Imagination" as a kind of mantra, for the less extravagant Broadway production.

"I think that we've embraced a different theme here," O'Brien explains. "Which is the idea of imagination. Charlie and Grandpa Joe talk about, you know, we both make something out of nothing. That really attracted me to this version of the story."

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has been doing bang-up business, too. It's the kids — and the parents who pay for the tickets — who will ultimately decide if Anastasia and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have long healthy runs. Eileen Young, from Fairfield, Conn., brought her 7-year-old daughter and a friend.

"It's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory! How do you not come?" Young says.

Warner Bros. is so confident in the show's appeal to family audiences, that they've already announced Charlie and the Chocolate Factory's national tour.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:

Creating a hit musical which appeals to family audiences is kind of Broadway's holy grail. Think of "Lion King" or "Wicked" which have run for decades. Critics don't always give these shows good reviews, but some of them are critic-proof. Two musicals, which recently opened, are trying to appeal to kids and their parents as well. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: On a recent Friday evening at 10:30, after a performance of "Charlie And The Chocolate Factory" finished, throngs of families exited the theater. Taylor Ponte from Manhattan had a typical response.

TAYLOR PONTE: I liked it a lot, and I liked the part when she blew up like a balloon. I liked all of it.

LUNDEN: This kind of reaction is why Warner Bros., which is producing the show, brought it to Broadway. The adaptation of Roald Dahl's beloved children's book could be something of a golden ticket for them, creating a hit which runs for years, goes on tours in the U.S. and overseas and sells tons of merchandise. But some of the critics weren't impressed.

DAVID ROONEY: I loathed the show. I thought it was a complete mess.

LUNDEN: That's David Rooney, chief theater critic for the Hollywood Reporter. Even if he didn't like this one, he says family musicals are big business on Broadway. They have been ever since Disney presented a stage adaptation of "Beauty And The Beast" in 1994.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "BEAUTY AND THE BEAST")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character, singing) Song as old as rhyme, beauty and the beast.

ROONEY: A lot of people roll their eyes about what Disney does on Broadway. But I think, for the most part, they do it very well.

LUNDEN: He says, Disney shows like "The Lion King" and "Aladdin" give audiences a lot of bang for their buck.

ROONEY: I think a family buying Broadway tickets want to see what they're spending their money on. They want to see a production that has energy and that has spectacle and that will dazzle their kids. And I think Disney knows how to do that. And I would imagine that "Frozen" is going to be along those lines.

LUNDEN: But "Frozen" doesn't open until next spring. This spring, "Charlie And The Chocolate Factory" is duking it out with a stage adaptation of "Anastasia," the 1997 Fox animated film. And did Rooney like that one? Yes and no.

ROONEY: There's a real fluid cinematic feel to it, but the material is what it is. It's kind of clunky. It's a little bit kitsch.

LUNDEN: But it's been selling out, so it could be one of those critic-proof shows.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "ANASTASIA")

CHRISTY ALTOMARE: (As character, singing) Let this road be mine. Let it lead me to my past.

LUNDEN: And Rooney admits it, when he saw "Anastasia," the girls in the audience especially responded loudly to many moments. And he says kids seem to like "Charlie And The Chocolate Factory," too. That show has a mostly new score by the songwriting team of Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman who wrote "Hairspray." They say adapting a film musical that people grew up with has its own set of expectations.

MARC SHAIMAN: Scott and I would tell people we're writing the score to a new version of "Charlie And The Chocolate Factory" and...

SCOTT WITTMAN: They would look at us and go...

SHAIMAN: ...To a person. They would all go, oh...

SCOTT WITTMAN AND MARC SHAIMAN: (Singing) Come with me.

WITTMAN: (Laughter).

SHAIMAN: Like, our best friends who know we write music and lyrics and we're - we just said we're about to write a score for a new musical. So it was very clear that there was no...

WITTMAN: So the writing was - it was on the wall.

LUNDEN: So when the show debuted in London four years ago, it featured "Pure Imagination" from the Gene Wilder film.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY")

DOUGLAS HODGE: (As character, singing) Come with me, and you'll be in a world of pure imagination. Take a look, and you'll see into your imagination.

LUNDEN: For the heavily revised Broadway version, other songs from that film have been added.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, singing) The candy man makes everything he bakes satisfying and delicious.

LUNDEN: And "Charlie And The Chocolate Factory" has been doing bang-up business, even if it didn't receive any Tony nominations. It's the kids and the parents who pay for the tickets who will ultimately decide if "Anastasia" and "Charlie And The Chocolate Factory" have long, healthy runs. Eileen Young from Fairfield, Conn., brought her 7-year-old daughter and a friend.

EILEEN YOUNG: It's "Charlie And The Chocolate Factory." How do you not come?

LUNDEN: Warner Bros. is so confident in the show's appeal to family audiences that they've already announced a national tour. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) You can take tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.