The Battle For Broadway: Poppins vs. Dylan Plus Grey Gardens and Spring Awakening

The Nanny With the Magic Touch is Going to Need All Her Powers Onstage This Fall

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Another small show that has just made the jump from off-Broadway to on: Grey Gardens, a surprisingly fresh and moving expansion of the 1975 documentary about two eccentric relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis living in squalor in East Hampton, N.Y. It made the risky move with help from its incandescent star, Christine Ebersole, who rounded up the first chunk of financing herself. Still to come is an even more unlikely Broadway transfer: Spring Awakening, an adaptation of Frank Wedekind's play about coming of age in repressive Germany in the late 19th century. The music is post-Rent rock; the sets are little more than rows of dowdy school desks. There's onstage masturbation, an abortion and a suicide. Leave the kids at home.

The rise of the edgy little shows is partly a reaction to the effects-laden, can-you-top-this grandiosity of so many stage musicals of the '80s and '90s. Those falling chandeliers and hovering helicopters may once have been visually startling and dramatically potent, but after a while you get tired of applauding the sets. Add to that a subtle resentment by the guardians of Broadway tradition over the huge success of Disney. Some feared that the company's deep pockets and corporate approach (developing and marketing several shows at the same time, movie studio--style) would squeeze out the small producers, who typically cobble together investors one show at a time.

In reality, little has changed. Most Broadway shows are still produced the old-fashioned, cobbled-together way (although some of those investors are now big corporations). And that does not necessarily make the shows better or more reflective of a personal vision. "What I love about Disney," says Mackintosh, "is it's actually carrying on the tradition of one person producing a show" (that would be Tom Schumacher, head of Disney's theatrical division, who has overseen every Disney stage show since The Lion King). "What I hate now is a conglomeration, where there's more producers on top of the bill than actors on the stage."

Indeed, the backlash against the big pop-musical extravaganzas is an unfortunate symptom of the split--in theater more than almost any other art form--between the works that critics and theater aficionados hail and the ones that, very often, draw huge audiences. Most of the big-musical extravaganzas that have gone on to long Broadway runs in the past couple of decades, from Cats to Wicked, have done so despite tepid or negative initial reviews.

And the scorn that's routinely heaped on Disney's "theme-park" approach to theater has become code language for a fusty prejudice in favor of old-fashioned literary theater at the expense of the visual, aural and, yes, magical delights that can make seeing a show onstage a unique imaginative experience. So strong is the backlash that Tarzan, Disney's latest, critically denounced show, couldn't even snag a Tony nomination for its dazzling sets or the inventive aerial choreography by Pichón Baldinu, co-founder of the experimental De La Guarda troupe. ("Between you and me," announced director-designer Bob Crowley, accepting a Tony for his more pedestrian work on The History Boys, "I should have won it for the other one.")

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