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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We've seen elephants parading down the aisle, wildebeest stampedes, dancing flatware and jungle creatures flying through the air on bungee cords. But ever since the Walt Disney Co. discovered--first with Beauty and the Beast and most decisively, in 1997, with The Lion King--that its popular movies could have a long and profitable second life onstage, a prim English nanny has been waiting patiently in the wings. She was the star of one of the most beloved of all Disney movies, which boasted a made-to-order musical score--and real human characters to boot, who didn't need any tricky puppets or elaborate stage contraptions to be reborn onstage.

That it took Mary Poppins--the 1964 film starring Julie Andrews and based on P.L. Travers' stories--so long to make the leap from screen to stage has to do mainly with boring adult things like copyrights. In 1993 London theater impresario Cameron Mackintosh bought the rights to the Mary Poppins stories from their nonagenarian author (who was never happy with the Disney movie, which she felt prettified her material). But Disney had the rights to the film, including the all-important songs. The two eventually got together in a collaboration for the theater history books: Disney, the studio that virtually reinvented the family musical, and Mackintosh, king of the modern megamusical, with a string of hits including Cats, Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon.

And yet, when it finally opens on Broadway next week, the lavish and lovely stage version of Mary Poppins will be flying into a stiffer headwind than it could ever have expected. Here's the medicine with the spoonful of sugar: a lot has changed in the nine years since The Lion King's innovative mix of puppetry, dance and set design transformed Broadway. The era of the giant musical spectacle is in eclipse. The real news on Broadway over the past few seasons has been the success of smaller, edgier musicals: shows like Urinetown, Avenue Q and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. A decade ago, these musicals would have been content to settle for a small but enthusiastic coterie of off-Broadway fans. Now they're moving to Broadway, having long runs and stealing Tonys away from the big boys.

The trend is even more striking this fall. Choreographer Twyla Tharp, who had a surprise hit four years ago with Movin' Out, her dance interpretation of Billy Joel music, is attempting a similar feat with The Times They Are A-Changin', based on the songs of Bob Dylan. A more problematic show with a murky story line, it is set in a grungy-chic circus that is more distracting than illuminating. But there's no mistaking that it's a musical with a personal vision--not to mention one of the best sound tracks on Broadway.

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