Like Miss Hannigan in Annie, some Broadway theater writers seem to have minimal patience for little girls. A number of the reviews of Legally Blonde, the new Broadway musical starring Lexington native Laura Bell Bundy, drove that point home, baking the show in a pie with other musicals that appeal to the same audience of 'tween and teen girls and then wincing at the taste.
“This high-energy, empty-calories and expensive-looking hymn to the glories of girlishness, based on the 2001 film of the same title, approximates the experience of eating a jumbo box of Gummi Bears in one sitting,” The New York Times’ Ben Brantley wrote in his Blonde review. “This may be common fare for the show’s apparent target audience — female 'tweens and teenagers who still believe in Barbie.”
Newsday’s Linda Winer mocked, “Omigod, you guys, they’re selling sweat pants stamped ‘omigod’ on the butt and they’re selling bejeweled T-shirts with a Chihuahua across the chest. And, if you squint, the little guy looks just enough like Bruiser, Elle Woods’ precious accessory dog, to reassure America’s 'tween girls that they can grow up to be a bimbo and a brain on Broadway today.”
In the upstart tabloid a.m. New York, Matt Windman wrote, “The Great White Way sure looks like a ‘Girl White Way’ or ‘Great Girl Way’ nowadays.”
The sentiment seems to be that with fare such as Wicked (photo, above), Hairspray and now Blonde, not to mention the Disneyfication of Broadway with The Lion King, Mary Poppins, et al., Broadway is catering too much to an audience that has to beg its parents for the $110 tickets.
Omigod you guys!
Young people want to go to the theater!
Katie, bar the door!
Even if you’ve paid scant attention to the performing arts in the past decade, you know there is a lot of hand-wringing about the graying of the audience. Young people are more attracted to movies, television and computers, leaving arts administrators wondering whether there will be an audience in the next generation.
So it’s kind of funny that when live theater that attracts a young audience comes along, some people feel a need to criticize it for doing just that.
(An aside: There’s also an inherent sexism in taking off on fare for girls as the epitome of vapidity when you stop to consider that some of the bilge foisted on boys makes the girly stuff look like Shakespeare.)
The fear seems to be the dumbing-down of theater, a somewhat understandable point of view from the men who dominate the critical crowd in New York. But if you are an adult, there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of theater aimed toward you and your peers on and off Broadway. Right now you have got LoveMusik, the musical about Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, which I doubt will be overrun with bubblegum snappers; Frost/Nixon, which isn’t about any boy band; Radio Golf, the August Wilson swan song that sounds so “dad”; and Grey Gardens, which even a lot of adults find impenetrable.
Granted, I don’t live in New York, but if I went looking for mature theater on a trip, I could load my calendar. Some might say, well, you’re attracting the kids with dumb shows.
Well, let’s first consider the idea of starter shows. If you sat a preteen or early teen in front of a lot of the shows I mentioned two paragraphs ago, you’d have to keep elbowing them awake. It’s the same as if you tried to cultivate a movie fan by first taking him or her to a Bergman festival. One in 100 might be hooked, but I dare say most of us probably start with something a bit fluffier, a bit more generally accessible, and work our ways into appreciations of more complex and intellectual fare.
And then, its a bit condescending to call all of these productions fluff.
Hairspray addresses serious issues of race and image. Blonde asserts that women need more than a beautiful body to succeed. And Wicked, in particular, works on multiple levels. After seeing it in Cincinnati, my 10-year-old daughter declared Wicked “the best show ever!” I’m sure that right now, her sentiment is mostly based on the fanciful story. But as she sees it over the years, she’ll likely discover the different levels of social and political commentary in the tale of the Witches of Oz.
And thanks to shows like Wicked, it isn’t hard to lure her to the theater now. She might not always know what she’s getting, but she’s up for trying it.
Like it or not, thanks in part to shows like Legally Blonde, a new theater audience is growing.