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The Family Way

Filichia discovers that the Family Musical as we know it is a fairly recent phenomenon. logo
Brooke Tansley in
Disney's Beauty and the Beast
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
I got a book that I never knew existed from my buddy Mike Kohler: Superman on Broadway, by Bob Holiday. Remember the name? Holiday played the title role in the 1966 Broadway musical It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman. Although he did write a bit of text for the book, he really just compiled a scrapbook of reviews, features, and photos about the show, from the first rehearsal to post-Broadway engagements in outdoor venues.

One clipping, from the June 10, 1966 edition of The New York Times, tells of producer Hal Prince's decision to eliminate Thursday night performances in favor of Thursday matinees. "When the schools close," Prince said, "we expect greater attendance from parents and their children." The uncredited reporter who did the story also asked David Merrick, then Broadway's most famous producer, if he planned to make the same type of accommodation with his shows. "The only shows I've ever produced have been for adults," he replied.

I started thinking about Merrick's career and, indeed, I only found one production of his that could be considered a Family Musical: Oliver!. True, that show has some dark themes, but I'm sure a lot of theatergoers took their children to see it because the cast featured a number of kids and the score included such jaunty songs as "Consider Yourself." When I brought up this point to my friend David Wolf -- who's in his late 50s, like me, and has also been following Broadway for lo these many decades -- he commented that, in Merrick's day, there was no such thing as the Family Musical as we know it today. "Musicals were for adults," he said. "Making them for kids came years later."

Was he right? What immediately came to my mind was that so many of the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows had kids in them, but then I realized that having kids in a musical doesn't automatically put it in the Family Musical category. There are all those Snow children in Carousel, but they don't figure significantly in the plot and they certainly don't lighten up a story that includes wife-beating and suicide. The two tots in South Pacific are important to the plot of that show, but so are war, death, and racism. Yes, parents could bring their kids to The King and I and The Sound of Music -- I'm sure that plenty did -- but there are some heavy issues in those shows, too.

So I decided to take a look at the musicals produced over the past 50 years and see how many could be defined as Family Musicals. Just as David Wolf said, such shows are a relatively recent phenomenon. Two of the top five longest-running musicals, Cats and Disney's Beauty and the Beast, are definitely family musicals; Grease and Rent, both of which are in the top 10, might qualify if your kids are teenagers. The current Number 10 on the list, Fiddler on the Roof could be considered a family musical in some ways. And the show that will displace it in the top 10 later this year, The Lion King, most certainly is.

Peter Pan opened on Broadway in 1954 but had a less-than-stellar run of 152 performances, so producers of the day really couldn't be chastised for eschewing the Family Musical. Don't forget, though, that this was an era when shows began at 8:30 p.m., which made for an awfully late "school night." Thankfully, we now have Tuesdays at 7 and Family Nights at the theater. (By the way: After Peter Pan's smash TV debut in 1955, there were TV productions of Jack and the Beanstalk, Tom Sawyer, and The Stingiest Man in Town in 1956; Cinderella, Pinocchio, The Adventures of Huck Finn, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, and Junior Miss in 1957; Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, Hansel and Gretel, Aladdin, and Little Women in 1958. There probably would have been more if the bulk of these weren't so terrible.)

In 1960, The Sound of Music (32nd on the long-run list) had recently opened, and The Music Man (35th) was still going strong; but as the decade progressed, only the aforementioned Oliver! (76th) and Bye Bye Birdie (104th) really qualified as Family Musicals. This was around the time when we started hearing talk of how Broadway was losing an entire generation -- i.e., the Baby Boomers. Maybe the absence of the Family Musical was the reason why; Broadway wasn't offering much product that spurred parents to attend the theater with their kids in tow.

And maybe the reason we're now experiencing a musical theater renaissance is that a great number of kids became entranced by the live theater experience in the '70s when their parents took them to see Annie (14th), Pippin (17th), The Magic Show (18th) , and The Wiz (24th), not to mention the Peter Pan revival with Sandy Duncan that ran from 1979 to 1981. Now these twenty- and thirtysomethings are theatergoers -- and theater creators.

I remember the day when a talented musical theater actress named Claci Miller told me that she had been cast in Cats. "I can guess what you might think of it," she said, "but this was the first show my parents took me to, and it was the one that made me want to do this." Claci never told me if she eventually came to hate Cats, but I've heard from plenty of twentysomethings that they also loved the show as kids and now they don't. Still, their love of Broadway musicals remains. Bless the Family Musical for getting them interested in the first place.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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