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

Christy Altomare and Derek Klena star in the stage adaptation of the 1997 Fox animated film <em>Anastasia</em>.
Matthew Murphy
Polk & Co.
Christy Altomare and Derek Klena star in the stage adaptation of the 1997 Fox animated film Anastasia.

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.

<em>Charlie and the Chocolate Factory </em>has already announced plans for a national tour.
Joan Marcus / Polk & Co.
Polk & Co.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has already announced plans for a national tour.

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.

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Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.