Friday, March 12, 2010

Family-Friendly: What is Broadway's Obligation?

I always enjoy listening to other patrons of a show discuss how they feel about the show we are seeing (during intermission) or have just seen (on the slow walk out of the theatre).  My intermission and exit during/after a recent preview of the musical Come Fly Away was full of vivid conversation and opinion.  I will save the specifics and even the tone of those comments for my review, which will be posted the day after opening just like all the others.

Sure, I can understand a chat about how Come Fly Away might not be for "Chad," who is not a fan of dancing, while it is the perfect show for "Sarah," who is an aspiring Broadway hoofer herself.  That and other show-appropriate connections are certainly germaine to the moment.  I have, in fact, had just that discussion more than once upon exiting next to normal: should we bring Aunt Mary who has much in common with Diana?  That is a whole other blog!  But, that afternoon, and during several other recent trips, I have come across a very common theme for these discussions: whether or not a show is "family-friendly."  And whenever this comes up it is always in the context of: "Did you like it?"  "Well, I wouldn't bring the kids to see this." as if that were a measure for the quality of the show.  Which leads me to my central question:  Why is family-friendly a caveat for whether or not a show is good?

Well, obviously, it is viable critical response to a show that is marketed toward children, i.e. Disney musicals.  With these, whether or not the show has maintained its "family-friendliness" is central to how successful it is.  Nevermind that all Disney products, be they shows, theme parks, films, etc. have a "adult" elements in them, most of which go right over the kids' heads like so much fairy dust spraying off of Tinker Bell.  That does not mean that there aren't potentially objectionable things in these shows, either.  To wit, were Mary Poppins an actual nanny, she'd likely make headlines.  Not because she can fly, but because she is cold, calculating, manipulative and subversively abusive to small children.  Wouldn't a lawyer love to catch her and the brats on the nanny cam dancing on slanted roof tops?  Or how about the copulating blades of grass and various other flora and fauna during "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" in The Lion King.  I haven't had that "funny feeling in my tummy" since I saw the mating dance, um, Jellicle Ball in Cats when I was 16 and a raging horn ball. 

So, since when does the child friendliness of a Broadway show become a qualifier?  Apparently all shows deserve that angle of scrutiny, no matter how obviously they are marketed towards adults.  I should tell you up front that my parents took me to everything, no matter how adult the show.  But I also wasn't allowed to go (except for Peter Pan) until I was 12 or so.  And in retrospect, I know now that they took me to everything so that it could springboard into a discussion of topics most parents are scared to broach.  Is this what people mean when they say they wouldn't bring the kids?  That it might cause some uncomfortable conversation?  I doubt it.

What amuses - and angers - me the most, though, is what people do consider family-friendly.   Let's talk some of Broadway's biggest hits and the kids:

Grease: Family-friendly most likely because of the sweet gloss of the movie.  But let's look closer at the show parents bring the kids to in DROVES:  Rizzo is so promiscuous that she has a pregnancy scare and at the very least pretends, believably, that her boyfriend is NOT the father.  How about Sandy?  Grease  is the word that means girls have to be slutty to get a less than decent guy.  Great message, parents!

West Side Story:  I think people bring their kids to see this show (and rightly so) because it is a classic.  But a closer look reveals gang violence, police corruption, overt racism, three murders of children (teens are kids, too, remember), pre-marital sex, and an attempted rape.  But the music is so beautiful, and all of it ends up bringing the feuding gangs together.  Really?

Mamma Mia!:  The fun ABBA songs and the silly spandex, brings whole families to the theater for this "family-friendly" show.  I wonder what they discuss first on the way home?  Cougar mating dances?  A woman so easy that three men could have easily fathered one daughter?  The fact that no one knows about this little slice of family history, until the daughter in question finds out about the particulars in a stolen diary?  How about sex on a beach?  In a church?  But "Dancing Queen" is a classic, right?!

The Phantom of the Opera:  OK, this one might qualify as a classic too, since its been around over a quarter of a century.  And nothing says "bring the kids" like a serial killer who is obssessed with a girl to the point of kidnapping.  No matter how cool the getaway boat is, stealing someone through means of hypnosis is a serious crime all by itself.

Ok, so I might be stretching it a bit, but you get my point.  After all, the same parents that have ruled the above, are nixing shows that have topics just as worthy of discussion.  But back to my original thoughts.   Come Fly Away takes place in a below ground lounge/bar kinda place - where you might see Frank Sinatra through a haze of cigarette smoke and scotch on the rocks.  As far as I can tell, there is nothing in the advertising that would even suggest that children attending should be a consideration.  And, now, having seen it, I will divulge that Act Two, in particular, is an adults-only affair.  Of course, you see more on a regular basis during an episode of Dancing with the Stars (during the "family-friendly" hour on TV, starting at 8PM).

The bottom line to me is this: whether or not you bring your kids to any show that isn't clearly marketed toward bring them to the show means you are taking your chances with content.  Do Chicago, Memphis, A Little Night Music, or the yet-to-even-preview Promises, Promises suggest in any way that you should bring the kids?  No.  And all are or have been a huge success without hordes of little ones in the seats.

I learned a lot by going to the theatre frequently, but my parents also encouraged appropriate discussion.  If I were a 12 year old today, there probably isn't one musical playing that my folks wouldn't take me to, even Hair.  But I can guarantee that the whole ride home after that show would be a talk about personal responsibility, and what we know today about drug abuse and free sex versus then.  Then there'd be that whole war thing...

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