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BY LINDA WINER
NEW YORK--Remember when theater news was a real helicopter landing on the stage of "Miss Saigon"?
Remember when masses of hearts thumped faster when actors dressed up as cats got propelled heavenward on a smoky platform?
Remember when a Broadway musical meant singers and dancers on roller skates buzzing scary-fast around the audience in "Starlight Express," when French revolutionaries were spinning on, wow, computerized turntables in "Les Miserables" and when a falling chandelier was Oh, right. The chandelier in "Phantom of the Opera" is still very much a part of Broadway, packing in theatergoers since 1988. But the show is the only holdover from the '80s, when the British mega-musical ruled the commercial theater.
Putting aside for a moment an anomalous, old-fashioned little throwback called "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," it seems that Broadway's appetite for big-budget, humongous spectacles has been replaced by intimate, much less costly musicals with offbeat subjects, multicultural /multigenerational appeal and an almost indie-film vibe.
Is this a culture story or a business story, a report on a change of taste or what the money guys call a market adjustment?
The drastic shift in Broadway fashion has been evolving most of the past decade.
Tiny "Avenue Q" beat the massive hit "Wicked" for best musical Tony in 2005, and the dark-rock groundbreaker "Spring Awakening" won over Disney's "Mary Poppins" two years later.
In 2009, a lavishly down-the-middle $25 million adaptation of "Shrek"-- which, 10 years earlier, would have been a sure thing for the big-ticket family market--ran little more than a year and lost a lot.
Impressively, according to recent Broadway figures, "The Book of Mormon," in a small theater and capitalized at around $9 million, grossed more than "The Lion King" (said to cost $20 million back in 1998), "Wicked" ($14 million) and "Spider-Man" (at least $70 million). This was the first time the wildly irreverent hit beat mainstream monsters, but still.
WHERE'S THE MONEY?
The depth of the sea change hit again when "Rebecca," which was to begin previews Oct. 30, was postponed the day before rehearsals were to begin. Here is a lavish, $12 million musical with a Gothic romantic-mystery plot that, at least in theory, once would have been a natural for big-event Broadway.