The audience members attending a hit musical recently on the Upper East Side weren’t shy about loudly offering their thoughts.
“What are they doing?” asked one.
“I want to dance,” said another.
And, most worrisome for producers, one patron was heard offering this critique: “I want to go home.”
She was, it turned out, in the minority. She was also about 4.
The rest of the theatergoers — mostly little girls in pink tutus and rabbit ears — were happily bouncing about and clapping along to “Angelina Ballerina: The Musical,” one of several kid-oriented musicals based on popular children’s books that have found success in New York City.
There’s also “Pinkalicious: The Musical” and “The Berenstain Bears Live! in Family Matters, the Musical,” which share the same space on the Upper West Side. In November, “Freckleface Strawberry: The Musical” — based on the book by actress Julianne Moore — returns after a successful off-Broadway run this spring.
“We have seen a tremendous increase — especially in the last eight or nine years — in works for young people around town,” says Cora Cahan, president of the New 42nd Street, a nonprofit organization that is responsible for reviving 42nd Street and operates the New Victory Theater, the city’s first and only full-time performing arts theater for kids and their families.
New musicals based on kids’ books are a hot trend.
Transforming popular children’s books into musicals — as opposed to making them up — has advantages, namely in brand recognition, tried and tested stories, and parents who grew up on the books and want to pass that love down to their kids.
That’s how Matt Murphy, a producer of the Tony Award-winning “Memphis” and the off-Broadway hit “Altar Boyz,” ended up bringing the Berenstain Bears to Manhattan. A fan of the book series, Murphy helped produce an early version that toured the country before he led an effort to beef up the script, set and songs for New York.
“We’re bringing the production quality to this show that I would bring to any of my Broadway shows,” says Murphy, father of new daughter Hazel. “And because our show is not going to cost parents an arm and a leg the way a Broadway show would, it seems to be a nice fit for an affordable family outing.”
Stephen Sunderlin, the artistic director and founding member of the nonprofit Vital Theatre Company, which is producing the Pinkalicious and Angelina musicals, says the shows’ lengths are kid-friendly — usually an hour — and often are the first piece of theater that children see.
“There’s something about being in a room with people and watching your child experience live theater,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many parents say they love our shows but they love watching their kids watch the shows more.”
Rose Caiola, the producer and co-book-writer of “Freckleface Strawberry: The Musical,” says the theatrical shows get kids excited about seeing their favorite characters and make parents happy since the shows reinforce the books’ feel-good messages, in her case the anti-bullying moral of Freckleface Strawberry.
“Children can already connect with stories that they know and love. So they’re very excited and interested to see their characters come to life onstage,” she says. “So much of what kids see on television, unfortunately, is a little bit mind-numbing.”
More musicals and book adaptations are on the way to the city thanks to New Victory, whose upcoming season includes a theatrical adaptation of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” the U.S. premiere of a musical based on the children’s book “The Terrible Plop” and the New York premiere of “Lucky Duck,” a musical with a score by Henry Krieger, who wrote the songs for “Dreamgirls.”
Along with the New Victory, changes the city itself has undergone have made children’s programming more attractive. Crime rates have plummeted and neighborhoods such as Times Square and the Lower East Side, once seedy parts of town, have been cleaned up and transformed into booming commercial zones.
“Maybe I’m naive, but it seems to me like there’s an effort to make the city more and more family-friendly,” says Murphy, who is producing the Berenstain Bears musical at the Manhattan Movement and Arts Center, near Central Park and Columbus Circle.
Mary Rose Lloyd, the director of programming at the New Victory, also sees artists turn their attention to children’s theater for personal reasons. “Artists are having children of their own and they’re looking around and saying, ‘I don’t want to take my child to that. I need more Barney on Ice like I need a hole in my head.’ ”