You’re Coming to New York: What Broadway Musicals Should You See?

Broadway: Kate Baldwin and Norbert Leo Butz in "Big Fish"
Kate Baldwin and Norbert Leo Butz in “Big Fish”

If you’re planning a visit to the Big Apple, how do you decide which Broadway musicals to see? If you’re bringing kids, which ones are appropriate and fun, and which ones are not?

Well, here I am to help you. Why should you listen to me? I’m a New Yorker who has been going to Broadway shows for more than 30 years. I was a singer, dancer, and actress from childhood to adulthood, so I’ve been a connoisseur of the Broadway musical form for almost as long as I can remember. You could call me a “Broadway Baby” or a “Broadway Buff.”

Here are my recommendations from the list of musicals currently playing on the Great White Way. (For advance discount tickets, check out BroadwayBox and Theatermania.)

Broadway: Norbert Leo Butz in "Big Fish"
Norbert Leo Butz in “Big Fish”

Big Fish. This is my number one choice. Its opening night was Oct. 6, 2013, and the reviews were mixed. Don’t listen to the criticism; critics are not looking for the same things in a show that audiences look for. I’ve seen more musicals than I can count, and this one has everything – great design, exceptional acting, terrific music and singing, and a beautiful story that will make you both laugh and cry. You certainly won’t want to miss it if you’re a fan of the movie and/or the book.

The best aspect of this show is that it will work for all age groups. I don’t think they allow children under the age of 5, but toddlers would love it, too. Young boys will even like it, and it won’t offend anyone. There are few shows in that category. What’s more, Norbert Leo Butz, one of Broadway’s brightest stars, gives the performance of his career, and the designers should all win Tony’s. And there are tap dancing elephant butts and a field of daffodils! What more can you ask for?

I can’t recommend it enough. I’ve seen it twice already and am likely to see it again. I don’t do that with many shows. (Yes, I interviewed the author of the original book and the composer – read it here – but I promise I’m not biased. I sincerely love this show!)

Kinky Boots. This is a fantastic Tony Award-winning show based on the film, but it’s about a transvestite. Unfortunately, that subject matter is not for everyone, and it certainly won’t work for most young boys. If those are not issues for you, I highly recommend it. Billy Porter won a Tony for his stellar performance. If you’re at all conservative, however, choose another show like “Big Fish.”

Pippin. This is another terrific Tony winner, but it also has some sexual themes that won’t be appropriate for young children, although the average teenager and the sophisticated tween won’t have a problem with it. If you’re a parent who is at all squeamish about such themes, though, you’ll want to choose another show. If you’re not, it’s a musical with a tried-and-true Stephen Schwartz score, reimagined with circus stunts. Good choice for adults and older kids.

Matilda. I loved this show that came over the pond from London, but it also has a caveat: Many Americans have complained to me that they had trouble understanding the lyrics because the cast speaks and sings in British accents. If you don’t think that’s a problem for you, it’s great for all ages. Girls will like it best since the main character is a girl (especially if they loved the movie and the book).

Motown. The talent in this show cannot be denied. The cast is absolutely stellar. Still, I think this show is for older people who want to hear the soundtrack of their lives performed on stage. It won’t mean much to children, and the book and story leave a lot to be desired. It’s mostly a showcase for great music.

Newsies. This is another show that’s terrific for boys – one of the few – and will work well for most all ages. It has been running a while, but it’s still wonderful and an excellent choice for the whole family, especially if you want to sell boys on how masculine dance can truly be. Go male dancers! This musical is a testament to them and a showcase for them.

Cinderella. This show is for the girls. I suspect few boys would want to see it. Visually beautiful, it’s well done with another tried-and-true Rodgers & Hammerstein score. But here’s the caveat: They changed the story a bit to make Cinderella an activist and the prince a bit of a doofus (at least at first). I went with a 12-year-old, and she turned to me and said, “Why would Cinderella even WANT that guy?”

Jersey Boys. This show has been running for years and is the story of the singing group, The Four Seasons. It’s a good show – no question – but most parents will not want to take their kids to it, as the language is, shall we say, “colorful.”

Mamma Mia. I’ll be frank – this show is not my cup of tea AT ALL. That said, many people love it, including kids. To me, however, a Broadway musical is a new score with a story – a score that was written to serve the story, not a story that was written to serve pop songs that were never meant to be part of a story. So, there.

The Lion King. How long has this show been running? I’ve lost track. Hey, look, it’s good, and it’s another one that works for all ages and even for boys. For me, it’s a bit tired at this point, but if you’ve never seen it, your family will enjoy it, especially if you’re fans of the movie.

Chicago. This show has been running a long time, too. It’s still good and one of the best scores ever written, but it’s not remotely for the kiddies. This is a show for adults only or older teens. It would be one of my last choices, however. I would vote for watching the movie and seeing a musical that will show you something new.

Once. This was a Tony Award winner, and it’s doing well. Based on an independent film by the same name, people love this show, although it’s a quieter pop score and not a “spectacle” kind of show. I don’t think young children would love it as much, but teens seem to respond well to it. If you want to see the kind of spectacle that Broadway is capable of, however, see one of the others.

The Book of Mormon. Hello!! Not for the kiddies, this irreverent show is still the hit of Broadway. Tickets can be hard to come by, but they hold a lottery in front of the theater 2-1/2 hours before each performance. It can be hard to win, but you put your name into the “hat” and hope for the best. If you win, you save a bundle on your ticket price. The consensus seems to be that it’s a “laugh riot.”

Wicked. You can’t go wrong with this show. It’s been playing a decade, but it’s still going strong. Stephen Schwartz’s most celebrated musical has an uplifting message and works well for most all ages. Some boys might even like it, although with two female leads, it definitely caters more to girls. The show is “popular” enough  (get it?) that it still often grosses more in a week than the newer shows. Buy your tickets well in advance if you can.

After Midnight. I saw this show at City Center when it was called “Cotton Club Parade” and loved it. Fantasia will star in it on Broadway, and it’s a celebration of jazz classics by the likes of Duke Ellington and Harold Arlen. Unless it has been changed considerably, it isn’t a book musical but more of a review of exceptional music. I don’t think kids will care for it unless they’re connoisseurs of early jazz.

Annie. I haven’t seen this new production of “Annie,” but I do know the show very well. It’s another one for the whole family, and girls will love it. For boys, it might be a tough sell with another girl at the helm like in “Matilda.” It’s set to close in Jan. 2014.

First Date. I haven’t seen this show, and I haven’t heard the best feedback about it. I also didn’t care much for the music I heard. It stars Krysta Rodriguez of TV’s “Smash” and Zachary Levi. It appears to be a show for adults and not so much for children. Unfortunately, it isn’t doing very well in ticket sales and may close before long. Making it on Broadway is tough, folks!

Soul Doctor. Someone I know is in this show, so I hate to say it – but it isn’t for everyone. Chronicling the life of a real life rabbi rock star who had a relationship with the late, great Nina Simone, the show will be most enjoyable for people who have a connection to the subject matter. There’s nothing offensive in it for kids, though. Tickets have not been selling well for this one either, so it’s likely to close before long.

A Night With Janis Joplin. I haven’t seen this show, so I can’t say much about it. In the vein of recent musicals that celebrate a particular artist, it will include songs you already know. I think it’s fair to say that this show would not be appropriate for kids, although it might work for teens if they have an interest in classic rock.

Phantom of the Opera. I have never been a fan of Phantom, so like “Mamma Mia,” I’m biased against it. You probably already know the music, so if you like it but have never seen the show, this one might be for you.

Rock of Ages. This is another show for lovers of classic rock (this time the 1980’s), which probably doesn’t include your kids. It’s also a show without new music or a score that was written to serve the story rather than vice versa. It would be low on my personal list.

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. I have not seen this show either. I know, I know – I should have seen it by now. Here’s the deal: With so many actors getting injured during rehearsals and performances, I boycotted it. I don’t think dancers should be doing circus stunts. There, I said it. The people in “Pippin” are trained circus entertainers. That’s who should be doing these stunts. On the other hand, this show is popular with boys, and everyone I know who saw it enjoyed it very much.


13 responses to “You’re Coming to New York: What Broadway Musicals Should You See?”

  1. You’re Coming to New York: What Broadway Musicals Should You See?

  2. Beverly Gray Avatar

    I AM coming to New York (though without kids), and I appreciate this list. Thanks, Melanie! I know I can trust your judgment.

  3. Debbie Avatar

    Thanks for the great reviews Melanie. I agree with what you’ve written! FYI – I took a 10 year boy to Annie and he loved it. Review here since you haven’t seen it: We also loved Spiderman, which was a surprise because I was prepared to hate it. It was a good show for girls too. I have a review on Jersey Kids as well for that and others. I totally agree about the British accents on Matilda, but hope to see that show again – soon. I went with my daughter and want to take my son as well. Thanks for the comprehensive recommendations. There a number of shows here I still need to see with my kids!

    1. Melanie Votaw Avatar
      Melanie Votaw

      Thanks, Debbie. I’m glad you agree, and I’m also glad to hear your son liked “Annie.” Please do take them to see “Big Fish.” I’ll bet they’ll love it.

  4. Renée Camus Avatar

    I saw First Date, twice in fact (though partially because I’m friends with one of the creators) and I loved it. Of the reviews I’ve read, some hated it and others loved it, and for much the same reasons. It’s a little ridiculous at times, but some found the ridiculousness funny while others found it stupid or offensive. As a very sweet rom-com, I really enjoyed it a lot, and so did my husband.

    I also really liked Spiderman, which I also saw twice, before and after they “fixed” it. I actually really liked it (well, the first act) in previews. It’s quite fun and visually exciting.

    After Midnight isn’t playing yet, but I interviewed the director/choreographer and I have the impression there’s a lot of dancing (including tap) in it. It sounds like there wasn’t as much in the Encores production. But it’s still more a revue and less a book musical.

    I’m with you on Phantom. I’m a little biased against it (tried and true Sondheim fan here), so I’ve never seen it. I suppose I should, someday. I also haven’t seen Once, and while I’m curious about it, I hated the movie.

    1. Melanie Votaw Avatar
      Melanie Votaw

      Thanks for your comment, Renee. Good information about First Date. I’ve not heard the word “love” from anyone before now. Interesting that they might add more dance to After Midnight, which would only enhance the production more, it seems to me. There was one tap number in the City Center version, if I remember correctly.

  5. Debbie Avatar

    Melanie – actually we saw Big Fish on the second day of previews! Both kids enjoyed it, as did my parents and me. The show worked for multi-generations, which is rare! Here’s the review:

    1. Melanie Votaw Avatar
      Melanie Votaw

      Oh, right – you told me that. Sorry!

  6. Aline Zoldbrod Avatar

    Thanks, Melanie. I’m coming this weekend. I will think of you while I am standing in the Tix line, holding my iphone in my hand and reviewing your comments.

    1. Melanie Votaw Avatar
      Melanie Votaw

      Great! Have fun. And I hope my list is helpful.

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