"What's the story, morning glory? / What's the word, hummingbird?" That was Broadway teen talk back in the early '60s, when the high school kids in Bye Bye Birdie gossiped about their friends in a game of telephone tag. More than 40 years later, another band of gossipy girls is peeking out of another set of windows on a Broadway stage. How far have we advanced? Well, the kids are in a college sorority now, and the squeals of excitement--and the title of the opening song--have evolved into dumbed-down Valley-speak: Omigod You Guys!
The show is Legally Blonde: The Musical, based on the 2001 movie starring Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods, a bubbleheaded campus queen who goes to Harvard Law School and proves she can hold her own with the eggheads. Perky, pretty in pink and packaged with the requisite mix of campy condescension and you-go-girl inspiration, the show looks poised to become Broadway's next hit. If so, it will largely be thanks to the theater's hot audience of the moment: tween and teen girls.
You've heard of them. They're the ones who are making TV shows like Ugly Betty into surprise hits and keeping Beyoncé and Avril Lavigne at the top of the pop charts. Hollywood, oddly, has been ignoring them lately, as romantic comedies have taken a backseat to guy films like 300 and Wild Hogs, superhero sequels and slasher films. But Broadway, long worried about its graying audience, is in hot pursuit. A good deal of the credit for this nascent relationship goes to possibly the least-appreciated breakthrough hit of the past decade: Wicked. The musical prequel to the Wizard of Oz, told from the witches' point of view, was dismissed by most critics when it opened in the fall of 2003. But 3 1/2 years later, Wicked is regularly the highest-grossing show on Broadway, with three more companies setting box-office records around the country. And the show's most avid fans are tween girls, who have connected with its themes of friendship, prejudice and self-realization--identifying with Elphaba, the "wicked" witch who's actually just misunderstood.
The girl appeal, however, is something of a sore subject for the producers of Wicked. They commissioned an audience survey that found the demographic breakdown of people who see Wicked is in line with that of most Broadway shows: more of its audience is over 35 than under 35. "Yes, girls come. They're enthusiastic. They're at the stage door," says David Stone, one of the show's producers. "But they're not all that's coming."
True, but with preteen girls gabbing about the show in Web chat rooms and snapping up Glinda earrings and DEFY GRAVITY shirts at the Ozdust boutique, they're the crowd the show has really grabbed. "I liked Elphaba because she was different," says Jami, a 10-year-old in Buffalo Grove, Ill., who has virtually memorized the script from reading the $40 coffee-table companion book and recently acted out the entire show with two friends in her bedroom. "It made me feel that it's good to be different."
She may have a point--and not just because she's my niece. Wicked has tapped into a theme that seems to crop up in a lot of Broadway shows these days: stories of misfits or underdogs who prove their worth in spite of the odds. Hairspray revolves around a zaftig high school dance whiz who fights for racial integration and fat-girl power in 1962 Baltimore. The Color Purple, the Oprah-produced musicalization of Alice Walker's novel, is the uplifting story of an African-American girl's journey from abused teen to empowered adult. The action hero of the new musical The Pirate Queen is a female fighter for Irish independence. Even in shows in which the gender balance is more equal, such as Spring Awakening and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the emotional core seems to reside in the females.
Broadway is getting shrewder about courting all kids, but particularly girls. Stars from American Idol have turned up in Broadway musicals--Frenchie Davis in Rent, Diana DeGarmo in Hairspray and Fantasia Barrino in The Color Purple (since she joined the cast, the show has set a house attendance record). Disney--which introduced a new family audience to the theater with shows like The Lion King--will soon bring The Little Mermaid to the stage. And coming next season to London: a musical version of Desperately Seeking Susan, the 1985 movie about a housewife who's sucked into the punk underworld of downtown Manhattan, set to Blondie music.
Of course, Broadway musicals, from The King and I to Annie, have long been partial to girl-centered stories. More than 62% of the Broadway audience is made up of women, and they tend to make the decisions about what the whole family sees. And while shows like The Lion King may be fine for the littlest theatergoers, older girls tend to prefer hipper role models--like Elle and Elphaba.
No producer, of course, wants his or her musical pigeonholed as a young-girl show; niche audiences don't make hits. Yet the influx of young theatergoers to shows like Wicked is a trend producers can't afford to ignore. "We've talked about how we lost a generation who didn't think it was cool to go to the theater," says Wicked's Stone. "A lot of us have started to get that audience back. Younger people are coming back to the theater--and yet older people aren't leaving."
That will be Legally Blonde's marketing challenge: to get the girls without turning off their parents or the boys. Producer Hal Luftig sees Elle as a "great heroine who learns something about herself"--but hopes guys will see a message in the show's love story too: "If you treat a girl with respect, you might just get her."
Well, O.K. But the merchandise in the theater lobby--pink-lettered baseball Ts, sweatpants with OMIGOD! on the rear--suggests that producers already know which sex will be filling most of the seats. And if they don't show up, the perky young women onstage won't be the only ones crying "Omigod!