For Broadway fans, a moment in the sun

Everything's coming up roses for musical theater enthusiasts lately.

Broadway has always had hardcore fans, of course. But as much as the true theater dorks (among whom I count myself!) might hate to admit it, musical theater is now, well, sort of cool. And profitable.

Musicals are where it's at. Wonderful World of Disney lovers are leaping to get tickets to "Newsies," which was nominated for eight Tonys. And every celebrity wants to gain some street cred by starring in a Broadway show: Daniel Radcliffe showed he can dance (if not sing) in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." And Christie Brinkley (yes, the uptown girl herself) is starring in "Chicago."

I trace this surge in popularity back to 2006's "High School Musical." Sure, I despised it (and the endless sequels) with a fervent passion, as any true musical nerd would. It turned our beloved world into a pop singer-filled, Disney Channel-style, teenybopper show. But it served a purpose: It turned a new audience on to how much fun musical theater really can be.

And then we entered the age of "Glee. "

The current cultural zeitgeist is a little better than "High School Musical" - it even stars actual Broadway vets. Lea Michele was famous for her starring role in "Spring Awakening" before she played annoyingly ambitious Rachel Berry, and Mr. Shue’s Matthew Morrison first became a heartthrob for playing Link in hit musical "Hairspray." And sometimes, they even sing actual Broadway tunes. In prime time. Imagine that!

Now we’ve moved on to "Smash," the show within a show about the beautiful, ugly, heart-breaking and awe-inspiring process of making a Broadway hit. Sure, it’s not exactly true-to-life, but it brings us new, Broadway-style songs and dances every week, sung by people with legit voices and theater experience - pretty close to perfection for a TV show about Broadway, in my book.

And it’s not just Broadway on-screen that’s having a moment - it’s the silver screen on Broadway, too. Enter "Newsies."

Disney’s 1992 musical about the 1899 newsboy strike was a box office disaster upon its release. But it quickly gained a cult following that’s been screaming for years for a Broadway adaptation of the film. And this past season, it came. "Newsies" opened on Broadway for a limited run that’s already been extended twice.

To top it all off, the Broadway League just released its final numbers for the 2011-2012 season. The results are in, and they sound a lot like “We’re in the money.” It was the highest-grossing season on record, up 5.4% from last year.

Broadway League says success because of "providing something for everyone"

So, it’s safe to say musical theater is having a moment. But why?

Maybe it’s the economy, stupid. After all, “Will Rogers and Ziegfeld Follies took us through the [Great] Depression,” Broadway veteran (and my tap-dancing teacher) Barry Thomas explained. The fantastic escapism of musicals, from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films to Cole Porter’s "Anything Goes," enthralled 1930s audiences. In his book “Our Musicals, Ourselves,” retired theater critic, director and professor John Bush Jones writes:

“In the dark days of the Depression, the kinds of shows that had recently reflected their audiences’ lifestyles suddenly became true escapist entertainment, recalling perhaps the lives their viewers once lived (nostalgia always being a powerful draw), or, conversely, letting spectators imagine what life would be like when the Depression ended. ... Some songwriters were doing their bit to cheer Americans during hard times.”

Perhaps in these days of seemingly endless layoffs and market woes - indeed, we're recovering from the worst recession since the Depression - we, too, need a little break from reality. As Jerry Herman told us in "Mack & Mabel," “just tap your troubles away!”

But along with all this popularity comes the age-old concern for geeks: Will the newly expanded fan base destroy my beloved art form? And, as usual, the answer depends on who you ask. We went straight to the source: The Broadway babies themselves.

Steve Kazee, nominated for a Tony for best actor in a leading role for his part in "Once," focused on the positive.

“I think it’s great for the business, great for our industry, to have two shows on prime time television,” he said, referring to "Glee" and "Smash." “They’re both beneficial to our community.”

But veteran stage and screen actor John Lithgow, most recently nominated for actor in a leading role for "The Columnist," raised concerns about the changing landscape of musicals, even while acknowledging that “the theater district is packed.”

“Broadway is booming in all sorts of ways, not all of them great ways,” he explained. “I mean, there’s an awful lot of retro trends [and] star vehicles.”

And to David Alan Grier, starring in "Porgy and Bess," it’s all about how well a show is pulled off, not the subject matter.

“If they do it right, I’ll go see 'Jersey Shore: The Musical,' ” he said.

"Springtime for Hitler," anyone?