Stage and screen clean up acts

At a time when television and radio get raunchier by the minute, the movies and the live world of Broadway seem to have struck gold with good old-fashioned family fare.

Broadway set a box-office record Christmas week with $29.1 million in ticket sales, paced by shows like Wicked and Mary Poppins that are tailor-made for a family outing -- though not a cheap one.


The biggest movies ditched explicit language, graphic violence and casual sex in favor of the tap-dancing penguin Mumble in Happy Feet and Ben Stiller matching wits with a dinosaur replica that comes to life in Night at the Museum.

For the coming year in theater, there's every reason to think shows like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast will continue to anchor Broadway, despite the reservations of traditionalists who look on these shows as bland cash machines rather than compelling art.


At the movies, where the top-grossing film of 2006 was the rollicking all-ages adventure Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, it wouldn't be surprising if the race for the top spot this year involves the third Pirates of the Caribbean and the third Shrek.

Critics don't always warm to these kinds of series, but ticket sales are red hot. The second Pirates grossed $423 million, the second Shrek $441 million.

Broadway applies a variation of that franchise principle with many of its own successful family-style productions.

Whereas many classic Broadway shows were originals created for the stage, from The Sound of Music to Tennessee Williams' plays, shows such as The Lion King, The Grinch and Tarzan are built on stories well-known, and thus presold, to even the youngest patrons.

Ads for Beauty and the Beast encourage parents to make it their child's first theater experience, assuming the child knows the story and will be enchanted by seeing it live.

The League of American Theatres and Producers' annual report on theater-going says that for 2005-2006, 1.15 million of Broadway's 12 million patrons, or 9.6 percent, were 18 or younger.

If that figure sounds modest, it's impressive when you consider the average Broadway ticket last year set its buyer back $91.50. A teenager who can hit up Mom and Dad for two tickets to the movies will probably have less success asking for the cash to catch a Broadway musical.

But teenagers still "find" certain shows, and become a crucial part of their success. Teenage girls are a big reason for the success of Wicked now, just as teens of both genders propelled Rent a few years ago. It could happen again with Legally Blonde, which opens in April.


Because the average movie ticket cost $6.40 in 2006 -- projected to rise to $6.58 this year -- it's not surprising teens make up a higher percentage of movie patrons. The National Cinema Network estimates 26 percent of tickets are sold to people 12 to 20.

On television, most parents realize only a handful of channels and shows -- American Idol, the Disney channel, Discovery, Nickelodeon -- don't regularly talk about or show explicit behavior.

Radio stations popular with teens routinely play songs and discuss topics that used to arise only in material purchased in plain brown wrappers.

That family shows have a burst of popularity at year's end isn't altogether surprising, as kids are on vacation and need distractions. But this season's most popular movies are unusually clean, from Will Smith's heartwarming The Pursuit of Happyness to the latest quasi-animated Charlotte's Web.

Only one of the current top 10 movies is R-rated, and at least six would be fine for any child old enough to go out to a movie.