SpongeBob SquarePantsThe Broadway Musical for Everyone

A musical show like the new production SpongeBob SquarePants can be a great way to introduce young children to live theater, but it’s important to help them understand what to expect before the show starts. 

Broadway has embraced family audiences in a big way this season, and parents wanting to introduce their children to the wonders of the stage now have a full menu of choices that will engage not only youngsters, but themselves.

Kids (and adults) are burning up social media over Disney’s musical stage adaptation of its hit film Frozen as well as the stage version of the London smash play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, both of which are now playing on Broadway.

Then there’s the new musical Spongebob Squarepants, which got glowing reviews, even from kid-free critics, after its premiere late last year.

Long-running shows still packing them in that slightly older kids can identify with include School of Rock, Wicked and Anastasia.

Over the years, parents have often asked me what’s the best age to introduce children to professional theater. The answer is perhaps an unsatisfying one: “It depends.”

It depends on how well your child can sit quietly in a public setting. (I call it “the wiggly factor.”) It depends on the nature of the show you’re considering. But, most significantly, it depends on how well you prepare them for the show in order to make the often-pricey event a memorable experience.

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The Broadway premiere cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: from left, Paul Thornley as Ron Weasley, Noma Dumezweni as Hermione Granger, JamieParker as Harry Potter, Sam Clemmett as Albus Potter, Poppy Miller as Ginny Potter, AlexPrice as Draco Malfoy, Anthony Boyle as Scorpius Malfoy

As a rule, youngsters under 6 are not likely to appreciate the investment of the cost of a Broadway ticket. For these kids, however, local and touring children’s theater designed for short attention spans is a way to ease them into the communal stage experience.

After this age group, you can begin to test the waters, but be sure that it’s a work that they have already connected with on film, TV, recordings and/or books. The Lion King is the gold standard, not just because it’s based on a familiar animated film but because its focus is on wondrous theatrical stagecraft in its storytelling that stretches the imagination.

Another sure winner is Peter Pan. (But variations of the story such as Peter and the Starcatcher and Finding Neverland call for a slightly older-kid demographic.) Beauty and the Beast is another go-to. Who doesn’t like singing spatulas, a sassy candelabra and a scary-but-sweet beast?

Charles Dickens’ holiday perennial A Christmas Carol is not only entertaining and relatable but has some moral weight, too. Hartford Stage has presented Michael Wilson’s lively adaptation for 20 years and it has become not only a great gateway show, but a wonderful family tradition during the holiday season.

But always keep in mind the running time. The longer the show, the older the child should be.

Also avoid special children’s matinees. Kids take their cues from others in the audience, so it’s best to have them model their behavior on an audience that includes mostly adults.

But the nature of the show and the type of audience are not the only factors. It’s about you, too.

“I think preparing the kids for what they are about to see is most important,” says Henry Hodges, whose career I followed since he was a kid actor in Hartford Stage’s productions of To Kill a Mockingbird and The Orphans’ Home Cycle and in Broadway’s Mary Poppins. He’s now 25 and a few years back co-wrote the book How to Act Like a Kid: Backstage Secrets of a Young Performer, which includes tips on taking kids to the theater.

I’ve taken some of Hodges’ thoughts and those of Connecticut theater folks and included some of my own for these theater tips for parents who wish to include the arts in their child’s often sports-driven life.

  • Go over the story of the show with your children before you see the show. Answer questions about the characters and plot at home — not in the middle of a show. (Those sitting around you will be ever so grateful.)
  • Go to the show’s website and show your kids clips from the show, which will give them a taste of what they will see, as well as to see if your child is responsive to the material or drifts away instead.
  • Get to the theater a bit early to reduce stress. Get a booster seat before the show begins. (Remember, your sight lines are not your child’s.)
  • Buy a souvenir at intermission or after the show. A keepsake will be a way to anchor the memory — and have something your child can share with their friends.
  • Consider going to the stage door to see the actors as they exit, to thank them and perhaps get their autograph. Many actors love to see the effect their performance has had on a child, and the in-person connection will fortify the experience. (It’s going to be a long wait out of the parking lot, anyway.)

And what shows in the state are right for kids now? Surprisingly, Connecticut’s Tony Award-winning theaters this season have mostly adult-content shows. However, though Goodspeed Musicals’ Oklahoma and its dancing cowboys certainly had appeal to youngsters last season, I would urge parents to take their children to see Oliver! starting in July. It’s definitely a winner for kids and it was one of the first shows I saw as a child. I still have the program.

This article appeared in the May 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine. Did you like what you read? You can subscribe here.

Frank Rizzo has covered the arts-entertainment scene in Connecticut since disco reigned in the ’70s, including nearly 34 years writing for the Hartford Courant. Email him at FrRiz@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @ShowRiz.