Lore has it that when a reporter asked Willie Sutton why he robbed banks, Sutton replied simply: “Because that’s where the money is.’’
For theatergoers in this summer of the teenager on Boston stages, adolescence is where the turmoil is — and where the most compelling drama can be found.
While there’s nothing typical about the circumstances that engulf the youthful protagonists in “Dear Evan Hansen,’’ “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical,’’ and “Freaky Friday,’’ all three musicals spotlight the angst-ridden journey across socially treacherous terrain that teenagers often have to navigate as they figure out who they are.
Evan Hansen, Percy Jackson, and Ellie Blake (of “Freaky Friday’’) are already bedeviled by feelings of apartness and alienation when suddenly they find themselves caught up in bizarre scenarios and buffeted by strange forces beyond their comprehension — a sensation of having entered terra incognita that in some ways mirrors the feeling of adolescence itself.
Yet Evan, Percy, and Ellie eventually forge distinctive identities by taking decisive steps to wrest back control of their lives from those forces. Roughly similar journeys are taken by the protagonists of a current spate of Broadway shows that are also built around teenage dilemmas and adventures: “Be More Chill,’’ “The Prom,’’ “Mean Girls,’’ and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’’ (the only non-musical in the bunch).
What these seven teen-oriented shows have in common is an insistence on taking seriously the problems of their youthful subjects — and by extension those of their audiences. (The same was true of Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s recent production of “The Wolves,’’ about a high school girls’ soccer team.) Like the young-adult novels that several of them are based on, youth-oriented stage productions take pains to refrain from condescension, which teenagers can spot from even the most distant seat in the balcony. Theater has come a long way from the cartoonish depiction of high schoolers in “Bye-Bye Birdie.’’ Sure, Evan, Percy, and Ellie all have growing up to do, but each brings a certain self-awareness and resourcefulness to that task.
Theater has long failed to meet the overarching challenge of attracting young people. Back in 2012, I wrote about the graying of theater audiences. But the current landscape suggests that maybe, just maybe, a new chapter of that old story is being written.
At performances of “Dear Evan Hansen,’’ “Freaky Friday,’’ and “Lightning Thief’’ in the past couple of weeks, it was impossible to miss the energetic presence of the larger-than-usual number of younger spectators inside the Opera House, the North Shore Music Theatre, and the Huntington Avenue Theatre. A youthful audience vibe was equally palpable in the New York venues where over the past year or so I saw “Be More Chill,’’ “The Prom,’’ “Mean Girls,’’ and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,’’ as well as the Broadway production of “Dear Evan Hansen.’’
According to the Broadway League, a record 2.1 million patrons under the age of 18 attended a Broadway show during the 2017-18 season, the most recent year for which statistics are available. That represented an increase of 500,000 over the previous season, which at that time was the highest total of under-18 Broadway theatergoers ever.
Duh, right? If you build it, they will come. Theater makers have long catered to the desire of baby boomers, Gen X, and other generational cohorts to see themselves mirrored onstage. But if teenagers know that a trip to the theater may offer a chance to see approximations of their own emotional journeys — however outlandishly those journeys may be tricked out in song and dance and goofy story lines — they are more likely to become regular theatergoers.
They might even flex their collective muscle on behalf of your show, as the producers of cult favorite “Be More Chill’’ learned. After that sci-fi musical comedy opened in New Jersey in 2015, a cast recording was streamed more than 150 million times, and a young fan base waged a fervent social media campaign that propelled “Be More Chill’’ to off-Broadway and then, ultimately, to Broadway in March. (However, their ardor was not enough to sustain box-office revenues, and it is closing Aug. 11.)
Except for the hip-hop-infused blockbuster “Hamilton,’’ perhaps no show of recent years has resonated more widely among teenagers than “Dear Evan Hansen,’’ about a high school outcast who becomes a celebrity on social media after he lies about being the best friend of a boy who committed suicide. Evan’s self-definition ultimately hinges on whether or not he comes clean about the deception, which would almost certainly end his new relationship with the girl of his dreams. The original Broadway cast recording of “Dear Evan Hansen’’ debuted two years ago at No. 8 on the Billboard 200, making it only the fourth cast album of the past half-century to reach the top 10 of on that chart. (The others were “Hamilton’’ in 2016, “The Book of Mormon’’ in 2011, and “Hair’’ in 1969.) The Broadway production of “Dear Evan Hansen’’ is still going strong while the road company (at Boston’s Opera House through Aug. 4) tours the nation.
The current spate of teen-oriented stage productions essentially fall into one of two categories. The first consists of works like “Mean Girls’’ and “The Prom’’ that are, like “Dear Evan Hansen,’’ grounded in the kind of social reality teenagers have to deal with in high school, albeit heightened to the level of crisis. A musical adaptation of the Tina Fey movie, “Mean Girls’’ is about a newcomer to a high school whose desire for acceptance leads her to fall in with a nasty social clique, temporarily abandoning her true friends. “The Prom’’ revolves around a band of hammy Broadway actors who launch a crusade after an Indiana high schooler is denied the right to take her girlfriend to the prom.
The second category consists of shows like “Be More Chill,’’ “Freaky Friday,’’ and “The Lightning Thief,’’ which push off from teen reality into the realm of the supernatural, or at least the paranormal.
In “Be More Chill,’’ a geeky high schooler takes a pill containing a supercomputer chip that makes him popular for the first time in his life, only to eventually reveal sinister designs to exert mind control on the rest of the student body. In “Freaky Friday,’’ which wrapped up last week at North Shore Music Theatre, Ellie finds herself switched into the body of her mother (and vice versa), catapulted onto the bewildering terrain of adulthood, including coping with a now-puzzled fiance, complicated wedding plans, and an upcoming photo shoot by a fashion magazine.
Even further on the experiential edge is “Lightning Thief,” which runs through Sunday at the Huntington Avenue Theatre. As if everyday human existence weren’t challenging enough, Percy Jackson discovers that the absentee father whose identity he’s long wondered about is none other than Poseidon, god of the sea. While Percy is still trying to adjust to the fact that he’s, you know, a demi-god, he’s saddled with the task of retrieving Zeus’s lightning bolt from Hades. If Percy fails, the gods will erupt in all-out war.
Not much pressure there, right? Then again, compared with high school, it just might feel like a breeze.