By Patricia Reaney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A lesbian coming-out musical and a comedy about a teenager with an out-of-control, foul-mouthed sock puppet are proving that the off-kilter can kill it on Broadway and bring in a younger, edgier audience.
"Fun Home," adapted from lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel's graphic novel, led this week's Tony nominations with 12 nods, along with the post-World War Two musical "An American in Paris," showing the diversity and scope of Broadway productions.
Actor Steven Boyer's portrayal of a shy adolescent in a Christian Puppet Ministry in Texas, whose life is overshadowed by a demonic hand puppet in "Hand to God," could clinch a best acting award at the Tony Awards in New York on June 7.
"Every few years you get some new show that creates a different landscape. Think back to when 'Rent' came to Broadway," said Charlotte St. Martin, the executive director of The Broadway League, which represents producers and theater owners.
"This year 'Hand to God' and 'Fun Home' are bringing a new medium to theater," she added.
Along with the play "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," a coming-of-age story about a teenager named Christopher Boone with Asperger syndrome, the shows are giving a voice to mainly unrepresented people in adventurous productions.
"I think it helps people understand autism more but it is also a story about bravery and difference and accepting differences and feeling excluded," said Alex Sharp, who plays Boone and will compete with Boyer for the best acting prize.
'HUNGER FOR MEANINGFUL WORK'
"Fun Home" broke new ground by being the first musical to feature a lesbian lead character, played by Beth Malone, a nominee for best actress in a musical. She comes to terms with her own sexuality and her relationship with her domineering father, a closeted gay man.
Tony nominee Sam Gold, the musical's director, says Broadway has always been a place where serious art is made, but he said about 10 years ago there was a shift toward more tourist-driven, lighter entertainment.
"It's been a hard economic landscape to make really deep and meaningful work in the last decade or so, and I think people are starting to hunger for meaningful work and we are starting to see that shifting back," he explained.
The risky shows are luring younger fans to Broadway, where nearly 80 percent of theatergoers were white, mostly women and had an average age of 44 during the 2013-2014 season, according to The Broadway League.
"There is no question that the diversity of the shows on Broadway, including the young, edgy ones are, bringing more young people to theater," said St. Martin.
Geneva Carr, nominated for a best actress Tony as Boyer's lonely mother in "Hand to God," has no doubt that the play that explores faith and morality by newcomer Robert Askins could be a game changer.
"This is a brand new American play by an unknown writer. I think other producers are going to take chances on plays they believe in and take risks, and that is what it is about," she said.
For William Ivey Long, the chair of the American Theatre Wing, which supports excellence in theater, and a Tony nominee for costume design for "On the Twentieth Century," it is all about pushing the envelope.
"Pushing what is able to be told and how it is able to be told is always important in the theater," he said. "One must always encourage these expressions, be they acceptable, outrageous, over-the-top, horrifying, chilling, all these things. We have some of each of that in the new shows this season."
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Steve Orlofsky)