Seussical the Musical, a 2000-01 Broadway flop that, in that season, became a critic's favorite target, a musical theatre fan's heartbreak and a child's dream come true, went back to the old drawing board for the national tour that launches Sept. 17 in Indianapolis.
Co-librettists Lynn Ahrens (who is also the lyricist) and Stephen Flaherty (who is also the composer) have teamed with director Christopher Ashley, known for bright colors and bold choices in Broadway's The Rocky Horror Show, to clarify the bright musical based on the characters and stories of Dr. Seuss.
What were the goals of Ahrens, Flaherty and new-to-the-show director Ashley?
"We talked about a rewrite that focuses the center story," Ashley told Playbill On-Line, "because I think all of us agreed that one of things about previous productions and previous drafts was, there was an incredible amount of good material, but it was hard to figure out whose journey we were watching and where we were emotionally — what's the center of the story?"
Like Ahrens, Flaherty and Terrence McNally's Ragtime before it, Seussical told multiple tales, this time of JoJo the boy, the residents of Whoville, Horton and Gertrude McFuzz and the show's ringleader, The Cat in the Hat. (On tour, former Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby reprises the devilish feline role, a part she took over late in the Broadway run). "The center of that story was hard to get ahold of in previous drafts," Ashley explained. "We agreed early on that the first image of this production would be a kid walking out of the audience and seeing a hat on a bare stage, and the first action of it is, he imagines what would happen if there was a cat in that hat."
JoJo emerges as the center of the show more clearly now, Ashley said, speaking in between Florida tech rehearsals for the show in early September, prior to the debut at Clowes Hall in Indianapolis.
"The journey that you're tracking is a kid exploring, fearing, delving into and finally coming to terms with imagining the world being different than it is," Ashley said. "There's something about Cathy that's incredibly sweet and emotionally engaging and also bad and naughty. This kid is very controlled the cat he invents wants everything to be more complex and more exciting — invents wars, invents complications. The kid is madly trying to solve all the plots while the cat is trying to make them more filled with conflict and more upsetting. When the show is drained away, he's left with a hat again. He finally accepts that the world can be chaotic and imagination can be chaotic and that's maybe an OK thing and maybe an exciting thing."
Ashley said that 20 percent of the score is new, one song ("A Day for the Cat in the Hat") has been cut and "the glue between the scenes" is new. "An immense amount of the dance music has been cut," Ashley added. "We really committed to leaning on word and lyric as the storytelling mostly because the movement is closer to Mummenschanz or Pilobolus than it is to Broadway step dancing."
The show still begins with the song, "Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!," but it's handed to the Cat and JoJo (Richard Miron and Drake English, alternating) rather than the ensemble. Fans of Rigby's Peter Pan will be glad to hear that her Cat in the Hat does some flying in the show, as do other characters. Patti Colombo, who did the musical staging for Rigby's most recent Peter Pan stops on Broadway, choreographs.
The principals of the new national tour of Seussical met in Manhattan Aug. 13 for their first rehearsal toward the reimagined world of the family friendly musical that had a bumpy road on Broadway.
Garrett Long plays Gertude McFuzz, Eric Leviton is Horton and Gaelen Gilliland is Mayzie LaBird.
"I was a huge fan of the books as a kid, I read them obsessively and wore out my library card getting every Seuss book and re-reading them," Ashley said. "There was a big childhood connection for me. I've always thought the show was really smart, and had a beautiful score and smart lyrics. I felt there was a shot at making it a really enduring musical that people would come to year after year. I think it captures one the things I remember most about Seuss as a child: There's a kind innocence and a subversiveness that co-exists and feeds on each other. The way that war lives in this very tiny world and the whole feeling about what our relationship is to the earth, and how we can destroy what's around us couldn't be more on target for this moment."
The company includes NaTasha Williams as Sour Kangaroo; Don Stitt (Buddy, Late Nite Comic) as the Mayor of Whoville; Amy Griffin as Mrs. Mayor; Stuart Marland (a Les Miserables vet) as General Genghis Kahn Schmidtz; Liz Pearce, Danielle Garner and Dioni Collins as Bird Girls; Luis Villabon, Venny Carranza and Brian Thomas Williams as the Wickersham Brothers; Richard Rowen as The Grinch; Brian Shepard as Vlad Vladikoff; Brian Mathis as Judge/Yertle the Turtle; Drew DiStefano, Paul Aguire, Erin Maguire, Jenna Coker, Kaitlin McCoy as Cat Helpers. John Mezzio is musical director.
Choreographer Patti Colombo re-imagined the dances for the most recent Broadway Peter Pan, starring Cathy Rigby. She memorably reworked the Indian dance number, "Ugg-a Wugg," in the 1998-99 Broadway Peter Pan (also seen on the road) into a percussive Stomp-worthy drum number that had audiences cheering. The slick reworking also solved some of the number's politically incorrect lyrics.
The staging is co-produced by NETworks and McCoy Rigby Entertainment under the umbrella Who Co, LLC.
The national tour of Seussical the Musical, the family friendly show drawing on characters created by Dr. Seuss, will launch at Clowes Memorial Hall on the Butler University campus in Indianapolis, IN, Sept. 17-22.
The Broadway run spawned a cast album and won three Drama Desk Award nominations and a Tony Award nomination for actor Kevin Chamberlin, but closed May 20 after 197 performances and 34 previews.
Was the turbulent Broadway production of Seussical painful for writer Ahrens?
"It's not painful at all, it's just not positive," Ahrens previously told Playbill On-Line. "It was a negative experience in many ways although there was a lot of great stuff about the experience as well: Writing it was great, doing the workshops with our actors, and the cast was phenomenal. For a list of about 115 different reasons it became a negative experience, and it's not worth dwelling on especially when it's going on in a new, great form."
Ahrens and Flaherty collaborated with Ashley by long distance for part of the tour's creation because they were busy with their new show, A Man of No Importance, which has a book by Terrence McNally, currently running at Lincoln Center Theatre.
A list of cities, venues and dates for Seussical follows. As is always the case with bookings, these engagements are subject to change.
The Ahrens-Flaherty musical, at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, was once a hotly-anticipated musical with good buzz and high expectations. The show was first cooked up by impresario Garth Drabinsky (producer of Ragtime and Show Boat, among others) and was meant to be a Livent project, but Livent fell apart financially. Barry and Fran Weissler took over the project, with partners SFX and Universal Studios.
Seussical opened on Broadway Nov. 30, 2000, after an out-of-town tryout in Boston, where a blistering pan in The Boston Globe seemed to be the beginning of troubles. Contrary to the widely held notion that audience word of mouth was negative from the beginning and that gossips and show freaks fueled the flames of the show's demise from the outset, Playbill On-Line noted late summer 2000 that internet chat rooms had many glowing reports and reviews from fans and theatregoers who caught the tryout.
However, the Globe dismissal seemed to send a shock wave out, and the echo came back that this once golden project was now "a show in trouble."
TV personality Rosie O'Donnell was a booster of the show and stepped in for month in early 2001, briefly replacing mime and movement artist David Shiner, as the Cat in the Hat. The Weisslers were quoted in papers saying Shiner was gifted but wrong for the show. Shiner and the producers came to an arrangement in February 2001, allowing him to leave the show. Aaron Carter, the blond pop-singing heartthrob of the barely teen set, jumped into Seussical March 30, 2001, playing JoJo.
The tour dates include:
- Clowes Memorial Hall, Indianapolis, IN Sept. 17 22
- Hobby Center, Houston, TX Sept. 4-29
- Community Center Theater, Sacramento, CA Oct. 1 13
- Majestic Theater, San Antonio, TX Oct. 22-27
- Civic Theater, San Diego, CA Oct. 29-Nov. 3
- Paramount Theater Seattle, WA Nov. 5-10
- Civic Theater Portland, OR Nov. 12-17
- Morris Mechanic Theater Baltimore, MD Dec. 3 8
- Cadillac Palace Chicago, IL Dec. 10-22
- Orange County PAC Costa Mesa, CA Dec. 24-Jan. 5, 2003
- Palace Theater Columbus, OH Jan. 7-12, 2003
- Merriam Theater Philadelphia, PA Jan. 14-19, 2003
- Marcus PAC Milwaukee, WI Jan. 21-26, 2003
- Aronoff PAC Cincinnati, OH Jan. 29-Feb. 9, 2003
- Orpheum Theater Minneapolis, MN Feb. 11-16, 2003
- Fox Cities PAC Appleton, WI Feb. 18-23, 2003
- Bob Carr Theater Orlando, FL Feb. 25-March 2, 2003
- Kravis Center West Palm Beach, FL March 4-9, 2003
- Broward PAC Ft. Lauderdale, FL March 11-23, 2003
- Tampa Bay PAC Tampa, FL March 25-30, 2003
- Ovens Auditorium Charlotte, NC April 1-6, 2003
- Heinz Hall Pittsburgh, PA April 8-13, 2003
- Times Union Jacksonville, FL April 15-20, 2003
- Oakdale Theater Wallingford, CT April 22-27, 2003
- Miller Auditorium Kalamazoo, MI April 29-May 4, 2003
- Saenger Theater New Orleans, LA May 6-11, 2003
- Fox Theater Atlanta, GA May 13-18, 2003
- Gammage Auditorium Tempe, AZ June 3-8, 2003
- La Mirada Thatre for the Performing Arts LaMirada, CA June 17-29, 2003
Music Hall Dallas, TX July 1-13, 2003