STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Children and Art

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Children and Art It still rankles me. I was a kid, I’d just seen My Fair Lady -- my first Broadway show -- and I couldn’t wait to rush up to Sister Marillac, our drama club advisor.
http://images.playbill.com/photo/n/e/ne_88423.gif

It still rankles me. I was a kid, I’d just seen My Fair Lady -- my first Broadway show -- and I couldn’t wait to rush up to Sister Marillac, our drama club advisor.

“Sister! Sister! You know what show we gotta do this year? My Fair Lady!

(And, by the way, in addition to that suggestion, I had already cast Henry Higgins with a short, chubby, and Italian-looking lad.)

Sister emitted a bitter raspberry. “Yeah, My Fair Lady. We’re going to do My Fair Lady!”.

So instead, we did Vivian Mayo’s The Bracelet of Doom, a non royalty Baker’s Play. Wealthy Englishman James Treadwell died of poison, to the dismay of his wards, Valerie and Audrey Ames. Turns out someone put poison in the clasp of a prized bracelet which he touched. I wound up playing Zani, the Hindu butler. I’m so happy to learn that today’s kids don’t have to be humiliated this way. Music Theatre International has made top-tier musical titles available to third-to-ninth graders. Annie, Fiddler, Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Into the Woods, 1776, Guys and Dolls are ready to be directed by grammar school teachers, after school counselors, and, yes, even today’s Sisters Marillacs.

In Junior editions.

MTI commissioned Robert Lee and Jim Luigs (a Das Barbecu co-author) to turn two-plus-hours-long musicals into 70-minute condensations. “It’s called ‘Musicals Made Easy,’” says MTI president Steve Spiegel. “It’s not just a matter of cutting songs too hard for kids to sing, or material that may be unsuitable. We can even change keys to fit the kids’ voices.”

Says Danny Kosarin, MTI’s resident musical director, “Someone can call up and say, I need this song in D, and he’d have it tomorrow. I’ve been doing shows since summer camp, and when I came here, I’d already done 100 of the 160 titles we have. I asked, can’t we have the songs easily marked? Cross-referencing? A piano score with conductor’s cues? Everything I wanted when I was a kid.”

What a victory! For decades, Little Leaguers have meticulously made to feel like major leaguers. But would-be Martins and Mermans, Cullums and Carious were doomed to Bracelet of Dooms.

Until spring of ‘96, when MTI released Annie as its first Musical Made Easy. “Seven test scores were selected,” says Spiegel. “It went so well that we adapted Fiddler and Into the Woods a year later. Woods was easy to do, because we dropped the second act.”

“What we’ve created,” says MTI owner and chairman Freddie Gershon, “is Johnny’s First Musical.”

At first, MTI wasn’t certain that authors or estates would cotton to the idea of truncating their shows for juvenile consumption. “They and we,” says Gershon, “regard their works as sacrosanct. We’re here to protect them. But when we said, ‘This is a significant way of building future audiences,’ they instantly bought into it. They and we know that in the midst of these computer games and gizmos, kids need the experience of the lights going down and being transported into this other world. And Annie teaches a lot. They see what happens to Miss Hannigan, who’s guilty of child and substance abuse. But there’s also, what was the Depression? Who was Hoover? Roosevelt?”

(He’s right. Before Annie opened, I had no idea who was in FDR’s cabinet. Since 1977, I’ve at least known about Ickes, Hull, and Perkins.)

One San Antonio school, Gershon admits, still had a problem with Annie, Junior. “They were disturbed by the phrase ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’ and changed it to ‘Hades’ Kitchen.’”

No such problems in Gowanda, New York, a town of 5,000 -- “which,” Gershon reports, “had 500 people, 10 percent of the town, at the theater that night. They got parents to play butlers and maids in Daddy’s mansion. Charlie Strouse went to see it, and he cried.”

He hasn’t been the only weepy creator. “Sheldon Harnick cried when he saw Fiddler, Junior. And at their lobby display about immigration. ‘Like Tevye, my family came to America, too.’”

“Mr. Sondheim,” says Spiegel, “says because kids love blood and gore, we should do Sweeney Todd, Junior.

God, that’s good! “Yes,” says Spiegel. “This is not learning by doing. Many programs let kids see theater. This is learning by doing.”

Gershon adds, “Sometimes we hear parents say, ‘Enough of this show! My kid’s gotta learn something that’s going to get him a job!’ Well, the department of education did a three-year study about what happens to inner-city school students after they’ve done an arts program. They stay in school, attention span increases, Science and math grades go up, attention span increases. From working in an ensemble, they learn to get along with others, their level of maturity goes up, and they even start dressing differently. Kids who couldn’t read started to, because they wanted to learn their part. For once, parents were coming to school to be entertained and overjoyed, and not to hear bad news from a teacher. And teachers were hearing, ‘What musical are we gonna do next?’”

Teachers can learn something, too. “We’ve created a book,” says Gershon, “a checklist on how to put on a musical, so any teacher can become a producer. And July, 1999, through our instigation, the Tisch musical theater program will offer a one- to two-week summer program to teach teachers how to do musical theater. People like Robin Wagner, Susan Stroman, and Scott Ellis will speak. They’ll let them know things like, if you don’t have the money to do an elaborate Into the Woods set, you can take 40 flashlights, shine them under tree branches that you picked up from the street, and you’ll have a marvelous effect.

Says Spiegel, “For the kids who don’t want to perform, we let them know there are jobs backstage or in administration.”

Gershon adds, “In design, too. We know it’s hard to do sets. So we got Wendall K. Harrington, who did The Who’s Tommy, to design slides of the sets.”

Kosarin explains their role. “So you can project the slides on the back wall as your scenery. Or you can put the slide up and trace the set on the back wall. Or you can use them as reference as to what an Iowa town looked like at the turn of the century.”

Of course, MTI licenses to many other venues. Says Spiegel, “We service 35,000 active theater organizations in 68 countries. That’s 17,000 high school, 10,000 community theaters, 3,000 colleges, 2,000 religious groups, several hundred professional theaters, dinner theaters, and American schools in foreign countries.”

“Even Army bases,” says Jim Merillat, director of non-Equity licensing. “They like some surprising shows. Putting It Together. My Favorite Year.

Gershon was more surprised at another title. “In Buenos Aires, we had a 16-week sitdown of The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

Well, maybe they’re just doing it until Titanic becomes available.

Mentioning Titanic spurs Gershon. “We’ve been thinking, ‘How are they going to be able to replicate that show in Peoria? Then we learned that Maury (Yeston) found four hours of footage from the White Star Line about the boat being built, so we figure that during that long opening number, you’ll be able to see the construction of the Titanic in black-and-white and sepia tones. Now we’ve got to see how we can get the boat to tip.”

“Wendall’s thinking about that already,” says Spiegel.

If you can’t wait to see Titanic, Junior, be apprised of one important point: MTI doesn’t even yet own the show. But Gershon, Spiegel, Kosarin, and Merillat are just used to planning ahead.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star-Ledger.
You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com