By Kenneth Jones
01 Nov 2000
Horton the Elephant is "the biggest blame fool in the Jungle of Nool," and starting 2 PM Nov. 1, Broadway audiences will see how the sweet-natured pachyderm becomes a hero in Seussical, the new Dr. Seuss-inspired musical.
The new musical by Ragtime songwriters Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, is beginning previews at the Richard Rodgers Theatre Nov. 1, toward an opening of Nov. 30. The road to Whoville, that imaginary place where an entire civilization lives in a dust speck, has been under the theatre community's microscope since its September tryout in Boston.
Changes and additions to the creative team, despite good word of mouth from Boston audiences, has been fueling the sort of speculation no producer wants. In Boston, the original costume designer was fired before the first curtain (William Ivey Long has replaced Catherine Zuber) and in between Boston and New York City rehearsals, director-choreographer Rob Marshall (Little Me, TV's "Annie") was brought into to provide advice in shaping the work already done by director Frank Galati (Ragtime). Producers Barry and Fran Weissler, SFX Theatrical Group and Universal said Marshall was being brought in "to lend an additional pair of eyes" to the show. Sources in the production told Playbill On-Line that Galati is in Chicago as Marshall oversees work on the show.
In order to implement changes being made in rehearsals, Seussical is beginning two weeks later than originally planned. The show had various first-preview dates of Oct. 18, 29 and 30.
The aborning new musical borrows stories and characters from the many books written and illustrated by Theodor Geisel, whose pen name was Dr. Seuss. Lyricist Ahrens and composer Flaherty share book credit and conception (conceived with "Monty Python" vet Eric Idle). Kathleen Marshall, Rob's sister, is choreographer.
Marshall helmed Broadway's Little Me, co-staged Cabaret and directed and choreographed the recent "Annie" TV movie.
In Boston, Aug. 27-Sept. 24, the show got mixed-to-unfriendly reviews in Boston (particularly from critic Ed Siegel of The Boston Globe) after its opening there Sept. 6. Performances were originally to go to Sept. 17, but the two-week extension was announced. The show pulled out of Boston Sept. 24, a week earlier than the extension promised.
Director Frank Galati defined the show for theatrical press during an Aug. 9 "open rehearsal" by cautioning that the show is not a revue and it is not an anthology of the works of the late Theodor S. Geisel, who took the pen name Dr. Seuss.
Galati, 56, called it "a contemporary re-imagining" of the tales and characters, including Horton the Elephant, the people of Whoville, the Grinch, the Wickersham Brothers, the Lorax and others.
The creators, co-librettists Ahrens and Flaherty, who respectively also contribute lyrics and music, had access to most of the stories and characters created by the limerick-happy Seuss, whose playful verse bends English into sweet pretzels of rhyme and wonderment. They co conceived the piece with Eric Idle, of "Monty Python" fame, who is no longer actively attached to the project, which was begun several years ago by Garth Drabinsky at Livent.
Rehearsals began in Manhattan July 10 for Seussical. Theatrical clown David Shiner (Fool Moon) will wear the candy-cane striped chapeau of The Cat in the Hat, Janine LaManna will play Gertrude McFuzz and Kevin Chamberlin will be Horton the elephant.
Chamberlin, a Tony Award nominee for Dirty Blonde, left that hit show in early July to recreate Horton, his role in Seussical workshops.
Featured are Erick Devine (Ragtime), Eddie Korbich (Assassins), Alice Playten (Oliver!), Sharon Wilkins (The Life) and Stuart Zagnit (the Public's Wild Party). Also appearing are Shaun Amyot, Joyce Chittick (Cabaret), Jennifer Cody (MTC Wild Party), Natascia Diaz (Bright Lights, Big City), David Engel (Forever Plaid), Sarah Gettelfinger, Justin Greer (Annie Get Your Gun), Ann Harada (The Moment When), Jenny Hill, Catrice Joseph, Michelle Kittrell, Mary Ann Lamb (Fosse, Chicago), Darren Lee (Kiss Me, Kate), David Lowenstein, Monique Midgette, Casey Nicholaw (Saturday Night Fever), Tom Plotkin (Footloose), Devin Richards (Jesus Christ Superstar), William Ryall (Grand Hotel), Jerome Vivona (Kiss Me, Kate) and Eric Jordan Young (Ragtime).
Designers are Eugene Lee (set), William Ivey Long (costumes), Natasha Katz (lighting), Jonathan Deans (sound). David Holcenberg is music director, David Chase is dance arranger, Doug Besterman is orchestrator. Flaherty is vocal arranger.
It was Dr. Seuss who wrote, "Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the THINKS you can think up, if only you try."
At an Aug. 9 gathering, Ahrens told Playbill On-Line: "He's a great poet, he's a lyricist. To honor his work and to sort of make it my own I took his words as a leaping off point for where we wanted to take the show. It's very different than the books in many ways, but I think that the language is synchronous. His widow [Audrey Geisel] came to see the workshop up in Toronto and she told me she couldn't tell where his words ended and mine began, which was wonderful."
Did Ahrens, like Dr. Seuss, create words?
"Absolutely!" she said. "Whenever you come to the point when you need a good rhyme, and there's no good rhymes in the dictionary, you make one up. It's fabulous."
And unlike her previous effort with Flaherty and Galati, Ragtime, she was able to plunder all the lip-curling "oose" rhymes in the universe, because "oose" rhymes with "Seuss." "Mother Goose" was one such rhyme heard in the Aug. 9 studio excerpts.
"I am almost at the end of my 'oose' rhymes, and I don't know what's next..." said Ahrens.
Early in the process of the show, when the project was still under the umbrella of the now-defunct Livent, comic actor-writer Eric Idle, Ahrens and Flaherty pounded out ideas about what the project should or could be. Idle has co-conceiver credit but not book credit.
Ahrens said, "We juggled and talked and decided who the main characters were; it was a boiling down. We knew that 'Horton Hears a Who' and the Horton stories were gonna be the main gist of it because there was so much stuff thrown in there: There was a big world, a little world, a child, a romance, all sorts of things."
Among Seuss' famous stories are "Green Eggs and Ham," "Horton Hears a Who," "The Cat in the Hat," "The Lorax," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "The Sneetches," "McElligot's Pool," "Oh, the Places You'll Go!," "Yertle the Turtle," and more.
Shiner, a German resident for years, was born in the U.S. but began his performing career about 20 years ago on the streets of Paris, Rome and London. He performed in the German National and Swiss National circuses. In between gigs would tour in a two-man show with partner Rene Bazinet. He has performed in North America with Cirque de Soleil, in Nouvelle Experience.
In the 1998-99 Broadway season, Irwin, Shiner created Fool Moon, and evening of clowning which also featured the Red Clay Ramblers. The show was honored with a Special Tony Award for Live Theatrical Achievement.
In various stages of the show's development, the show was called The Seussical and Seussical the Musical. It has now been shortened to, simply, Seussical, although the show's logo will read Seussical the Musical.
The show is set in and around Horton's home, the Jungle of Nool. The Cat in the Hat is a kind of tour guide. Horton the Elephant, Gertrude McFuzz, the folks of Whoville, The Lorax, The Grinch, and others sing about home, love, family, loss and imagination — all "the 'thinks' you can think."
Tickets for the Broadway engagement are now on sale. Call (212) 307-4100.