By Robert Simonson
27 Jul 2002
Mr. Gesner wrote other musicals, and also penned songs for television, but nothing matched the success of Charlie Brown, a modest show based on the “Peanuts” comic strip by Charles Shultz. The show opened quietly in 1967 at the tiny Theatre 80 in the East Village, starring an unknown Gary Burghoff as Charlie Brown and Bob Balaban as Linus van Pelt. It went on to play 1,600 performances. Several national tours followed, as well as innumerable amateur productions.
More a revue than a book musical, the show featured a collection of simple and easily sung tunes, each drawn from a theme or sentiment from in the famous and well-loved cartoon. The best known songs included “Happiness Is...,” an ode to all things cozy and fuzzy, and “Suppertime,” Snoopy’s celebratory salute to mealtime.
After its long Off-Broadway run, Charlie Brown briefly graduated to Broadway 1971, where it only lasted a month. A 1999 revival began its New York run on Broadway and many critics commented that the show was too small and intimate to command a large house. Michael Mayer directed a cast featuring Anthony Rapp as Charlie Brown and B.D. Wong as Linus. The production will be remembered primarily for launching the career of Kristin Chenoweth, who played newly created stage character of feisty Sally Brown.
For the revival, the show had been considerably reworked, with two new songs by Andrew Lippa added, as well as additional music, and 23 new vignettes by Mayer from original Schulz strips written since 1967. The two new songs included one Sally entitled "My New Philosophy." Sally was added in favor of the previous production's amalgam character, Patty. Chenoweth won a Tony Award for her performance, as did another relative unknown, Roger Bart, for playing Snoopy.
At the time, Gesner told Playbill On-Line, "I really have no connection to that production. People have been contemplating a revival for thirty years, but I've been avoiding it because I'm afraid it'll be done too `big.' The show doesn't lend itself to bigness."
Mr. Gesner went on to write the shows Animal Fair and The Utter Glory of Morissey Hall, which ran for a single performance in 1979. Songs from these musicals, as well as tunes Mr. Gesner composed for “Captain Kangaroo” and “Sesame Street,” were collected in the 1998 revue The Jello Is Always Red, which played the York Theatre Company Off-Broadway in 1998. The composer himself, an open-faced man with a childlike presence, performed in the piece, delivering what many agreed were the best renditions of his material.
Said director Jim Morgan, "Gesner's view of the world is droll, very humorous and off-kilter. He looks at things in a different way. For example, the song, "Where Do The Chickens All Come From?" tells of a man overwhelmed by modern life. The Gilbert & Sullivan-style "The Peanut Butter Affair" is about a NY executive who realizes he went through the whole day with a clump peanut butter on his chin. Then he goes in to work the next day, and everyone has it, because they think that's the way to rise in the business world."
Asked about the project's genesis, Gesner told Playbill On-Line, "We did the show as part of the York reading series a year ago. I also tried it out solo at the Lambs. The songs come from many times and many places, though there is a style and tone connecting them. Most are funny, a couple are poignant. Many are like musicalized scenes or narratives."
In 2000, he presented The Bloomers, his adaptation of Somerset Maugham's play, The Letter, at Off-Off-Broadway's Red Room.
Clark Gesner was born in August, ME, and went to Princeton University, where he was a member of the Triangle Club.