Dean Pitchford may be the quintessential Renaissance man, with a nearly 50-year career that has seen him be a performer, songwriter, screenwriter, director, and novelist, and with an Academy Award and Golden Globe to boot.
With two major projects premiering simultaneously—a starry concert of his stage musical adaptation of Footloose and the Off-Broadway premiere of his brand new musical for young audiences, The Big One-Oh!—his career seems to be coming full circle as well, and Pitchford is thrilled.
For Footloose, that circle is quite literal. Pitchford adapted his 1980 screenplay for the stage with director Walter Bobbie, a musical adaptation that enjoyed a year-and-a-half run on Broadway in 1998. Twenty-one years later, the show is back at Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center, where it played a pre-Broadway tryout, for a semi-staged concert production with J. Quinton Johnson (Choir Boy) as Ren, Isabelle McCalla (The Prom) as Ariel, Michael Park (Dear Evan Hansen) as Reverend Shaw, Tony nominee Rebecca Luker (Mary Poppins) as Vi, and Tony nominee Judy Kuhn as Ethel. Walter Bobbie is back to direct the new production.
But it’s not the same Footloose that played Broadway in 1998, as Pitchford shared.
“After the show closed on Broadway, there were things that we had all talked about doing that in the rush to get it on stage you just can’t get to. After the show closed on Broadway, I continued to work on it for five years, and I made tweaks all the way through Act 1, and in Act 2 I made some major surgical decisions.”
Pitchford dropped three songs from the Broadway version of the show and inserted a song that had been cut out of town. Rather than workshop his new version all at once, Pitchford waited for major productions and sent them revised sections to try out. A production in Sacramento ultimately became the unofficial premiere of the complete revised version.
“The first one had been doing nicely in the stock and amateur market, but the second one took off like a rocket. The revised version has been playing around the world with hundreds and hundreds of productions every year.”
Continuing the circular journey, it was working on another version of Footloose, designed to be performed by young actors, that indirectly led to his newest show, The Big One-Oh!
“I had such a wonderful time that I left thinking, ‘What else can we do that will put me in a rehearsal room, that will get me back around a piano and working with actors and young people especially.’”
Then Timothy Allen McDonald, Pitchford’s collaborator on the young performers’ edition of Footloose, called and suggested they make a musical out of Pitchford’s 2007 children’s novel The Big One-Oh!
“My first words to him were, ‘Don’t toy with me.’”
McDonald would ultimately pen the book of the musical adaptation, with Tony-winning orchestrator Doug Besterman providing music to Pitchford’s lyrics, telling the story of Charley Maplewood, his group of imaginary monster friends, and a 10th birthday party that goes awry.
“Writing the songs for the kids, Doug and I took as our inspiration Joe Raposo, the guru behind all the early Sesame Street songs. What he managed to do was to write immediately accessible, very graspable songs and melodies that spoke to somewhat higher truths, with there being no more shining example than ‘It’s Not Easy Being Green.’”
Having a specific audience in mind has always been important for Pitchford. His original novel was written primarily for his beloved niece Colby, and Pitchford tailored it to her tastes. Though Colby is all grown up now that The Big One-Oh! is becoming a stage musical, the next generation of kids have been at the forefront of Pitchford’s mind while writing his lyrics.
“The songs in Big One-Oh are filled with nouns—names of toys, and foods, and places, and games. I wanted to make the songs full of vocabulary that kids will recognize and love.”
Luckily, The Big One-Oh! will have lots of kids to delight. The world premiere Off-Broadway production at Atlantic Theater Company’s Atlantic for Kids series performs to school groups during the week and to general audiences on weekends through October 20.