Step aside Barbie. Summer’s over and Betty’s back! Boop that is. The classic can-do girl of animation fame—first introduced in 1930—is going live. In more ways than one. Not only is the character taking to the stage, but as conjured by the creative team of Boop! The Musical, she’s stepping from her cartoon world into life as we live it today. Now in a pre-Broadway run at the CIBC Theatre in Chicago through December 24, the show comes from folks packing some pretty impressive bona fides — director/ choreographer Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots, Legally Blonde), writer Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone), 16-time Grammy-winning composer David Foster, and lyricist Susan Birkenhead (Working, Jelly’s Last Jam).
Betty Boop first made her appearance when Herbert Hoover was in the White House, but her image—a combo of pert assurance and endearing vulnerability—has endured. “It’s pretty amazing when you think about it,” observes Martin, who earned a Tony nomination for his performance in The Drowsy Chaperone and shared the award for Best Book of a Musical with collaborator, Don McKeller. “I walk down the street and I see her everywhere—on jackets, cell phone covers. What’s interesting is the vast majority of those people have probably never even seen any of her shorts. But there’s just something about her, a kind of sexy, fun, confident, independent spirit that really speaks to people.”
Betty Boop was the brainchild of brothers Max and Dave Fleischer, who began their careers in animation at Manhattan’s Bray Studios before setting up a shop of their own in a basement apartment in 1921 (several years earlier, Max invented the rotoscope, a game-changing apparatus in which artists traced over live action footage frame by frame to create animated films). Betty, with her spit curls, short dress, and garter, made her debut in the Fleischer’s Dizzy Sides, playing a nightclub singer who wins the heart of a waiter drawn as a dog. The character caught on and became the star of her own seven-minute shorts. In 1932, Film Daily—noting her “oo-la-la curves” and a “boudoir languor in her walk”—hailed her as “something Brand New in cartoon characterization.”
As Betty came into her own, she had all kinds of adventures, getting behind the wheel of a race car and running for president, always pursued by some male she managed to shake. But changing times and the film industry’s self-censoring Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (commonly known as the Hays Code) crimped Betty’s style. The Fleisher’s dropped her hemline and reined her in. In 1938’s On with the New, she was wearing an apron and slinging hash. She still strutted and sang her trademark “Boop-Oop-a-Doop,” but instead of running off with the circus as she might have done before, she left the grind of the diner for a job looking over little ones at a nursery.
While not immediately thought of as a feminist icon, Betty Boop’s independence and self-assured sensuality struck a note with women for whom autonomy means more than a career. But as Martin notes, the Betty he and his colleagues are bringing to the stage shouldn’t be confused with Greta Gerwig’s big-screen Barbie. “Barbie was really about what it means to be a woman,” he suggests. “What we are doing is examining what it means to be human.”
Betty Boop’s fame came through a series of short animated films, each one a self-contained story. So when Martin and Mitchell set out to create a narrative for their heroine, they had both a clean slate and a challenge on their hands. “Many of the musicals I’ve done—Legally Blonde, Kinky Boots—come from source material where you’ve already got a story and a plot. That wasn’t the case here. All we had was a cartoon character and we had to create a story around her.”
In the narrative they’ve come up with, Betty—played by Jasmine Amy Rogers, familiar to many from national tour of Mean Girls—manages to escape her cartoon existence and visit real-world New York, where she is surprised to learn that she holds a place in people’s hearts. “Jerry’s idea for the show revolved around the idea that you really aren’t human unless you can experience love,” shares Martin. “As the book writer for a musical, I am the architect of the piece, creating the structure and setting the tone, and that was the starting point for me.”
The all-you-need-is-love theme is nothing new, but it is, sadly a truth that always needs repeating.
And one that gets a whole new expression in Boop! “We are all living in a world of cynicism and hate and I want people to really remember that there is only one thing in life that matters,” says Mitchell. “If you don’t have love, you’re living in black and white. If you have love, you’re living life in color. It’s that simple. Find love.”