The 101 Dalmatians Musical is a tale of puppy love: not puppy love as defined by people, but the love of dogs for their puppies. "It's a show about parents and children, and what it means to be a family," says book writer B.T. McNicholl, who co-wrote the lyrics with Dennis DeYoung. "Every musical has a love story, and this is about the greatest love of all, the love of parents for their children."
The show, which has toured since October 2009, and ends its run April 7-18 at The Theater a Madison Square Garden, is directed by Jerry Zaks and features music by DeYoung, a founding member of the rock group Styx. Sara Gettelfinger stars as the comically fiendish Cruella De Vil (a role created for this tour by Rachel York in 2009), who kidnaps Mr. and Mrs. Pongo's 15 puppies and plans to skin them, along with 84 other Dalmatians, to create the fur coat of her dreams.
The musical is based on the classic children's novel by Dodie Smith — not on the popular movies they inspired. "To this day, I've never seen either film," says McNicholl. "It's actually fortunate, because we didn't have the rights to the movies. The novel is an adventure story about the journey of the Dalmatian parents, Pongo and Missus, to reclaim their stolen children. It's their story, and when I began to work on the show, I realized we needed to have clarity about two things from the very beginning. One is the upside-down world of the novel, which is told from a dog's point of view. So we begin with a song called 'A Man is a Dog's Best Friend.' The other thing is that we needed a number early on for Pongo and Missus, in which you learned about their dream of having a family. 'A Perfect Family' is the second song in the show and it's key, because if you identify with the parents, then you're on the ride for the whole show."
To underscore the topsy-turvy perspective, the actors playing humans are on stilts, and the scenery is outsized and oversized, "to make the dogs seem smaller, and therefore vulnerable." And no one makes the dogs seem more vulnerable than Cruella, who is as funny as she is wicked. "She's Miss Hannigan [from Annie]," says McNicholl.
Annie was, in fact, something of a model for McNicholl. "I work with Mike Nichols a lot, and people forget that Mike single-handedly produced the original production of Annie. It was a stylish, classy musical comedy for adults. So what I took from Annie was how to approach a show that speaks to both adults and kids. With this show, you know the kids will love it, because it's about puppies. The trick is to make it appeal to adults, by dealing with an emotional story about two parents confronted with every parent's worst nightmare — their kids being kidnapped. They learn that family is about love and commitment and solidarity; they discover the true meaning of parenthood." For most of the show, the Dalmatian puppies are played by children. But the finale features 15 actual dogs, with not a human in sight. The Dalmatians, who are also seen intermittently throughout the show, are all rescue dogs. "It's hard to top a dog act, so they're the topper at the end of the show," says McNicholl.