The company of Seussical, the new musical drawing on the worlds and characters created by Dr. Seuss, held an open rehearsal in Manhattan Aug. 9 to share a handful of musical numbers for the theatrical press.
Several weeks before the Boston tryout begins Aug. 27 at the Colonial Theatre, and two months before the Oct. 15 first preview at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway, director Frank Galati defined the piece 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 Lynn Ahrens and Stephen 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.
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 the 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."
As much as the language is playful, it's the humanity that attracted the writers and Galati to the world of Dr. Seuss. A central idea in the show is taken from "Horton Hears a Who," and Horton (played by Kevin Chamberlin) makes the idea clear in his head and ours: "A person's a person, no matter how small." The famous tale has Horton hearing a "who," a voice from a world (Whoville) that exists on a speck of dust floating by.
"Stephen loved the fact that he could create a new musical world that had never been heard before," said Ahrens, "and I loved the fact that the books were -- when I re-read them as an adult -- so profound: There's politics, environment, nuclear war, plastic surgery, a great treasure trove of stuff."
And what does Flaherty's musical world sound like?
"The thing that excited me is that you can create your own world because with Seuss there are no rules," Flaherty told Playbill On-Line. "It has to have its own logic, but basically you can create the logic and the musical logic. For this score, there are many different sounds to it: The jungle world is sort of like an R&B place, sort of a funk place; the world of the Who's is more of a Spike Jones kind of world. I was listening to some old Spike Jones recordings and there's something about the zaniness of it that we wanted to bring to an updated version. There's gospel. There's a set piece in Act 2, which is Horton's insanity trial. That's done as a big gospel number, because they're testifying."
What's the challenge of making the characters sing?
"I think the challenge was that we didn't want them to be two dimensional characters, we didn't want them to be cartoons," said Flaherty. "We wanted them to be characters that the audiences cared about. We dealt with their emotions as if we would deal with emotions of anybody in real life. And I think that's been the challenge of the actors as well: To play something that is in one respect very real, and yet there's a heightened quality, a presentational style."
Galati told Playbill On-Line: "It has a true emotional, moral core: A person's a person, no matter how small. Here's the microcosm and the macrocosm. This little molecular world! What are we? We're just upon a spec of dust, blowing through the universe. We're imperiled everyday, it's a miracle that we make it. It's totally Shakespearean."
Galati agreed with the point that Dr. Seuss and Shakespeare did share existential themes and ask questions about self.
"Totally," Galati said. "Look at what [Seuss] calls these little creatures: They're Who's! Who are you? We're Who's! Who? The question of identity itself, the nature of the self is imbedded in these tales."
Rehearsals begin in Manhattan July 10 for Seussical, which is produced by SFX Theatrical Group, Barry & Fran Weissler and Universal Studios.
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 when Seussical appears at the Colonial Theatre in Boston, through Sept. 30.
Chamberlin, a Tony Award nominee for Dirty Blonde, left that hit show in early July to recreate Horton, his role Seussical workshops.
Also part of the 29-member cast is Michele Pawk (Mayzie La Bird) and Andrew Keenan-Bolger (JoJo). Kathleen Marshall (former artistic director of Encores!) is the Seussical choreographer.
Broadway previews begin Oct. 15 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, with an opening set for Nov. 9. Tickets for both East Coast engagements are now on sale. For ticket information, call (212) 307-4100 (for Broadway) or (617) 931-2787 (for Boston).
Featured are Erick Devine (Ragtime), Eddie Korbich (Assassins), Alice Playten, 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), Catherine Zuber (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.
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."