I sailed on a junk
And was practically sunk
I trampled through the trees
Full of furious bees
I slogged through a fog
And a choking smog
Down a soggy slope
Through a stinking bog
While my slip was gripped
By a vicious dog
A lot has been said and written about Seussical, a musical that opened on Broadway in 2000 and ran for six months. My partner, Stephen Flaherty, and I ended up, much like two Dr. Seuss characters, clinging to the back of that runaway production, fleeing furious bees and vicious dogs, coping with corporate scandals, bankruptcies, an ever-changing roster of producers and designers, Internet gossip, out-of-town turmoil, backstage insanity and public catastrophe. Eventually, what began with a thrilling and celebrated workshop in Toronto culminated in a very public Broadway trouncing.
But since its much-publicized Broadway rise and fall, far, far from fading away, Seussical has risen once again. A little more than four years after that stressful time, the show is alive and well and being performed in hundreds of venues across America—one of the most requested of all stock and amateur titles. In addition to these productions, an entirely new “Theatre for Young Audiences” version was created and enjoyed a wonderful premiere at the Coterie Theatre in Kansas City. According to TCG’s statistics, as of press time, there are already at least seven productions of the new TYA Seussical during the 2005-06 season.
The reviews of these many and varied productions mostly begin, “What went wrong on Broadway? This is a wonderful show!” The lessons that led to the show’s current success were certainly learned along the rocky road from page to stage, and may help to illuminate how a show that did not succeed on Broadway can go on to have a thriving afterlife in the rest of the country and beyond. As the characters in Seussical sing, “Ooh, what a trip.”
In the winter of 1998, immediately after we opened Ragtime on Broadway, our producer Garth Drabinsky summoned us to his office and offered us a new project. Having obtained the rights to most of the Dr. Seuss books, he invited us to turn them into a stage musical. Stephen was excited by the thought of creating a new musical universe—the sound of a fantasy world where gnarly characters speak in rhyme and “anything’s possible.” But how could we wrestle so many disparate stories into a show?
As we read through the books, we realized that these sublime works of imagination needed to be told onstage with the same “economy of line” that Dr. Seuss is famous for. In other words, the show needed to take place mostly in the imagination of the audience.
Oh, the thinks you can think!
Think and wonder and dream
Far and wide as you dare.
When your thinks have run dry
In the blink of an eye
There’s another think there!
We set to work, but just as we were nearing completion of a first draft, our producer’s company, Livent, abruptly collapsed, miring Garth in terrible troubles. No one knew what would happen next. Ragtime was still running on Broadway but there was suddenly no one at the helm. And the half-finished Seussical seemed like a ship it would be wise to abandon immediately.
As Horton the Elephant says, “I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful, one hundred percent.” We had faith in our show and faith that it would be rescued. Like Horton, we simply couldn’t abandon it. So we strapped on our life-preservers and kept writing as corporate powers began to wrangle over this and all the other Livent properties.
That spring, the interim management of the company offered us a reading. We hand-picked the actors and organized it ourselves—and it was a tremendous success. Eric Idle, who had collaborated with us briefly at the beginning of the writing process, played the Cat in the Hat with great drollery. Rotund Kevin Chamberlin easily became Horton the Elephant in the mind’s eye. You could instantly imagine that diminutive Alice Playten was microscopic enough to fit on a speck of dust.
Then, in the summer of 1999, we moved forward to a workshop in an auditorium at the University of Toronto. Using nothing more than a battered stepladder, some rehearsal clothes, the crudest of improvised props and pieces—and with stunning direction and choreography by Frank Galati and Kathleen Marshall—our show took flight, danced and soared. The strength of the workshop was its simplicity, its rough-around-the-edges charm, its intimacy. No sets, no costumes, no orchestra, no lights. Just a bare wooden floor, some well-cast and talented actors and the power of the imagination. Word was out: Seussical was going to be a hit.
New musicals are almost impossible to get right. They require forthright communication and a single-minded vision that flows between the writers, the director and the designers, as well as the producers. Everyone’s work affects everyone else’s. It’s a subtle mix of artistic visions and personalities. It is by nature the most collaborative of all art forms, and possibly the most difficult.
From first reading to Toronto workshop to Boston tryout to New York opening, corporate powers placed the show in the hands of one producer after another; soon a stream of people were being invited in to give comments on the show and to consult on design and direction. We never knew who would walk out of the hotel elevator next. All this backstage turmoil created much fodder for speculation. The Internet began to buzz with gossip, skepticism and intimate, minute-by-minute reports of our work-in-progress. We were out of town, traditionally a private place for a creative team to do their work. But to our dismay, Seussical had become the focus of intense Internet scrutiny, the first show ever to experience this phenomenon (but certainly not the last). I believe that even before the show arrived on Broadway, many minds had already been made up.
By the time Seussical opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Nov. 30, 2000, it had been transformed into “a big Broadway show.” Was it what we originally intended when we wrote it? No. But it was still tremendous fun. Throughout its six-month run, audiences of adults and children stood, cheered and danced in the aisles. But the critics had decided they wanted something less big. Less brassy. Less Broadway. Maybe what they wanted was what we had created in Toronto.
The show closed on May 20, 2001, an emotional last performance for writers and actors who had committed themselves in such a wholehearted way to a show we all believed in so much.
When the news is all bad,
When you’re sour and blue,
When you start to get mad
You should do what I do—
How lucky you are.
Still, the show percolated with a sense of possibility and life. After it closed, producer Ken Gentry decided to give the show the first of two national tours. That first tour, while still produced on a scale to fill large roadhouses, was wonderful in many ways. The director, Christopher Ashley, suggested that the child Jojo should essentially create the story, together with his alter-ego, the Cat in the Hat, and we took his suggestions to heart. We are ferocious rewriters, and we welcomed the opportunity to take a long hard look at our work and make revisions. We also began discussions with our director and producer about the new physical production that would be mounted and how best to realize our original intention to keep it simple and theatrically imaginative. I believe it was at this moment in time that Seussical‘s luck began to change.
Our rewrites, which were small but significant, and Chris Ashley’s suggestions and visual notions focused the story in a good way. A revised opening called for a red-and-white-striped hat sitting in a big, empty white box. The little boy climbed on stage from the audience, discovered the hat, and in an instant conjured up a colorful cast of characters, who appeared magically, crowding into the white box as if into the little boy’s mind. The story now flowed from the child’s imagination and provided a good framing device. Dances created by Patti Columbo used simple gestures and props to evoke jungles and journeys. The show was specific, imaginative and effective. (I must add that Cathy Rigby, as the Cat in the Hat, was hilarious, literally climbing the walls of the theatre without a net.)
The next tour, directed by Stafford Arima and choreographed by Patricia Wilcox, began with huge storybooks that released the characters into the little boy’s world. Costumes and choreography were pared away to let the story, music and actors shine forth. Little by little, production by production, the show we had imagined at the beginning of our writing process was emerging. Less and less was definitely becoming more and more.
After the positive reaction received by both these touring productions, stock, amateur and school organizations around the country began to embrace the show. Stephen recently saw a middle-school production in Westchester featuring 20 bird girls instead of the original three. And I can’t resist telling you about the New York University production I was lucky enough to catch. Produced, directed, choreographed and designed entirely by college students, this production employed audience participation, balloons, banners, toilet plungers, paper streamers and a giant rubber band! The budget must have been virtually nil; the effect was priceless.
In 2004, we were approached by Jeff Church, the artistic director of the Coterie Theatre in Kansas City and vice-president of ASSITEJ/USA, the U.S. Center for the international association of children’s theatres. These “TYA” theatres—professional theatres for young audiences—target student audiences around the country and do wonderful work, introducing young people to the power of live theatre. Jeff asked whether the Coterie might be allowed to develop a shorter version of Seussical, which would be suitable specifically for young audiences and which would serve as a pilot production for future TYA productions. His ideas were creative and very much in the spirit of Dr. Seuss, and we agreed to revise the show ourselves with his input and suggestions.
The TYA requirements were fairly straightforward: The show needed to be no more than 70 minutes long with no intermission. This was not only to accommodate the shorter attention spans of younger children, but also to let the kids get back to their buses and to school on time. The number of players also had to be limited, so performers would need to double many more roles. Brevity and simplicity were key. We discovered that Seussical could be streamlined by losing one subplot (derived from Dr. Seuss’s own antiwar sentiments). Jeff Church and his musical director adroitly figured out how to perform the show with 11 professional actors instead of the original 30. And the physical production was executed on a small scale but with great humor and theatricality.
Reviews of the Coterie production glowed with praise for its whimsy and restraint, its inventive puppetry, its simplicity, imagination and witty direction. This was a Seussical never before seen, and new doors were opening. Jeff Church writes, “Because of Seussical, Music Theatre International has now introduced a whole new category of musical: their TYA Collection. Our field has really needed this.”
Based on the success of “Seussical TYA,” Music Theatre International (which represents hundreds of musicals, including ours, for stock and amateur productions) will soon include Seussical in the lineup of their Broadway Jr. shows—full-length musicals that have been adapted into versions that children can perform more easily. These changes (made only with the writers’ approval and participation) usually involve shortening the show and adjusting musical keys and vocal ranges to accommodate young voices. As for cast size, having already had the thrill of seeing 86 children (all beautifully costumed by one teacher!) performing the Broadway Jr. debut of our show Once on This Island at a Bronx school, we’re really looking forward to seeing hoards of little Whos, circus animals and jungle creatures crowding the stage for the first production of “Seussical Jr.”
All of this means that soon, three different Seussicals will be performing across the country—the full-length version for large casts and mixed audiences of adults and children, the 70-minute TYA version for smaller casts and young audiences (playing now at Seattle Children’s Theatre and next month at Maryland’s Imagination Stage), as well as the Broadway Jr. version for young performers. There’s even a “10-minute musical” of The Lorax, a piece we cut in Boston, but which is now being licensed separately. (It was one of our favorite parts of the original Seussical, and although it ultimately didn’t end up in the show, we’re delighted it’s now being performed on its own.)
Some shows that fail on Broadway are never heard from again. Most will probably have some sort of afterlife. Although all our other shows have gone on to enjoy multiple productions, Seussical is the first of ours to receive such reimagining after its initial Broadway run, and the first to cross over into so many different kinds of theatrical markets. This is an unusual turn of events for a show that was not an initial hit on Broadway. It’s also a very happy second act for us.
CAT IN THE HAT: The adventures were over. The sky became…
CAT IN THE HAT: And then, guess what happened?
BOTH: Well, what do you think?
In large part, Seussical‘s newfound success has happened because we seized the opportunity to revisit it. We were determined to try to reclaim what had been lost: a beautiful show with tremendous potential—potential unrecognized in its initial production. But, in the end, what has really changed most about Seussical is not the writing but the way in which the show has come to be produced and perceived. Our friend and collaborator, the director Graciela Daniele, says that if the work is good, it will eventually arrive where it belongs. Seussical has indeed arrived—high on the list of stock, amateur and regional productions, places with small budgets and big imaginations. Like our ebullient Cat in the Hat, Seussical has already had nine lives. And there may be more to come. We wish the same happy ending for any writer who dares to dive into the deep and unpredictable waters of musical theatre.
Oh the sea is so full
Of a number of fish
If a fellow is patient
He might get his wish!
And that’s why I think
That I’m not such a fool
When I sit here and fish
In McElligot’s pool!
Lyricist and bookwriter Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty have been collaborators in the musical theatre for 22 years. Their works include Ragtime, Once on This Island, A Man of No Importance, My Favorite Year and, most recently, Dessa Rose.
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