Why do some plays and musicals have longer lives than others?
How does a show reach enough people for its relevance to be sustainable, generation after generation? When we argue over what makes a theatre piece a classic, the debate usually focuses around the qualities of the work itself: craft, innovation, timeliness, timelessness, etc.
Equally important to the conversation, though, is the fact that a show first needs to be seen by a critical mass of people before it can be championed for years to come. The proliferation of a piece—the number of productions it receives over the years and the number of people who continue to attend and produce it, long after the show’s world premiere—is crucial in ensuring a show’s future.
That’s where theatrical licensing agencies come in. Like so many entities in the theatre, licensing agencies sit at the intersection of art and commerce. To a certain extent, they’re dependent on popular titles to make their nut. At the same time, writers have entrusted licensors with the legacies of their work, and a licensor’s success is contingent on there being as many people as possible “making theatre happen,” as companies like Samuel French, Music Theatre International (MTI), and Plays for Young Audiences (PYA) describe their work’s mission.
Considering this spirit of securing the legacy of theatregoing and theatremaking, the fact that many major licensing companies have growing or robust theatre-for-young-audiences (TYA) sections in their catalogs shouldn’t be surprising. Licensors want to expand their markets and ensure their future relevance, and many leaders in the licensing world feel a mandate not only to give more options to TYA producers but also to create stronger platforms from which to champion plays and musicals for children.
Any conversation about growing the TYA canon is going to focus on what sells, but commercial motivations often play a role in building collective memory and expanding the repertoire. It’s worthwhile, then, to take a look at what types of TYA shows licensing agencies are championing, in an effort to see what kinds of works are most likely to live on after an initial production, and what makes up the current TYA “canon.”
TYA’s place in a licensor’s catalog can vary widely. Samuel French has been operating for more than 180 years and must promote its TYA titles within the context of an extensive and diverse library.
“At various points in our history, we’ve been everything to everyone,” says Samuel French’s literary director, Amy Rose Marsh. “It’s something that makes our catalog unique, but has also been a bit of a challenge. When you have titles like David Mamet’s November, it’s hard to put something like Really Rosie [by Maurice Sendak and Carole King] up against that.”
But Really Rosie remains one of French’s most popular TYA titles after more than 30 years in the catalog, perhaps just as much because of its sustained visibility over three decades as from its famous creators. Another notable TYA show, Barbara Robinson’s 1982 adaptation of her children’s book The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, also seems to be self-sustaining in its popularity. “We’re seeing parents take their kids to the theatre because they remember reading the book and seeing the play,” explains Marsh, noting the role nostalgia can play in a title’s intergenerational appeal.
MTI champions TYA works in a few different ways. For decades, they’ve carried musicals premiered by the children’s theatre companies Prince Street Players, whose adaptations of fairy tales were broadcast on CBS in the 1960s, and Theatreworks USA, a touring company that often engages with history and children’s literature. MTI’s Broadway Junior Collection has been active since 1996, offering “author-approved versions” of Broadway shows with modified length, cast size, and vocal demands to better accommodate groups of child performers. Building on the success of Broadway Junior, MTI has also developed TYA versions of several shows in its catalog. These musicals follow the Broadway Junior model, but instead of adjusting a show to fit the needs of young actors, shows are adjusted to fit the needs of adult actors performing for young audiences.
In most cases, the musicals are cut to 70 minutes in length and the script is tweaked to require fewer actors. This strategy enables companies to bring well-known musicals to young audiences in a way that both honors the original and makes it more accessible for young people. “We want to introduce children to musical theatre,” says MTI senior vice president Carol Edelson. “We think it helps create the audiences of the future, and it just enhances kids’ lives. And there are two ways into it—kids can perform it, but they also need to sit down and watch skilled performers.”
This marriage of opportunities for young people to be both performers and audience members is a major component of MTI’s catalog. “Sometimes you’ll have several iterations of the same basic work,” adds Edelson. According to their theory, she says, young people will enjoy attending the TYA version of a show so much that “with the right adult leadership, they’ll say ‘I can do that’ and do the Broadway Junior version.”
PYA is a partnership between Seattle Children’s Theatre (STC) and Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) in Minneapolis that began in 2004; the company licenses works that have been commissioned and premiered by the two theatres. PYA functions both as a means to promote the work of TYA playwrights and to promote STC and CTC as catalysts for high-quality TYA plays.
“There was a lot of new work being generated that wasn’t getting any visibility or marketing, so we decided to give it more attention, and it’s been really successful,” says PYA’s general manager, Michelle Wright. “We have nearly 300 titles now and are one of the very few licensing companies that are exclusively for this niche audience of young people.”
The most popular TYA works across all licensing agencies are adaptations,
a phenomenon industry insiders refer to as “tyranny of the title.” Both Samuel French and MTI license different adaptations of James and the Giant Peach, The Phantom Tollbooth, and Anne of Green Gables. “The adults are the ticket buyers, so there has to either be a title or the name of a writer to entice them,” says French’s Marsh. MTI’s TYA version of Seussical, by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, is extremely popular, as is the TYA version of A Year With Frog and Toad by Willie Reale and Robert Reale, a musical that premiered at Children’s Theatre Company in 2002.
At PYA, adaptations of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Go, Dog. Go!, Robin Hood, Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile, and Harriet the Spy top the list. PYA’s Wright notes that adaptions of well-known source material will sometimes get routed to another licensing agency, even when SCT or CTC premieres the adaptation. “In some cases, like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, one of the companies will premiere work that’s being funded by an outside producer,” she explains. “We have less control over where those titles go after they open. There are also exclusions if the playwright already has a contractual obligation with another licensing company.”
Still, Marsh describes the vast potential for creativity within adaptation, naming playwright David Wood’s adaptations of Roald Dahl’s books as examples [AT, Nov. ’14]. “His adaptations are brilliant, just totally blissful and effervescent,” she says. “He thinks of everything from the child’s perspective, and thinks about how children process information.”
She also highlights an area where licensors are particularly important to the legacy of a play: enforcing a playwright’s policy toward fidelity to the script.
“David refuses to let people manipulate the text,” Marsh adds. “We sometimes get requests from producers who don’t want to use puppets, or want to cut some of the sillier bits, and he’s very strict about not allowing those kinds of changes, because he wrote these plays for a very specific audience.”
While PYA also has to answer to the “tyranny of the title” to some degree, their business model gives them more freedom in curating the catalog than another licensor might have. Most new plays developed and produced by either partner theatre go into the PYA catalog, and the company will occasionally add an outside play if it resonates with one of the two theatres’ artistic directors. “Their criteria is mainly: Is this the type of work that we would produce on our stages? Is it up to the quality level that we would expect for our audiences?” says Wright.
Adaptation or not, the catalogs of all three companies include some TYA works by “non-TYA” writers. MTI licenses Shrek the Musical TYA by David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole) and Jeanine Tesori (Caroline, or Change, Fun Home), and the agency’s James and the Giant Peach is an adaptation by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dogfight), and Timothy Allen McDonald. Edelson at MTI points out the respect that these writers have brought to the process of creating work for young audiences.
“Jeanine Tesori decided to take on Shrek the Musical because she also had a background directing high school students, and full-length, TYA, and junior versions of the show all fly off the shelf,” says Edelson. “She’s a remarkable composer and came at that show with every bit of the seriousness and creativity that she brings to anything she does.”
In addition to Really Rosie, French licenses ’Twas the Night Before Christmas by Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor), which premiered at Adventure Theatre in Glen Echo, Md., in 2011. “Adventure Theatre thought it would be so much fun to say, ‘Let us share this playwright with you,’” says Marsh. “It doesn’t have to be about the material, it can be: We’ve seen his work and now kids can find a way into it too.” SCT and CTC routinely commission “non-TYA” dramatists, so the PYA catalog includes work by Lisa D’Amour, Tina Howe, Robert Schenkkan, and many other accomplished writers not typically associated with children’s theatre.
Having to work within the constraints of adaptation isn’t the only challenge licensing companies face. “TYA may be more prone to trends than other genres,” says Marsh. “For a while, a lot of theatres would call us and say, ‘We want to do a play about bullying.’ We also get a lot of calls about plays about vampires. As a licensing agent, you have to think about how this play will hold up in 20 years.”
Marsh also suspects that education policy will begin to play a larger role in TYA licensing. “I anticipate that Common Core and educational standards will affect us,” she adds. “We’re going back and looking at some of our popular musicals, and how to adapt them for younger audiences, and part of that conversation is: How do we tie these back to educational standards? What are the hot-button issues?”
TYA producers also have strict financial limitations. “In Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, there’s a flying car, so on Broadway and on tour, this was a very expensive component of the show,” Edelson explains. “People expect the flying car, and in TYA, you’re still going to give them the flying car, but it’s not going to fly in the same way.”
Despite these challenges, the future of TYA licensing looks bright. “There are things that come out of this marketplace that you don’t see and maybe can’t see in [MTI’s] full-length professional productions,” Edelson says. “That’s what I love about TYA. It’s not going to be about big, overblown production values; it’s going to be about, how can I tell the story and make it riveting for the children, and how can I do it within a certain budget?”
PYA is beginning to offer the kinds of work that might not have been available a few years ago, including plays for the very young. “We’re starting to include more work from Imagination Stage [in Bethesda, Md.] that’s specifically for the preschool-aged audience,” says Wright. “That age group has a canon of work that needs to be built up, and it’s a market that everyone is trying to perform for.”
Wright also stresses the space PYA gives to plays that feature minority voices. “Both theatre companies commission work that tells stories of underrepresented people and tales of social justice,” she says. “Our catalog offers more of those kinds of stories—at least specifically for young audiences—than a lot of other licensors do. It’s not licensed as much as the popular book title [or] musical type of work, but I feel like as more leading theatres in the country do it, it’ll trickle down and become more of a national movement.”
An example is The Wong Kids in the Secret of the Space Chupacabra Go! by Lloyd Suh, a CTC premiere that deals with self-acceptance and celebrating difference. PYA also just added Akeelah and the Bee, Cheryl L. West’s CTC adaptation of Doug Atchison’s film about a girl competing in the National Spelling Bee.
Only time will tell how the canon will continue to expand, but the desire among licensing agencies to create a lasting TYA legacy in the theatre is there. “The goal is to have the best material for all of the markets that we deal with,” says Marsh. “I also hope that our current writers write more TYA, and I’m really emotionally invested in having avenues for that material to flourish.”
Emma Halpern is the co-artistic director of New York City Children’s Theater.
TYA Catalog Highlights
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
By Barbara Robinson
Originally produced in Seattle Children’s Theatre’s 1983–84 season
Target Audience: Appropriate for all ages
Based on the best-selling young-adult book, this holiday comedy follows the antics of the mischievous Herdman kids when they get cast in the annual Christmas pageant.
Book and lyrics by Maurice Sendak
Music by Carole King
Produced at the Westside Theatre, NYC, in 1980
Target Audience: Appropriate for all ages
Rosie, the sassiest kid on Brooklyn’s Avenue P, entertains herself and her friends by acting out showbiz fantasies.
Adapted for the stage by David Wood
From the book by Roald Dahl
Originally produced at Wimbledon Theatre, London, in 1991
Target Audience: Appropriate for all audiences
Based on Dahl’s classic book, this play follows the unlikely friendship between a 24-foot-tall giant and a little orphan named Sophie.
Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach TYA
Book by Timothy Allen McDonald
Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Based on the book by Roald Dahl
Originally produced in SCT’s 2013–14 season
This musical follows Dahl’s fantastical tale of a boy, his insect friends, and their amazing journey across the ocean in a giant piece of fruit.
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Based on the works of Dr. Seuss
Originally produced at the Coterie Theatre in Kansas City, Mo., in the 2003–04 season
Combining story elements from Horton Hears a Who, Green Eggs and Ham, The Cat in the Hat, and other Dr. Seuss books, this musical tells the story of Horton the Elephant and his efforts to keep the town of Whoville safe.
Shrek the Musical TYA
Music by Jeanine Tesori
Book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire
Based on the DreamWorks Animation film and the book by William Steig
Originally produced in the Coterie Theatre’s 2012–13 season
Based on the family film, this musical follows the disgruntled ogre who finds friends and love on his quest to be alone.
Go, Dog. Go!
By Steven Dietz and Allison Gregory
Music by Michael Koerner
Based on the book by P.D. Eastman
Originally produced in SCT’s 2002–03 season
P.D. Eastman’s classic comes to life with minimal dialogue as some very busy dogs go on a variety of everyday adventures.
By Greg Banks
Originally produced in Children’s Theatre Company’s 2010–11 season
A gritty adaptation that stresses the classic story’s relevance to today’s issues of income inequality.
Akeelah and the Bee
By Cheryl L. West
Based on the film written and directed by Doug Atchison
Originally produced by CTC in 2015–16
This play tells the story of an African-American girl and her quest to compete in the National Spelling Bee.