The Long Road From Whoville to Broadway
After all those years of being stuck on a page, did you ever think you’d see me on stage?
--The Cat in the Hat, in the new musical “Seussical”
The other day, Rob Marshall, the director who’s taken over the helm of “Seussical,” applied the word “face lift” to the doctoring on the show he’s been doing in recent weeks. The musical has had almost as difficult a gestation period as that egg in the nest tended by Horton the elephant in one of the whimsical but meaningful Dr. Seuss stories that’s been adapted for the Broadway stage.
In halcyon days, “Seussical,” after a heady workshop in Toronto last year, was an odds-on favorite for the fall season’s mega-hit, its buzz including that high-stakes phrase, “the next ‘Lion King.’ ”
Audrey Geisel, widow of Theodor Seuss Geisel, the creator and illustrator of the charming rhyming tales that have raised generations of children, had been at that workshop and praised the “seamless” quality of the material. “There are so many critters, all with very special stories that have a beginning and end,” she says of her husband’s work, which had never before been interwoven in such a manner.
However, since the show’s out-of-town tryout in Boston in September, a different mood has descended: The costume and set designers, as well as the director, have been replaced, segments of the show junked, new numbers added, music, lyrics and choreography juggled and tweaked, rejuggled and re-tweaked.
Rumors, fueled by that latest addition to the gossip pipeline, the Internet chat room, have been relentless with a particularly persistent and unsettling one about a cast change for the Cat in the Hat, the character who, as narrator, stands at the heart of the show. Another cast problem occurred when the voice of the young actor who played JoJo began to change. His performance in Boston had been one of the few things singled out for praise in a generally unfavorable review.
Along with anxieties--"this has been the most stressful six months of my life,” says Kevin Chamberlin, who plays Horton, the hero of “Seussical"--the production’s budget ballooned, reportedly by $2 million.
A dispute about royalty payments flared. An expensive advertising campaign designed to give the musical an “edgy” look was considered misguided by people associated with the production. Previews were delayed, and the Broadway opening, originally scheduled for Nov. 9, was pushed back three weeks to this Thursday.
“Have you ever seen a show under so much scrutiny?” Chamberlin was wondering the other day in his dressing room at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. The actor says he visited one of the theatrical chat rooms the other night and “was amazed at the power trip some of these people were on who were criticizing us. I feel like I’ve been in a long run, and we haven’t even opened!”
Indeed, the pre-opening optimism of Boston, before “everyone went into a tizzy,” as Lynn Ahrens puts it, seems forever ago. It was a warm evening when the musical, written by Ahrens and her collaborator Stephen Flaherty, debuted at the Colonial Theatre to an audience who included a gaggle of excited children, many festooned with handmade versions of the Cat in the Hat’s trademark red-and-white stovepipe chapeau. Among the adults who’d come to see the much-anticipated show were local critics, destined not to be kind, and assorted others with--as Kathleen Marshall, the show’s choreographer (and Rob’s younger sister), would later call it--"axes to grind.”
One ax had already been wielded. “Seussical’s” characters were still dressed in the costumes by Catherine Zuber, but she was gone from the creative team, replaced by William Ivey Long, whose colorful designs have continued to evolve in the show through its preview period in Manhattan, although he has refused to comment on his contributions. “There are a million different ways to envision the world of Seuss,” says Ahrens, “and ultimately she just had a different vision than we did.”
So, apparently did set designer Eugene Lee, who has said that he wanted to avoid “quoting” the Seuss illustrations and chose a dark blue backdrop for the show. Some of his concepts of Seuss’ world are still reflected in what’s onstage, but supplemented--and brightened--by veteran designer Tony Walton.
“Something viscerally didn’t seem right,” composer Flaherty says about the way the show looked onstage in Boston. “It’s a very tricky assignment. Do you have characters who look like his illustrations or just suggest them?”
“We used tons of the [Seuss] touchstones in our writing,” Ahrens says, “so it was a good idea to use certain visual touchstones as well.”
Rewrites were already underway. A 10-minute sequence featuring the ecologically conscious Lorax, a Seuss creation Ahrens admits being particularly partial to, would be deleted. Audience interaction routines smacking of David Shiner’s performance in “Fool Moon” had cropped up in his Cat in the Hat but “will be gone before New York,” someone promised--off the record.
Rob Marshall says that a better integration of the Cat with the rest of the show was one of his first suggestions to the writers. Shiner, a mime who had never danced or sung (or even spoken) before onstage, has now joined in several of the musical numbers. Marshall calls Shiner “a genius who just wasn’t being used properly.”
If a face lift was necessary, it has hardly been painless, he acknowledges, appreciative of the irony in the moral to the story of Miss Gertrude McFuzz, “a bird with a one-feather tail,” another “Seussical” character.
Why Not ‘Let Seuss be Seuss’?
In the imaginative love story of a bird and an elephant that Ahrens and Flaherty have grafted onto Horton’s adventures atop the egg, Gertrude (played by a frisky, doe-eyed Janine LaManna) is covetous of more ample plumage. But, after a doctor helps her with a tail enhancement, she discovers it would have been better not to tamper with Mother Nature.
It’s Marshall’s view, however, that what he’s done is gone back to the original source. “Let Seuss be Seuss,” was his advice after he was asked by the producers to attend a run-through of the show, post-Boston. In the concern over who was the target audience for this ambitious project, he felt the show had somehow strayed from the spirit of Geisel’s work. “Because they were afraid to bring too much Seuss to it, there was not enough,” Marshall said.
As it turned out, others agreed with him. That included Ahrens and Flaherty, the Tony-winning songwriting team responsible for “Ragtime,” wooed to “co-conceive” the Seuss musical by producer Garth Drabinsky, who had obtained the rights to the Seuss material from the estate. Ahrens and Flaherty, with some input from Eric Idle of Monty Python fame, not only wrote but also kept the project on course when Drabinsky’s company, Livent, went bankrupt. They cast the workshop themselves with many of the same actors now in the musical.
Anyone familiar with the more than 40 books written by Geisel from 1937 (“And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street”) to 1990 (“Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”) is aware that moving the popular cartoon characters who inhabit the books, many of them animals, into human forms is a formidable task. Look no further than the dismal critical reception awarded Ron Howard’s cinematic translation of Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” (Universal Studios is also a producer of “Seussical.”) And in that case, the creators were dealing with a single Seuss story.
Dr. Seuss is nothing short of a cultural icon--audiences, at least, are intrigued by the new Seuss movie, starring Jim Carrey, that’s done well at the box office--and because of this, everyone has an opinion. But, as Rob Marshall says, “some are stronger in theory than in practice.”
“The first book I ever got was ‘One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish,’ ” says Flaherty, naming one of Seuss’ simpler children’s books. “It’s not exactly heavy on plot, so we weren’t able to include anything from it in the show. But I remember loving the sound of the language, the whimsy and the color of that book.”
The actors are also fans. Chamberlin says “cat” and “hat” were the first words he learned to read, “and I have a vivid memory of seeing Chuck Jones’ cartoon ‘Horton Hears a Who.’ ”
Even some producers read Seuss: Miles Wilkin, chairman of SFX Theatrical Group, says “I have four children, 6 to 32, and I’ve read them all.” Only producer Barry Weissler confessed to never having read a Seuss book before he and his wife, Fran, came on board. (“And I probably never would otherwise,” he says.)
“The language and the sensibility and the rhythms of Dr. Seuss are the driving forces of this musical,” Flaherty says--but not without their glitches.
“Frank,” says Kathleen Marshall about Frank Galati, the director who had been with “Seussical” from the beginning (and worked with Ahrens and Flaherty on “Ragtime”), “created a wonderful, positive atmosphere of collaboration that was very helpful during the workshop and rehearsals, but when the going got tough, as it did unexpectedly in Boston, it wasn’t in his nature to make command decisions. Then there were a lotta cooks weighing in, and we needed a strong voice.”
Ironically, she says she had asked her well-respected brother, who recently directed “Annie” for television, to come to Boston “just for me, to tell me what he thought of my work.” But he hadn’t made it before the last week of performances were abruptly canceled and the production was brought back to New York for more retooling. When rehearsals resumed, “the producers asked me how would I feel about my brother looking at the show.
“I told them I’d love it. Because he hadn’t seen it in Boston, he was literally a fresh pair of eyes.”
Which is how it fell to Rob Marshall to glean what should be kept, what thrown out and what reworked. One weekend after Marshall had been brought on board, Galati went home to visit his family in Chicago, “and he chose not to come back.”
At best, Kathleen Marshall says, “musical theater is always a messy collaboration,” and in the case of “Seussical,” it was a struggle for all of us.”
Getting to Know the Good Doctor
When work began on “Seussical” in 1998, Flaherty says, he checked out the biography, “Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel.” “I wanted to learn not only about the world I was writing in, but its creator.”
Having seen the one film Geisel made, in 1953, “The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.,” Flaherty says he was particularly interested in reading about “his challenge in adapting a two-dimension medium into a three-dimension one, keeping the spirit of Dr. Seuss.” He laughs--a bit ruefully--at what he found in the biography: “His approach was very similar to what we’ve been doing. And he described it as the worst time of his life. I wonder if I should have taken that as a warning?”
Even so, Flaherty insists he “likes the challenge of writing musicals, even if some have easier births than others.”
And when Kathleen Marshall describes choreographing her dance segments for “Seussical,” the creative joy appears to outweigh the hassles. “I wondered how human and how animal should their movements be?” she explains, relying upon “the very distinct flavors of the music as my guide.” There are “two different worlds that collide in ‘Seussical’ ”: the Jungle of Nool, inhabited by animals; and Who, a dustball-size planet full of tiny people. For his jungle sounds, Flaherty wrote “funky, R&B; songs,” Marshall says, and for Who, “vaudeville-like” tunes.
Returning to the source, Marshall says “one of the things that struck me in a lot of the illustrations was the characters seemed very open, as if they’d just stepped into the sunshine. So I created this gesture of one hand to the heart and one hand open and flexed. Whenever they say, ‘Seuss,’ they do that,” beginning with the opening number, “Oh, the Thinks You Can Think” with the whole company onstage.
The writers also appear to have had some fun. The Marshalls are from Pittsburgh, also the hometown of Flaherty, which, he explains, is why, when the Circus McGurkus goes on tour in the second act of their musical, one of its stops is the Pennsylvania city. Another is Shark River Hills, N.J., near where Ahrens was raised.
“Seuss mentions Weehawken” for the circus tour, Flaherty says, but the author was also known for slipping in references to his hometown of Springfield, Mass., where one of the streets happens to be named Mulberry. “We thought he wouldn’t have minded if we put in these small grace notes to ourselves.”
* “Seussical” opens Thursday at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St., Manhattan. (212) 307-4100.