Who can say exactly what constitutes a "children's musical"? Part of what makes any great musical endearing, no matter what the target audience, is that it allows us to enter a land of childish delight, heightened emotions, and fantastical situations, not to mention the opportunity to enjoy all that giddy singing and dancing. It wasn't only children pouring into the Winter Garden all those years to share in the antics of Rum-Tum Tugger and Rumpleteazer, and the bubblegum strains of ABBA don't exactly reach us at our most sophisticated and discriminating levels of emotion and intelligence.
One could argue with much evidence that George Stiles and Anthony Drewe's Honk!, the show that snatched England's Olivier award for Best Musical away from Mamma Mia! and The Lion King, is intended for children. It is based on Hans Christian Andersen's timeless The Ugly Duckling, and Drewe neither darkens the narrative nor dresses it up in adult themes. The central moral remains Andersen's, intended for impressionable tykes: "It takes all sorts to make a world." The most recent production of the show (enthusiastically welcomed by TheaterMania's Peter Filichia in his column) was at the Boston Children's Theater, featuring a cast of kids.
In the newly available cast recording of the Music Theatre of Wichita's production from last summer, Honk! takes wing, offering as many pleasures to the adult ear as to the child's heart. The buoyant romp of an opening number is A Poultry Tale; augmented by John Cameron's clever orchestrations (check out the neat little horn riffs between vocal measures), it conjures the image of a theater full of children wiggling gleefully in their seats. If the kids don't dig the horn parts, they'll sure love the quacking solos--I know I did. But listen to the words: In the course of introducing his characters and welcoming his listeners to the world of the play, Drewe rolls out thematic witticisms, one after another:
"In our land both green and pleasant,
Every bantam, duck and pheasant,
If they had them, would be walking arm in arm."
"Our life is good and steady
Till we're plucked and oven-ready!"
"Come on down and don't be strangers:
In our duck-yard, all free-rangers"
The central free-rangers are the duck couple Drake and Ida. Soon after the show begins, Ida gives birth to Ugly, who is. Not only that, but Ugly can't master the traditional "quack" and instead lets loose with an occasional, obnoxious "H-O-O-O-NK!" The poor little duckling is mocked by all and sundry except his loving mom-- and except for the villainous cat, who doesn't want to admire Ugly so much as eat him. Our hero escapes but becomes lost, and the rest of Honk! is concerned with his attempts to reach home safely, Ida's efforts to find him, and the Cat's Wile E. Coyote-like desire to have him for lunch. By the final curtain, everyone has hopefully learned that there's nothing wrong with being different--and that, as the Bullfrog's totally badass solo would have it, "someone's gonna love ya warts and all."
Arthur W. Marks as Ugly has a strong voice, though at times he exhibits too much of an "oh-what-will-become-of-me" waver in his solo spots, overplaying the character to the detriment of the tune. The same can be said for Josh Prince's Cat: He snivels and purrs until what at first was cute soon becomes grating. "You Can Play With Your Food If You Want To," a scampering duet between Ugly and Cat, suffers noticeably from this problem: Although Stiles has fashioned an appropriate back-and-forth melody and Drewe's lyrics are clever as usual, the cartoony vocalizations constantly threaten to overwhelm the song's plusses.
But the number that follows, The Elegy, sung when everyone thinks Ugly has been eaten, shows why Honk!--both the show and the MTW recording--is so lovable. Recalling "Poor Jud is Daid" from Oklahoma!, it's a tongue-in-cheek funeral number that contains the following lines:
"An eerie mood descends on the farm;
It seems so strangely quiet.
The rumor is the cat has had
More roughage in his diet."
Such lyrics aren't exactly elegiac, but Stiles plays it straight: The song floats on a gentle, mournful air and, somehow, it works. Like Honk! as a whole, it at once makes us laugh and engages our sympathies.