Stephen Schwartz(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Stephen Schwartz
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
I could be dead wrong about this, but from all the conversations I've had with Stephen Schwartz over the past decades, I get the impression that he has equal love for all of his artistic projects. Granted, Godspell, Pippin, the Disney movies, and Wicked may very well have made him the most money and/or garnered him the greatest critical acclaim; but I've noticed that whenever he speaks of Working, The Baker's Wife, or Captain Louie, he's just as effusive.

You may ask, Captain Louie? Well, we'll all have a chance to learn about the this morning, noon, and some subsequent nights (through June 12) at the York Theatre Company. Composer-lyricist Schwartz has collaborated with book writer Anthony Stein in adapting The Trip, Ezra Jack Keats' 347-word book. Yes, you read that -- and I wrote that -- right. Not 347 pages, a length that would be more usual for a musical's source material, but 347 words. As you've probably inferred, by now, The Trip is a children's book.

When I was talking to Schwartz a few weeks ago about the current production of The Baker's Wife at the Paper Mill Playhouse, he happened to bring up Captain Louie. I was so impressed with the attention to detail and the level of passion he had when speaking of it. Anyone who didn't know that this was a children's musical would have assumed from Schwartz's tone that he was speaking about his next great big Broadway show. As Kurt Peterson, one of the musical's co-producers says, "Isn't it wonderful that one of the most powerful people in musical theater finds it important to put his energies into a family musical?" I agree wholeheartedly.

Schwartz and Peterson go back a long way -- almost 30 years. In 1975, Peterson was cast as Dominique, the young stud in The Baker's Wife. Even before that, he was the producer of the marvelous Sondheim: A Musical Tribute in 1973 at the Shubert, a one-night-only event that yielded the famous "Scrabble album." And, of course, we also know him as the original Young Ben in Follies. Peterson took a hiatus from producting for a number of years but, last summer, he decided to look for a project. When he saw Captain Louie at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, he knew this was a show for him, so he joined producers Meridee Stein and Pam (Jelly's Last Jam) Koslow.

Captain Louie has had a lengthy genesis. Two decades ago, Stein -- founder and artistic director of the First All Children's Theater -- asked Schwartz to musicalize the book, which had won the prestigious Caldecott Award. Even though Schwartz was hard at work on the lyrics to Rags, he found the time to write an entire score for Captain Louie. The show was presented in a theater on West 65th Street, played a limited run, and that was supposed to be that. Last year, though, Stein asked the collaborators to revisit the piece, and they did so. The result is an expanded, 65-minute musical.

It's the type of children's theater that I most enjoy. Listen, I have nothing against shows based on Goldilocks and the Three Bears or Sleeping Beauty, both of which have certainly passed the Test of Time. But how much can today's little kids relate to those tales? Here's a story that all too many can indeed identify with. Better still, it's a story for inner city kids, many of whom are sadly pulled away from the homes they've known for one reason or another. They're rather under-represented in literature, especially in children's literature. Bless Schwartz and Stein for doing their part to change this.

I suspect that many a tot who's been dragged to some amateurish musical adaptation of some tried-and-true fairy tale has come away without much of an appreciation for musical theater. Unfortunately, a negative impression of musicals can be blueprinted onto a child's brain by a perfunctory piece of entertainment. But Captain Louie is a show that many kids can truly relate and respond to, especially in these times when families are so peripatetic.

Louie is a boy who likes where he lives and who his friends are -- and then he must move. He's devastated, as so many kids are when pulled from their pals, neighborhoods, and even their schools. Once he's ensconced in his new home, he makes a diorama of his old neighborhood in a shoebox and imagines himself as an airplane pilot who flies around the old, familiar streets. When Louie lands, he runs into some monstrous-looking figures. He's pretty scared at first, but what he's forgotten is that it's Halloween; everyone is dressed not to kill, but to trick or treat. Though Schwartz's entire pop-rock score is terrific, it's "Trick or Treat" that should become the Official Song of Halloween, given that the holiday doesn't have its own official song and deserves one. ("One Halloween" from Applause need not apply.) Also peppy is "Looza on the Block," in which Schwartz once again shows his felicity with triple rhymes.

Captain Louie has a cast of nine, all young people. The six leads range in age from 12 to 15, while three back-up singers are 18-19. Stein has cast multiculturally. Take the kids. Take yourself. Remember what it was like when you had to move. See www.musicalschwartz.com/captain-louie.htm.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]