An advance look at one of the most eagerly awaited musicals of the new season.
It was made clear at a press preview held last week that there's a whole lot of thinking going on by everybody concerned with this all-stops-out adaptation of Dr. Seuss's best-selling books as a sort of carefree, sort of concerned-citizens tuner. Although press previews for musicals (this one was billed as an "open rehearsal") are not necessarily a recent development, these days they have a ratcheted-up popularity that could be seen as inversely proportional to the success rate of big, new musicals. At these presentations, the cast of whatever show is on tap runs through a handful of numbers--complete with choreography, but without much in the way of actual sets or costumes--and then the cast and production team mingle amiably for the benefit of camera crews, tape recorders, and notepads.
It takes a lot of imagination today to get a show on the road, both literally and metaphorically. But since Seussical's opening ditty is titled "Oh, the Thinks You Can Think" and is about exercising the mind, this enterprise would seem to be a good place to find plenty of creative cogitating. The major goal of everyone involved in Seussical appears to be lifting Dr. Seuss--well, Theodore Seuss Geisel (1904-1991)--from page to stage by capturing his celebrated verbal dexterity and expanding upon it, as well as mining the good "doctor" for his more subliminal, even adult, messages.
It's the "adult" aspects of Seussical that occupy the thought processes of producers Barry and Fran Weissler, who are mounting the production with SFX Theatrical Group and Universal Studios. (Incidentally, no one affiliated with the show is handing out capitalization figures.) Talking about her determination to get Seussical up on its furry feet, Fran Weissler says of the original notion, "I felt it was new and fresh for people of all ages, for audiences who would walk out happy. My only concern in marketing is making it known that [the show] is not only for children or for adults with children."
The Weisslers are recognized, of course, for their ability to maximize long runs, in part through shrewd advertising campaigns. Anyone who observed how they subtly revitalized the Grease! advertising imagery over the years won't be surprised at Fran Weissler's statement that, although early ad designs for Seussical will have the appeal of the collective Seuss cover art, the campaign will become "more and more sophisticated." (Seussical, by the way, was put into motion by Garth Drabinsky and Livent, where the rights were secured.)
Lynn Ahrens, who has written the lyrics for the show and co-written the book with its composer--her longtime collaborator, Stephen Flaherty--says the team faced a challenge in creating what could be perceived as strictly a children's show. She defines their approach as "bringing a classic up to date and bringing out the adult elements." Ahrens estimates that, of the show's lyrics, "about 10 percent are Seuss's words and 90 percent [are] improvisation." In the scripting, Flaherty says, he and Ahrens read the Seuss books to each other, playing out the stories and thereby assimilating the rhythms and rhyme patterns. (One credit line for the show reads "Conceived by Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty and Eric Idle," but former Monty Python-er Idle was not in attendance at the press preview.)
That Flaherty and Ahrens have simultaneously remained true to Geisel and taken liberties with him seemed evident in the five numbers unveiled for the appreciative press. In addition to the opening song, there were ditties called "Biggest Blame Fool," "Here on Who," "Notice Me, Horton" and "Horton Hears a Who" (in which was repeated the Seuss homily, "A person's a person, no matter how small.")
Seussical is directed by Frank Galati, who worked with Ahrens and Flaherty on Ragtime. The choreographer is Kathleen Marshall, who, by the looks of things, remains busy establishing what might be called "The Kathleen Marshall Ensemble." For both Kiss Me, Kate, her most recent Broadway credit, and Seussical, she has assembled a diverse group of singer-dancers who range widely in age and also in height--from 5'1" to 6'5". Marshall reports that her assignment has been to find "the right kind of movement" for the company and that she was freed enormously to do what she wanted because the stories "are not rooted in a specific time and place."
Costume designer Catherine Zuber admits that she didn't have that kind of leeway, since the Dr. Seuss look is imprinted so indelibly on readers' brain cells. What she had to do,she says, was to "get the right balance" between the Seuss illustrations and outfits that didn't require actors to wear headgear that could compromise their individuality. (Although no one at the open rehearsal mentioned either Cats or The Lion King outright, it seems as if the team is making a point of differentiating this show--with dramatis personae including creatures both real and imaginary--from other hits in which animals figure prominently.)
With a cast of 32, Seussical features Kevin Chamberlin as Horton the Elephant, David Shiner as the Cat in the Hat, and William Ryall as the Grinch, along with Janine LaManna, Michele Pawk, and Andrew Keenan-Bolger in other choice roles. Alice Playten--who hasn't been in a Broadway musical for, she estimates, two decades--will appear as the wife of the planet Who's mayor and also as the Lorax. Playten says that she has, for all these years, been looking for the right show in which to return to the Great White Way, and "I think this is it." She explains her long absence, during which she made some appearances Off-Broadway, by saying, "I've been picky. And there were people who just didn't pick me."
Maybe, though, there's something more mystical going on. Playten, who had previously appeared as a youngster in Gypsy and Hello, Dolly!, made her first big Broadway splash in the 1968 musical Henry Sweet Henry, which contained a song called "Poor Little Person." It just so happens that in Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears a Who, there's a reference to "Some poor little person who's shaking with fear." If that strain of weird synchronicity continues, it could mean that Seussical will see no production glitches--or Grinches.
[Editor's Note: Seussical will have a pre-Broadway run at Boston's Colonial Theatre, August 27-September 17.]