Caps for Sale Brings 75 Years of Storytime Full Circle at Boston Children's Theatre

Paul Lewis and Gabe Carbajal adapt a childhood favorite for the stage.

It's the rare child who leaves elementary school without having heard at least a few lilting refrains of "Caps for sale! Fifty cents a cap!" Esphyr Slobodkina's iconic picture book about a sleepy peddler and a forest of thieving monkeys has been a part of pre-adolescence since it was published in 1940. And yet, only now is Caps for Sale making the leap to the stage, with a world-premiere musical, opening March 5 at Boston Children's Theatre.

The piece is a collaboration between musical theater composer Paul Lewis and schoolteacher-turned-writer Gabe Carbajal, who began adapting children's literature for his own students. From their home base in the Seattle area, the writing partners chatted with TheaterMania about the "humbling" process of fleshing out Slobodkina's slender book for BCT's young audiences. Fortunately for them, Carbajal always had a captive young audience at his disposal, and in the process, found theater was a classroom game-changer.

Caps for Sale co-authors Paul Lewis and Gabe Carbajal.
Caps for Sale coauthors Paul Lewis and Gabe Carbajal.
(courtesy of Boston Children's Theatre)

What inspired the two of you to start collaborating on this adaptation of Caps for Sale?

Gabe Carbajal: I was a preschool teacher and the only book [the students] ever wanted to hear was Caps for Sale. I knew it was the perfect choice. I had worked with Paul on a number of his shows as both a singer and an actor. I think I mentioned [to him] that I was working on this kids book, and from what I remember, Paul told me, "Oh my God, I used to read that book to my kids! I've always had a melody in the back of my mind! Would you like to collaborate?" And I was like, "Of course!"

Paul Lewis: That's exactly right. When Gabe told me he was starting to work on an adaptation of it and he had preliminary permission from the Esphyr Slobodkina estate, I essentially dropped everything and said, "I want to be in on this."

What is it about Caps for Sale that lends itself to a musical adaptation?

Paul: The language carries you along in a way that lends itself to becoming a musical. Also, it doesn't reveal a whole lot about the characters. It is a slender little book. There's nothing about his back story, there's virtually nothing about the world he lives in other than his little village in the forest with the monkeys. But somehow it's able to evoke a larger world behind what you find on the page.

Gabe: I think that's absolutely right. The mystery of all the pieces that aren't in the book is what makes it so compelling. Where did the monkeys come from? Where are these villagers? Who are they? That was fun. Like Paul said, with a very skinny book, it's both exciting and scary to build a world around someone else's.

Steve Gagliastro plays the ‘Peddler' in Boston Children's Theatre's world-premiere adaptation of Caps for Sale.
Steve Gagliastro plays the Peddler in Boston Children’s Theatre’s world-premiere adaptation of Caps for Sale.
(courtesy of Boston Children's Theatre)

Paul: It's particularly scary to try to set to music these iconic phrases. Not only "Caps for sale! Fifty cents a cap!" But "You monkeys, you give me back my caps." These are things that millions of parents have read to their children over generations now. And to be entrusted to put that to music was quite humbling and terrifying.

How did both of you find your way into writing children's theater?

Paul: This is my first real children's musical, so that was one of the reasons I wanted to work with Gabe. I knew he was grounded in this form and he knows kids so well being a teacher, so that's where I'm coming from.

Gabe: I teach second grade here in the Seattle area. A lot of teachers like doing Readers Theater but they don't know how to do it. Everything I had found online…they tended to talk down to kids. So I went from there saying, "You know what, I think I can start trying to do it for myself and my own classroom."

Paul: We were both on the same page as far as writing good scripts. We had long conversations about how we didn't want to write down to kids. We wanted to create a story arc that would appeal to anyone at any age. One of my strengths in this partnership was to bring that perspective of conventional theater into this children's theater piece and hopefully create a very compelling musical.

Gabe, how have your own students responded to the theater you've brought into the classroom?

Gabe: It works really well. It's a skill that a lot of teachers really wish that they had. Because it…hits classroom management, it hits teamwork building, it hits all these different points that we try to do with curriculum. It's always funny to see that it does take some convincing, either of parents or of administrations in schools, that [theater] is that powerful. It can be that powerful. You just have to let us try.

Caps for Sale, directed by Burgess Clark, runs through March 13 at Boston Children's Theatre.
Caps for Sale, directed by Burgess Clark, runs through March 13 at Boston Children's Theatre.
(courtesy of Boston Children's Theatre)

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Caps for Sale

Closed: March 13, 2016