Children's literature takes center stage this fall with Seussical, an adaptation of the works of Dr. Seuss, and the most eagerly anticipated new musical of the season. After a month long tryout in Boston, Horton the Elephant, the Cat in the Hat, the Lorax, and a host of other Seuss characters will arrive on Broadway in October. The daunting task of bringing Seuss to the stage rests squarely on the shoulders of lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty, who are writing both the book and score for the new show.
Although best known for their Tony Award- winning work on the musical adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, Ahrens and Flaherty are not on unfamiliar ground in dealing with material suited for children. In the 70s and 80s, Ahrens was a major contributor to Schoolhouse Rock, a series of short educational cartoons that entertained and enlightened a generation, using music to teach kids about everything from American history to the solar system. Among the more memorable sketches that Ahrens wrote --and sang-- are "The Preamble," "A Noun Is a Person, Place or Thing," and "Interplanet Janet." Since joining forces in 1983, the team has also worked extensively with TheaterWorks USA, an organization dedicated to bringing theater to young audiences. In 1998, Ahrens and Flaherty also received two Academy Award nominations for their score for the animated feature Anastasia.
In Seussical, Horton serves as the central character, but the show includes bits and pieces from about twenty different Seuss stories. Although the characters will intersect and interact in new and different ways, Ahrens promises the show will be faithful to the beloved Seuss legacy, encouraging children and adults alike to embrace the magic of words, the resilience of the human spirit, and the wonder of the "thinks you can think"
Ronni Krasnow: How did you approach the task of integrating the major Seuss works into a cohesive whole, and how did you decide to focus on Horton as the central character?
Lynn Ahrens: I knew that in order to create a full-length musical from the stories, I would have to find one or two stories that could act as a sort of skeleton on which to hang other stories. After reading the entire Seuss collection, the story that leapt out as the most dramatic was "Horton Hears a Who". It was a complete story, with a beginning, a middle and end. It was a fantastic adventure with a wonderful moral conflict and tremendously sympathetic characters. It became apparent as well that the two different worlds-the Jungle of Nool and the dust speck planet of Who - provided us with an opportunity to open up the plot. We could have some stories and adventures happening to the tiny characters of Who, and some to Horton in the Jungle of Nool. And characters who never meet in the Seuss stories could now intersect in interesting ways. The planet of Who came to symbolize Earth-a tiny planet threatened by war (as in the Butter Battle Book), ecological disaster (The Lorax) ; a planet where people are "drifting through space with no way to steer, " just like Earth. And of course, Horton, in concert with a small boy named Jojo, manages to save the world. That seemed like the start of great theatre to me.
RK: What special challenges exist for you as a lyricist in working with language that is already so lyrical, and of course, so unique?
LA: As a lyricist, my job is to remain invisible-to write in the voice of the characters. As an adaptor, my job is to gracefully maintain the tone and spirit of the original writer, but also to weave a new tapestry. In the case of Dr. Seuss, I've begun to understand his rhythms, but also how to adapt them for the stage. I've learned not only to use his wonderful nonsense words, but to invent my own. My goal is to honor the brilliance and spirit of his work, but also to create something equally wonderful for a new medium.
RK : Did the language give you a freedom that you hadn't had before? If you were stuck for a rhyme, did you ever just feel like you could make up your own word as Seuss did?
LA: Thus far, in writing the show, I've invented a Floober-Doob-Bubbler and a Drifty-Wift kite, and I do feel free to make up nonsense rhymes, when I need them. But I find it very freeing to know that I have so many hysterical words and rhymes at my fingertips, in the good Doctor's books.
RK: Of course, the most amazing feature of Seuss' work is that there is always a universal lesson embedded in the absurdity. Is that combination also reflected in the book and score?
LA: When you read the Seuss books as an adult, you realize how profound they really are. They touch on war, prejudice, the nurturing of a planet, how we are responsible for one another, vanity and fear, compassion and dignity, the desire for peace and friendship, the importance of loyalty and kindness. I hope that the show will touch on all these things in the same way they appear in the books-things to be discovered inside the story and its nonsense and joy, things never to be preached or spelled out.
RK: How did your previous experience in children's programming help you in writing this show?
LA: Writing for children's TV has given me, I hope, a knack for writing accessibly without ever "writing down". That's why the Seuss stories themselves have stood the test of time. There's something in them for everyone, and I hope "Seussical" will prove to have as many layers.
RK: Was there any particular story or character for which you gained a new appreciation while working on the show?
LA: Gertrude McFuzz is a fairly unimportant character that I found in one small book, but she emerged for us as the love interest of the story, and very important. Gertrude is an insecure bird who goes to great lengths to grow a fancy tail, but ultimately she has to find her inner reserves, abandon her vanity, and find a way to help Horton. I love her.
RK: Did you make a conscious effort to include some of the lesser known titles as well as the popular ones?
LA: I used any and all books that seemed to fit. In some cases, the whole story is included. In others, just the title. Sometimes, we use just a character or several lines. It's less about how famous the book is, and more about how it fits into the whole. There will probably be some "favorites" that have been left out because we couldn't find a way to make them work in the context of this particular show.
RK: Can you give some examples of songs where you let Seuss stand on his own and some in which you infused your own ideas or story arcs?
LA: All of the songs contain our ideas, of course, but a few contain certain lyrics that are pulled directly from the books, most notably, "Horton Hears A Who", "The Lorax", and "McElligot's Pool". Others, like "Solla Sollew , "How Lucky You Are" and "Oh the Thinks You Can Think" leap from the title into completely new lyrics.
RK: How does the musical style reflect the spirit of Seuss?
LA: My partner, Stephen Flaherty, was thrilled to work on this project, because he saw it as an opportunity to create a new musical universe, one where gospel, pop, R&B, vaudeville and "neo Spike Jones"could all exist side by side in the same score. It's a musical fusion of the wacky and the classic, which is, I think, what Seuss is all about.
RK: What steps have the designers taken to incorporate the unique style of Seuss' illustrations into the "look" of the show?
The illustrations have illuminated much in the show, but none of the designers have slavishly copied anything. The distinctive Seuss colors will be a big part of all aspects of the design, but just as the writers have adapted the underlying material, the designers too, are interpreting the Seuss style in their own ways. It's very exciting to see what they're doing, and fascinating to watch the translation from page to stage in process. Our choreographer has even found ways of using Seussian gestures in the dance-the upright, proud postures, the faces turned toward the sun, the open palms, the kinetic feel that carries characters halfway off the page.
RK: In years to come, I'm sure many children will remember this as their first exposure to theater. Do you feel a large sense of responsibility about that?
LA: One of my great joys is knowing that some of my shows will introduce children to theatre. I feel a deep responsibility to make it a beautiful experience for them, so that live theatre is an art form they will want to see and support and pass on to others for the rest of their lives.
RK: How would you Seuss purists and other skeptics that the spirit of Seuss will be preserved in the show?
LA: I would tell skeptics to please come and see the show. I can't convince them of anything they haven't seen, but I will tell them that Theodore Geisel's widow told me that she couldn't tell where his words left off and mine began. And, after seeing a workshop of the show, she said that "his heart would have grown three sizes that day." I took that as tremendously high praise.
Search What's New on the Rialto