Music Theatre International founder Frank Loesser once wrote a song called “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” Now Music Theatre International and iTheatrics are asking middle school teachers a different question: “What Jr. musical areyou doing with your kids during the 2015 Christmas season?”
Seems a little early to think about, you say. Nevertheless, you know that time goes by faster than Danny Burstein’s delivery of the word “Adolpho” in THE DROWSY CHAPERONE.
That’s why MTI and iTheatrics, the premier academy for kids who like to act, are now developing ELF, JR. for productions later in the decade. While the one-hour version is still an estimated 18 months away from licensing, a big step forward in its development took place last week. Marty Johnson, iTheatrics’ Director of Education, put 45 kids on the 52nd Street Project stage. They presented the abridged version of the musical that came to Broadway in two of the last three holiday seasons.
It’s the story of Buddy the Elf, who’s much taller than the other North Pole elves who make toys for Christmas. Life is all sugarplums until Buddy overhears that he isn’t an elf at all, but a true human. Alas, during the early morning hours of one long ago Christmas morning, the infant Buddy crawled into Santa’s bag, who unknowingly took the babe back to the North Pole.
Now, many years later, Buddy has finally discovered that he’s the son of Susan Wells and Walter Hobbs. Sad to say, his mother has since died, but his father is alive and publishing children’s books in New York City. So off Buddy goes, fully expecting that his dad will welcome him with open arms.
No, Walter’s arms are tightly crossed when he meets Buddy. That the elf is bubbly, optimistic and – let’s face it – clueless where it comes to reading what human beings really feel is an enormous turn-off to Walter. What’s more, the man’s a workaholic, to the increasing dismay of his wife Emily and teen son Michael. So he certainly has no time for the son he never knew he had.
Buddy will make him make time. En route, Buddy will also meet Jovie, a burned-out department store worker (“I’m not a Christmas person”) whom he’ll revitalize and who will come to love him.
Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin’s book faithfully follows David Berenbaum’s screenplay, while Matthew Sklar’s snappy melodies are nicely enhanced by Chad Beguelin’s incisive lyrics. The elves’ opening number – “Happy All the Time” — is in the grand tradition of Broadway optimism that for decades urged theatergoers to “Put on a Happy Face” and reminded them that “You Gotta Have Heart.”
Buddy’s signature song about the joys of Christmas — “Sparklejollytwinklejingley” — is the great-grandchild of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
This is one of the production numbers retained for ELF, JR. You can only hope that your middle-schoolers will do as superbly as the iTheatrics cast. The kids in the back row tried as hard as if they were right in front. They weren’t motivated to be diligent just so they could be noticed (or to imply that they should have been placed in front); they simply l-o-v-e-d singin’ and dancin’ the bouncy score. They also enjoyed playing the hustled-and-bustled New Yorkers. Considering that ELF, JR. takes place two weeks before Christmas when Manhattan’s streets are filled with shoppers and tourists, the kids raised the anxiety level a few notches.
The show does have one tricky technical issue. The script establishes that Santa needs people to believe in him in order to get his sleigh off the ground. Seeing the sleigh lift to the rafters was a nice effect in the Broadway productions, but chances are that you and your school won’t have the wherewithal to have your sleigh “fly.”
Don’t let that deter you. Your sleigh can have wires or ropes attached to the runners so that it can be pulled into the wings as Santa waves his goodbyes.
Despite this technical issue, Johnson was right when he told the crowd, “ELF, JR. is an ideal show for middle-schoolers because there are plenty of good parts for both boys and girls.” Your tallest talented boy who’s full of energy and yet can portray genuine innocence will be your Buddy. Save your most sophisticated girl for Jovie, who starts off emotionally dead (“If you lower your expectations in life, you’ll avoid disappointments”) until Buddy recalls her to life. Make certain that she has the pipes to sing her song of woe about being in love with an elf; she’s just as glum and funny as Adelaide is in GUYS AND DOLLS when she sings her lament.
You’ll need Buddy’s North-polar opposite to play Walter, who, as Santa says, “is on the naughty list.” While many a boy is reluctant to appear on stage, quite a few change their minds if they can play villainous characters. If you have one of these, cast him as Walter and let him roar. (But shhh! Don’t tell him that Walter finds his inner child and sensitivity before the show ends.)
Get a mature girl, too, to play Emily. Her important line “The children of workaholics have self-esteem issues” is a message that many parents in your audience may need to hear. Then cast your most diminutive lad as Michael, the son who’s crestfallen that his dad won’t spend the time in helping him assemble his toys. Luckily, Buddy’s around, and if there’s one thing he knows, it’s toys from all those years at the North Pole. Watching Buddy become a surrogate dad as well as a big brother to Michael is one of the show’s great strengths.
There’s also a sold part for a TV anchorman (or, of course, anchorwoman). Kids have seen so many of them on TV that you’re bound to find one who can easily replicate the slick, show-biz delivery that so many have. However, this broadcaster must also be able to look aghast after inadvertently spilling the beans on national TV that there’s no Santa Claus. Buddy, however, doesn’t see that he’s ruined Christmas for millions of kids. “You can’t spoil Christmas!” cries Buddy. “No one can!”
And what kid wouldn’t want to play Santa Claus? Get one who can drive the story, for he must also function as the show’s narrator. Santa also gets to deliver a few good quips — especially in the introspective “Eight million people don’t believe in me. You can’t help taking that personally.”
One scene that got “Ohhhs” of fright from the Broadway audiences has been retained for theJr. version. Walter is harried because he needs to appease his bosses with a big best-seller. He can’t think of anything, but then one of his employees brings him a previously unknown manuscript by a long-dead but still legendary children’s author. The assistant establishes that rare piece of parchment is the one-and-only original manuscript and no copy of it exists. Alas, because Buddy has learned about the office shredder, he enjoys playing with it – and puts the priceless story into it.
This seems to be the last straw for Walter, a mistake that he cannot forgive and one that seems to put a permanent and implacable wedge between father and son. Give Buddy credit, though: he immediately takes responsibility for his mistake. ELF, JR. teaches kids that no matter how much trouble you’ll be in for making a terrible blunder, you’re still honor-bound to tell the truth and admit that you did wrong. The show also implies that owning up to mistakes is damage control in the long run, for a lie might very well get you into substantially hotter water.
Hence, Buddy never even tells a fib, even for the most minor infraction, such as being late for an appointment. (“I forgot,” he admits.) While he seems to be blissfully unaware of 21st century urban life, he learns quickly. “I know you’re mad at me,” he says to Walter. “I want to fix that.” These words should be memorized by every kid and adult.
One lyric late in the show states “Maybe the moral of the story is ‘It’s never too late to grow.’” And if there’s any doubt that that is indeed what Sklar and Beguelin want to convey, the music modulates and the lyric is repeated. Yes, we all need to know “It’s never too late to grow” and middle school is not too early to learn the lesson.
Or perhaps the moral of the story is that we could all use a Buddy in our lives – or that each of us could be a better buddy to others. That is, of course, simply another way of saying “Christmas spirit.” But here’s hoping that your 2015 production of ELF, JR. will be so spirited and earnest that your audiences will be displaying good feelings, habits and manners for at least the entire next year.
You may e-mail Peter at email@example.com. Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com and each Friday at www.kritzerland.com. His book, Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks – a Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award is now available at www.amazon.com.