Doesn’t the first word in the title CHILDREN OF EDEN imply that it’s the ideal musical for a Jr. edition?
Not so fast. True, children are the ones for whom Jr. editions are made. They’re custom-tailored to what kids can do, with music transposed to keys appropriate to their young voices.
But what’s in a name? Can the two-act, two-and¬-a-half hour Biblical musical CHILDREN OF EDEN be “juniorized” into a one-act, hour-long show?
MTI and iTheatrics, the premier academy for kids who care to act, decided to try. They suggested cuts and submitted them to the show’s songwriter Stephen (Wicked) Schwartz and bookwriter John (Les Miserables) Caird.
Because CHILDREN OF EDEN is comprised of two one-act musicals — Adam and Eve dominate the first act; Noah and the ark are featured in the second – the temptation was to simply choose one of those acts, leave it as is, and – presto! – there’d be a ready-made hour-long CHLDREN OF EDEN, JR.
After all, that’s what Stephen Sondheim, James Lapine and other powers-that-be did when creating INTO THE WOODS, JR. They simply eliminated the second act and pretty much gave the kids the first one. That decision has worked out splendidly, for many a school and after-school program has done Act One — the happier of the two – to great success.
“And we did talk about using only the first act of CHILDREN OF EDEN to make the entire Jr. edition,” said Schwartz. “But then we decided to see how a cutting from each act would play.”
That happened on July 12, when Schwartz showed up at the 52nd Street Project Theatre on 10th Avenue in New York City. He was there to see iTheatrics take the next step. Marty Johnson, the company’s Director of Education, told Schwartz and the hundreds in attendance that 40 kids had convened four days earlier, had received 20 hours of rehearsal, and would now do a staged reading of the CHILDREN OF EDEN, JR. that they’d adapted this far.
Broadway musicals have out-of-town tryouts and/or previews to see what works and what doesn’t, so why shouldn’t CHILDREN OF EDEN, JR.? What happened on this afternoon might or might not be what would be eventually published and available for license. But they had to start somewhere.
The 40 kids who took to the stage in light blue T-shirts were red-hot to perform. And who played Adam, Eve and Noah? One couldn’t tell from the program. While iTheatrics listed each kid’s name in alphabetical order, it didn’t divulge who played what role. The company never does, because it instead wants to stress that all performers are equally important and that teamwork is the goal.
The opening moments indicated that CHILDREN OF EDEN, JR. would be ideal for teens and pre-teens. Father (as God is called here) created Adam and Eve to be complete innocents, and the two young performers’ comparative youth allowed them come across as babes in the garden.
The show implies that Father simultaneously made Adam and Eve, a suggestion that may please feminists more than fundamentalists. But Schwartz and Caird took the party line and painted Eve as the more curious human. She was also the one who started making demands, however small, asking Father “Can’t we stay up for five minutes more?” (Here’s another reason why CHILDREN OF EDEN would be right for the Jr. set. What kid can’t relate to asking a parent that question?)
Schwartz and Caird also maintained that Eden-like perfection became a bit tedious for Adam and Eve. Besides, all their playmates were animals who couldn’t communicate on any profound level. But the couple’s boredom with animals wasn’t shared by the audience. The crowd cooed with pleasure as it watched kids crawl on their bellies and take on the personalities of lions and tigers and bears.
Here was another reason why CHILDREN OF EDEN, JR. was heading towards success: kids love to play animals. They also have the background to do it, because they’ve been carefully observing four-legged creatures since their first trip to the zoo. True, some young performers may not like the idea of crawling, so if you do CHILDREN OF EDEN — be it Jr. or Sr. – and you find you have such kids, cast them as giraffes, ostriches and apes.
Because this was a workshop, there was virtually no scenery. But we saw that CHILDREN OF EDEN, JR. didn’t need much. For daytime scenes, a girl carried the sun, while a boy brought in a moon for nighttime moments. Several kids joined in to make a river by holding that ever-trusty expanse of blue cloth that they moved back and forth to simulate waves.
And then there was a ladder with an apple on its shelf. Five girls snaked around and represented The Serpent before delivering the forbidden fruit from which Eve took a generous bite. (Why not? At least we know that this particular apple was okay to eat.)
Father was bitterly disappointed, of course. Adam was too: “Oh, Father, please don’t make me choose,” he begged. The cast of CHILDREN OF EDEN, JR. was reminded of the ramifications of disobedience, yes, but this may have been the first time that they encountered one of the world’s truisms: spouses tend to be more loyal to each other than they are to their parents. If that seemed beyond the ken of the average young performer, few wouldn’t understand Eve’s subsequent question to Father: “Didn’t you think we were ever going to grow up?”
Growing up eventually meant that Adam and Eve would become parents, too. Director Coy Middlebrook was wise to cast an older actor kid as Cain; the young man seemed more experienced and wasn’t above criticizing his parents for making mistakes, as adolescents tend to do. Adam and Eve realized what billions of parents have since learned: when you have children, you are giving birth to your future judge and jury. Perhaps the iTheatrics kids might go a little easier on their parents as a result of what they saw in this show.
After Cain was guilty of manslaughter – he didn’t know he was murdering his brother – Middlebrook had him put a piece of black masking tape on his forehead to represent the mark of Cain. Somehow the inadvertent crime seemed even worse with children in the roles – but that made the show more powerful.
The time came to switch to Noah, which meant, of course, that the kids reprised their roles as animals. When the time came for the flood, out came those blue expansive bolts of cloth once again, too.
The conflict here involved Father’s directive that everyone who goes on the ark must have a mate. Noah has a wife, and so do his sons Shem and Ham. But wouldn’t you know that Japheth loves Yonah, who’s a descendant of Cain?
Here came another valuable lesson for kids: the sins of the father should not be inherited by the daughter. This week, the iTheatrics students have had ample time to get the message: that each person should be judged on merits and nothing else. They might also notice that Father, Adam and Noah have one thing in common: “The hardest part of love,” as one song goes, “is letting go.” The kids are probably getting that right now from their own parents.
You’d also swear that the kids had had more than ample rehearsal time, given how proficient they were. The statement that Father made — “Children start to learn the day that they are born” – seemed to be a comment on their acting and singing abilities. Once the performance ended, we were glad that Johnson had told us that the kids had had only 20 hours to put it all together. That not only stressed how clearly focused and extraordinary they were, but also reiterated that CHILDREN OF EDEN, JR. was a show that young performers could master.
Stephen Schwartz could be seen writing on his little yellow notepad with the frequency of a major league baseball statistician during an extra-inning game. Did all the notes he made suggest he was displeased?
Suddenly I was reminded of the time an actor approached me after he’d performed and said, “I saw you writing every time I said a line or sang a song. I guess you thought I stunk, huh?”
To which I said, “How do you know I wasn’t writing ‘This has to be the best performance since Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie?’” Schwartz might very well have been reiterating that everyone was, to quote a song title from his most recent Broadway smash PIPPIN, “on the right track.”
Of course, there’s also the possibility that Schwartz saw ways of making something good even better. After all, only in Eden could anyone ever find perfection. Stay tuned for the next step in the evolution of CHILDREN OF EDEN, JR.
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 new 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.