Children Will Listen
Studying the American dream
Company in college
Merrily rolls with NYU grad
A Passion for learning
Juniorized: Broadway Junior
Once upon a time…today
Principles for art
Sondheim with class
Where you going? Static in Sondheim
Connecting with teens
Features & Interviews
An apple and an orange: La Cage and Sunday in the Park
Vision and Voice: Marc Cherry
Fairytale Beginnings: Kim Crosby
Desperate Times, Desperate Measures: Sweeney’s back
Biography of a Song
“Not a Day Goes By”
Reviews & Reactions
Follies at Barrington Stage Company
Anyone Can Whistle at the Ravinia Festival
Exploring early Sondheim: Chicago productions
Chicago’s Porchlight keeps staging Sondheim
Critical reaction to Stratford’s Into the Woods
Forum at the Cincinnati Playhouse
Pacific Overtures at Signature Theatre: Selected reviews
Evening Primrose and Do I Hear a Waltz? in London
Book review: How Sondheim Found His Sound
CD reviews: Singing Sondheim
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S., Canada
Sondheim provided the impetus for smaller-scale versions of shows
By Dominic P. Papatola
Children will listen. And thanks in large measure to Stephen Sondheim, they’ll perform as well. Sondheim’s Into the Woods was the first mainstream musical to be streamlined into an abbreviated production suitable for performance by schoolchildren.
That lone project blossomed into Music Theatre International’s “Broadway Junior” series and “Kid’s Collection.” They’re smaller-scale versions of popular musicals including The Music Man, Annie and Guys and Dolls. And they’re a smash. Since 1997, more than 20,000 groups have staged these productions for pint-sized performers across the country, according to the MTI, which licenses musicals to professional and amateur theatres around the world.
The inspiration for kid-friendly versions of the classics came, according to MTI chairman Freddie Gershon , from Sondheim and playwright Arthur Laurents. In the early 1990s, the two men wanted to have a brainstorming session to come up with ideas that would bring younger audiences into the theatre.
“At the time,” Gershon says, “Steve was focused on the cost of a ticket and wanted to work out a deal with the unions that would induce parents to bring their children to Broadway shows at a lower ticket price.”
Gershon couldn’t do much in the way of union negotiations or ticket prices. But as a guy who grew up when the Hit Parade was playing the best of Broadway, he knew that he needed to find a way to get show tunes coursing through the consciousness of young people. And he had an idea: abbreviated versions of traditionally popular musicals, transposed for young voices and cleaned up somewhat to pass muster with the sensibilities of school administrators.
Sondheim immediately warmed to the idea and suggested Sweeney Todd, whose guts and gore, he strongly suspected, would appeal to young performers.
“I need a show that’s not offensive to principals or to teachers,” Gershon remembers telling Sondheim. “I said ‘I want to do Into the Woods because, if I only stick with Act I, it’s a kid’s show.'”
With the blessing and guiding hand of Sondheim and librettist James Lapine, MTI’s education department set to work on Into the Woods Junior.
“It was difficult to adapt,” says Tim McDonald, MTI’s director of education. “With the musical themes woven throughout, the show is a puzzle in the way that Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Lapine developed it.”
In the first “Junior” version, there was no Big Bad Wolf and no Witch’s Rap. Sondheim himself adjusted a few lyrics. (For instance, the couplet “And she gives you food/And she gives you rest/And she draws you close/To her Giant breast” was changed to minimize adolescent snickering.)
By the winter of 1997, about 30 schools across the country were staging the show — and providing feedback. They liked the more compact version, and they appreciated the transposition of the music into keys more suitable for young voices.
But they wanted the wolf and the rap back. MTI, Sondheim and Lapine complied, as they continued to tweak the show over the next five years. Finally, in 2002, came the second opening night: Starring 143 children from public schools in Washington, D.C., Into the Woods Junior bowed at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts during their Sondheim Celebration, with Gershon and Sondheim in the audience.
“The idea that what he wrote had come back to him, regurgitated back out by kids who brought their own sensibility to it, made him crazy with delight,” Gershon says, recalling Sondheim’s reaction. “He realized that there was this huge distinction between his mindset and their mindset, but they had somehow managed to bridge that.”
Along the way, the old veterans of the musical theatre were taught some pleasant new lessons.
“Kids don’t have any comprehension that the music is hard,” McDonald points out. “They’re just willing to get up there and do it. And some of the schools have done really creative things with the show. It’s a small cast by musical standards, so some educators have gotten creative with using kids to make up the woods. Other schools will cast their principal in the show as the wolf, which I think is great.”
With 20,000 licenses issued in its “Junior” and “Kid’s Collection” since 1997, these smaller-scale versions of classic musicals have been wildly successful for MTI. So much so that others are beginning to take notice.
The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, the other major grantor of rights to perform American musicals, has recently introduced its “Getting to Know” collection — a suite of abbreviated, child-friendly versions of musicals that currently includes Oklahoma!, Once Upon a Mattress, The King and I and Cinderella.
According to Gershon, Sondheim’s willingness to adapt his material paved the way. Before Into the Woods Junior, composers, lyricists and librettists were frequently loath to allow major changes in their work.
Shortly after MTI began work on Into the Woods Junior, Gershon contacted the creators of Annie, hoping to do a similar streamlined treatment. “When I approached Charles Strouse and said, ‘I’d like you to let me do this,’ there was some hesitation,” Gershon reports.
“I said, ‘Steve Sondheim did it.’ He said, ‘Really?’ and within seconds I got the three authors to agree to a junior version of Annie.” Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick fell into line shortly thereafter, approving a junior version of Fiddler on the Roof. Stephen Schwartz agreed to a smaller-scale Godspell.
And Sondheim himself might not be finished revisiting his work with an eye toward younger performances. Gershon thinks A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and even Sondheim’s original suggestion, Sweeney Todd, could be, in Gershon’s coined phraseology, “juniorized.” These more manageable versions of classic musicals are transforming the way young performers and audiences are being exposed to musical theatre.
“Traditionally — when I was in school — you got your first experience with a musical in high school,” McDonald says. “Now, in America, the majority of kids have their first experience in middle school. I was recently in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I saw a school there doing Into the Woods with their third -graders. When you expose children to theatre by having them experience it by doing it firsthand, you use a Little League kind of approach that will remain with them.
“And there’s no telling where that early exposure will lead,” McDonald says. “Sara Kramer, currently playing Sophie in Mamma Mia! on Broadway, was a member of the first young cast to perform the junior version of Honk!
“That’s wonderful, but the objective of these junior versions, obviously, isn’t to build stars,” he adds. “The real point — as Mr. Sondheim envisioned — is to expose children to theatre at a young age so that it becomes a lifelong passion.”
DOMINIC P. PAPATOLA is theatre critic for The Saint Paul Pioneer Press and the chairman of the American Theatre Critics Association.