The Royal Shakespeare Company’s musicalization of Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s novel Matilda has racked up a slew of theater awards across the pond and continues to be a West End blockbuster. This month, a New York City production opens on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre and expectations are high, both in terms of reviews and revenue. As big-budget Broadway family fare goes, Matilda is a bit of a rarity. With a few notable exceptions like last season’s Peter and the Starcatcher, the majority of shows on the Great White Way that are seen as good for kids tend to be inspired by fairy tales (Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella), films (The Lion King, Newsies), comics (Annie, Spider-Man), or vintage stories (The Secret Garden), not more recent children’s books. But for off-Broadway, regional, and British theaters aimed at family audiences, page-to-stage is all the rage. Here, we look at three U.S. companies that specialize in bringing children’s literature to life, and examine a pair of recent U.K.-born hits.
Theatreworks USA—the nation’s largest touring family theater company, which brings shows to 49 states and Canada—helped pioneer the trend. When the nonprofit was founded in 1961, it primarily mounted history-based shows like Young Abe Lincoln. But when current artistic director Barbara Pasternack came on board 27 years ago, she switched the focus to theatrical kid-lit adaptations. “Back then companies weren’t scooping up these properties; they were mostly doing fairy tales,” she says. “The first thing I went after was Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson, and then Curious George by H.A. Rey. We started doing more and more of these kinds of shows because we saw that audiences wanted them.”
These days, Theatreworks is known for its spirited adaptations of picture books like Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin’s Click, Clack, Moo and Judy Schachner’s Skippyjon Jones, and chapter book series such as Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones and Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby. Pasternack doesn’t automatically jump at every big brand name, however; she needs to be able to envision how a book could work as a show. “Not everything can or should be adapted,” she says. “When I’m acquiring material I always ask myself, ‘How can this story be told on stage?’ I only go after the rights if I can figure that out.”
After making deals with the authors, agents, and publishers, and picking a creative team, the actual adaptation process begins. “You don’t have to slavishly adapt a book but you do need to respect the intent of the original author,” Pasternack says. “For example, when we did Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan, we decided to make the show more about Anna and Caleb, the young children, instead of their mail-order-bride stepmother. When Patricia saw it, she said it was true to what she wrote, even though it was a departure.”
A picture book presents a different set of challenges, since there’s not as much to work with. “In a way, it’s really fun for the people adapting it because they get to fill in more,” says Pasternack. “But that’s why it’s important for the creative team to sit down with the writer of the book. We have to make sure we’re putting our finger on the tone and the spirit of the underlying material so authors and audiences aren’t disappointed.”
Musicals with a Message
While other troupes—such as New York City’s Vital Theatre Company (Pinkalicious the Musical), Seattle Children’s Theater (which produced a different adaptation of Harold and the Purple Crayon than Theatreworks’ production), and Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis (A Year with Frog and Toad, which had a short run on Broadway in 2003)—also tend to adapt well-known children’s books, most people have never heard of the titles used by Making Books Sing. Founded by Barbara Zinn Krieger in 1996 as the family theater arm of N.Y.C.’s well-regarded Vineyard Theatre, the company became independent in 2002 and mounts book-based shows off Broadway and in schools throughout the city’s five boroughs. “The two passions in my life are theater and reading,” Krieger says. “But I also specifically look for books that have historical or social significance.” To that end, Making Books Sing has adapted Lucía González’s The Storyteller’s Candle/La velita de los cuentos, about New York’s first bilingual librarian; Patricia Polacco’s The Butterfly, which chronicles the friendship between two French girls during World War II—one Jewish, the other Catholic; and Tea with Chachaji, based on Uma Krishnaswami’s Chachaji’s Cup, which explores the growing pains of an Indian-American teen and also touches on the 1947 partition of India.
Sometimes the books Krieger chooses don’t even have characters or plots. Take Deborah Hopkinson’s Sky Boys, an illustrated history of the construction of the Empire State Building during the Depression. On stage, it became a musical about a down-on-his-luck teen who befriends the construction crew of Mohawk Indians and ends up assisting real-life photographer Lewis Hine as he documents their progress. “The books we choose have meat on their bones,” Krieger says. “They talk about journeys of discovery and change. But we invent characters, scenes, dialogue—whatever we need to make them work on stage.”
A Literary Feast
In contrast, Tony-nominated theater artist Elizabeth Swados (who has written a number of children’s books herself) doesn’t change a word of the tales she adapts. In the early 2000s, she launched a series called Books Cook! at New York City’s Scholastic Store, where she took a number of the publisher’s short books and turned them into musical revues verbatim. “They were like little vaudevilles for children,” says Swados. “The actors literally acted out the text. It was so wonderful to watch the stories come alive.”
Subsequently, Swados has mounted different versions of the show at other venues, like Jewish Books Cooking (based on Lemony Snicket’s The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming and Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher by Laurel Snyder, among others), which played at various Jewish cultural institutions throughout the U.S., and a themeless 2010 edition at N.Y.C.’s Atlantic Theater Company that included Mo Willems’s Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, Neil Gaiman’s Crazy Hair, and Roald Dahl’s Dirty Beasts. “I spend a really long time looking for the right books,” says Swados. “I pick books I think will work well on stage, where actors get to play a variety of different characters and I can use puppets and the stories can be physicalized.”
The Atlantic Theater’s Books Cook!—which was copresented by the troupe’s family theater wing, Atlantic for Kids, and New York University, where Swados teaches drama—marked the beginning of a fruitful collaboration. Swados just directed Jon Scieszka’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, and also adapted Roald Dahl’s collection of fractured fairy-tale poems, Revolting Rhymes, for the company.
The British Are Coming
Dahl’s work in particular is frequently adapted for the stage, especially in the U.K. where his dark imagination is readily embraced. To date, there have been notable productions of The Witches, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and James and the Giant Peach (all by the Birmingham Stage Company), and The BFG (London’s Wimbledon Theatre), and Oscar winner Sam Mendes is directing a new musicalization of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, set to debut in the West End this May. Playwright Dennis Kelly, who adapted Matilda for the stage, says he understands why. “[Dahl] brings you these fantastic characters and worlds. His imagination is so vivid, you can sprout off in so many different directions because the basis is so strong.”
When the RSC first approached Kelly about adapting Matilda, he hesitated. “I’d never worked on a musical and, based on the other things I’d written [like topical drama Osama the Hero and Orphans, about urban violence], I was surprised anyone would ever let me near a children’s property.” After reading the novel (and purposefully avoiding the 1996 movie), he transformed it into a play with “gaps for songs” and even took a stab at penning “not very good” lyrics, which were jettisoned when comedian-songwriter Tim Minchin came on board to write the numbers.
Perhaps Kelly’s lack of experience in the musical and family theater realms worked to his advantage, because Matilda became a huge hit. After premiering at the RSC in 2010, it moved to the West End in 2011 and snagged a record seven Olivier Awards, including best new musical. A big part of the show’s success is that, like the source material, its murky overtones don’t just appeal to kids—they intrigue adults, too. “It’s sinister, nasty, and playful,” says Kelly. “The barriers between what’s for a child and what’s for a grown-up collapse. I didn’t put too many ‘adult jokes’ in. I wanted a mother and son to be able to sit there and enjoy it together, laughing at and being moved by the same things.”
The Brits clearly love their dark material: War Horse is another complicated children’s-book-based show that made the leap from the U.K. to the U.S., and also transcended the family-theater label. Since Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel is written from the point of view of a horse who endures the horrors of World War I, it’s no surprise dramatist Nick Stafford read it and thought, “How the hell is anybody going to put this on the stage?” But he did to great acclaim, with a big assist from Handspring Puppet Company’s life-size horse puppets. After premiering at London’s National Theatre in 2007, the show transferred to the West End, where it’s still playing; had a successful run on Broadway (and won five Tonys to boot); spawned a U.S. tour and other international productions; and even inspired Steven Spielberg to make the (very different) movie.
Like Matilda, War Horse, at its core, isn’t aimed just at kids. In fact, due to its challenging subject matter, War Horse is best for older children and adults who can handle its grisly scenes of death and destruction. Similarly, Matilda has menacing elements like child abuse and corruption. Their dark side is what helped these children’s books turn into complex shows that have the potential to engage across generations. But all successful page-to-stage transfers—whether they address matters that touch the heart or aim straight for the funny bone—have one thing in common: the ability to win over an audience.
For other notable page-to-stage children's book adaptations, click here.