Dallas — For those of us immersed in the theater world, understanding the given circumstances of a play in which everyone sings is a no-brainer. We accept the songs as the mode of communication and allow our brains to suspend reality enough to forget that in the real world, people don’t really sing when they speak to each other. It’s not something that needs explaining to adults.
But to kids, everything is literal. Despite the fact that 95 percent of the things that come out of my kids’ mouths are made of nonsense, they still like order and routine. It needs to make sense to them even if that doesn’t really make sense to us. For this reason, bringing a child to a play or production of any kind can be a challenge. Asking a kid to sit still is hard, but asking them to keep quiet when what they want, and need, is to ask the many questions they have to make sense of a situation, is nearly impossible. While some adults might cringe at the idea of children’s theater, it really is vital for kids. It’s a safe, low pressure way to introduce very small children to the idea of sitting still and following a story, and it’s extremely visually stimulating. For older kids it’s fascinating to present a story they might already know in a new medium- theater. When we talk about why the arts are so important we must consider how crucial it is to expose little ones to it and the very different ways in which they understand stories.
For this reason I asked my eight year-old to help me interview Pam Holcomb-McLain, musical director for Dallas Children’s Theater’s production of Seussical the Musical. Seussical was written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty based on the books of Dr. Seuss—particularly the stories of Horton. It debuted on Broadway in 2000 and has become a staple for family fun on stages around the country.
Introducing musical theater to a kid can be tricky. It’s hard for little ears to follow the dialogue through song and it takes them even longer to make sense of a story when they have a harder time translating the lyrics. This is why Seussical is a success story for kids. By taking a familiar entity, Dr. Seuss, the given circumstances of a musical world is easier for a kid to understand. The poetic, lyrical quality to Seuss’ storytelling is a perfect fit for a musical.
Pam very patiently answered my daughter Caroline’s questions about the play to help kids make sense of a new situation. We hope parents can share it with their kids before they see this play to help them make sense of what they are going to see.
Mom: Pam, you are the musical director for this play. Can you tell us what that means and how a musical director is different from the main director?
Pam Holcomb-McLain: A director is kind of like the boss of everything. But a musical director teaches the cast all the songs they need to know.
Mom: Is there live music for this play?
No. As a general rule, Dallas Children’s Theater almost always uses recorded music. The reason for that is that we have a lot of daytime performances for schools and it’s harder for the musicians to come play the music during the day because a lot of them have other jobs.
Mom: What is the most important thing you need to teach the cast when they are learning a musical that little kids will see?
Diction. These actors, and the kids, will have an advantage because most of them will be familiar with Dr. Seuss stories already, but in general it’s really important that everything they sing is done clearly for the audience. This is a great musical because the song lyrics stay very true to the rhythm of Dr. Seuss’s style, the cadence and meter mimic that of the books. It’s a familiar pattern.
Caroline: I don’t know what kinds of questions to ask.
Mom: Pretend you’ve never seen a play.
Caroline: Well, that’s going to be pretty hard because I just saw a really good play called Hamilton.
Mom: Just ask the questions.
Caroline: What kind of music is there in this play?
A wide variety! Jazzy numbers, slow ballads, there’s a song with a Latin beat. The tracks have a full orchestra so it’s very musical.
Caroline: Is there a piano?
There is a small piano on stage, yes.
Caroline: But is it kind of a tall piano?
It’s about your size.
Mom: How do you help small kids understand what’s happening?
It’s all about connection and diction. The audience is connecting emotionally through the music. Most performers are storytellers, so they are already prepared for that.
Caroline: Is there any scary or sad music?
There are some scary parts, but it’s really more “sneaky” than scary. There is kind of a sad song, but it’s really more hopeful about where the character wants to be.
Caroline: Are there some dangerous or scary things?
Some things happen to Horton—do you remember Horton from Horton Hears a Who? There is some sneakiness there, but it’s all lighthearted and with humor. There’s also lots of color! The design helps take away the scariness and help you see that it’s all pretend.
Caroline: So for 2 or 3 year olds it might be too scary?
I hope not! We hope everyone will be rooting for Horton.
Caroline: Well I have a 2-year-old sister and I think she might be too scared.
[This is when Alayna Chabot, DCT Public Relations Manager jumps in to tell us that DCT has age recommendations for every show, because they also had that thought about littler kids being scared. They don't ever want anyone who comes to see a show to be so scared that they feel uncomfortable. Seussical is recommended for ages 5 and up.]
Caroline: How long is the play?
There are two acts—the first act is 45 minutes long, and then there’s a 10 minute break. Then the second act is about 25 minutes long.
Caroline: How long are the songs?
There are some that are really short and some that are longer. The play is almost all songs. The story is told through singing and dancing.
Caroline: So not a lot of talking. You might want to let people know that so they don’t get surprised. …Can kids help out with the play or go on the stage?
Not for this play, but the characters will be around before the play so that kids can see them and talk to them. We also have a party that people can come to and meet all the characters. It’s a fundraiser for Dallas Children’s Theater. (More info here.)
Caroline: That’s a good idea because some small kids might get scared when they see them for the first time.
It’s a really happy and colorful play. I think the fun parts will outweigh anything that seems scary to a kid.