MNfusion: Composer, Playwright Say Message Of CTC’s ‘The Sneetches’ Is Vital

As kids, Dr. Seuss’ rhyme-filled worlds delight us with their color and silliness. Make believe words and creatures make us laugh while also teaching us colors or numbers.

As we grow, the lessons hidden beneath the bright surface become more philosophical and meaningful. “McElligot’s Pool” urges us to keep believing in our dreams and to be persistent. “Oh, The Places You Will Go” tells us to indulge in our explorative side and reach for the stars.

And “The Sneetches” teaches us about prejudice.

As adults, it is often these worlds that we return to when we need to make sense of society around us for ourselves or our children.

This is just one of the reasons why the Minneapolis’ Children’s Theatre Company continues to adapt Dr. Seuss’ work for the stage.

Previously, CTC exclusively adapted “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cobbins,” and “Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas.”

Now, they are adding a third show to their collection with “The Sneetches.”

A story of a population that divides itself based on physical characteristics, “The Sneetches” shares a timely message of what it is that really divides us and, more importantly, what it is that really connects us.

Composer David Mallamud and playwright Philip Dawkins spoke about adapting the beloved story for music and stage, and why its message is still so poignant and relevant today.

Both also spoke to the importance of sharing stories like “The Sneetches” with child audiences, for after all, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

(credit: Dan Norman)

(credit: Dan Norman)

Thank you for taking time to speak with me about this show! So, of all of Dr. Seuss’s works, why did you want to adapt “The Sneetches?”

Dawkins: A lot of my work tends to deal with issues of identity, and this is true of Dr. Seuss’s work as well. If we can share our stories with each other, especially stories that may be far outside our experiences or comfort levels, then that’s the best way to add another experienced team member to that relay race toward understanding. Since I never really know who will show up at one of my plays, the best way to increase the odds of including a character whose identity is vastly different from someone in my audience is to include as many specific and diverse characters as possible. That way, hopefully, each audience member may find someone with whom they identify, and someone who challenges them. Best case scenario, that character is one in the same.

You touch on it a bit when you speak of wanting to deal with issues of identity, but why do you feel this story specifically is an important one to share?

Dawkins: I think it is the most timely story for this moment. I mean, themes of oppression and othering and prejudice and capitalism are, sadly, always going to be relevant. But we had NO idea just how relevant it was going to be when we started writing it over three years ago. What’s great is that children are smart, and families who come to see this play will be able to walk out with a bunch of talking points and questions. Children will understand these themes and, hopefully with their families and loved ones, be able to talk about what they see in the world that is similar to what they see on this stage. I am excited to be having this conversation with the young people of today. It’s vital.

I think these are increadibly important conversations to have for both children and adults! So, both children and adults will be in the audiences, how do you think they will respond/retain the message of the show differently?

Dawkins: I think children and families will all come away with something different. For instance, we have a very ambivalent villain in this play. He’s able to justify everything he does legally and “logically,” but are his actions ethical? Good question. And one that I hope families continue to have on their car ride home. I think the play provides a number of moments where a child could ask, “Well, what would I do in that situation? Would I go through McBean’s machine? Would I be mean to people if everyone else I know was mean to that person? Is there a situation like that in my life right now that I’m not recognizing?” There are lots of wonderful, “What would I do?” situations in this play, and taking that question back home with you, I think, will lead to some wonderful at-home conversations. What Dr. Seuss, Children’s Theatre Company and this play in particular all strive to do is create a safe space for children to ask questions. We have a protagonist in this play who is a child who gets in trouble for asking too many questions, then ends up changing the world in a majorly positive way with her courage and curiosity. I’m excited to encourage children to be askers and adults to remember to listen.

Although some families may have read the story previously, I think there is something very powerful about seeing it live in front of you. It really helps you evaluate how you would respond, as you spoke to. So, for those familiar with the book, what can they expect to be different?

Dawkins: Well, we’ve added specific characters within the Sneetch community. We wanted to provide an opportunity to distinguish the characters within their communities. We have two major protagonists in this play, and they are on completely opposite ends of the age spectrum. We have Standlee, who is constantly being chastised for being too curious, for asking too many questions and for not fitting precisely in with her predetermined crowd. Then we have Diggitch, an elderly Sneetch who has been bullied his whole life and never really got to have a childhood of his own. These two Sneetches become very good friends. For me, it was not only important to show young characters being appreciated and listened to but to also portray a wide range of ages, which is something I think Dr. Seuss always does well. His characters are often ageless, allowing the reader to apply their own interpretation to the characters. What we wanted to do in the dramatizing of this community that Dr. Seuss built is to show the full age spectrum and give young characters clear and obvious opportunities to engage as friends with characters multiple decades their senior. Also, in our play, we have the child character instigating the desire for change within a community stagnating in its own prejudice. In the short story, we learn that the Sneetches eventually change their ways, but we don’t know which Sneetch (if any) is the instigator for such change. In our production, that spark comes from a child, which I think is completely in the spirit of Dr. Seuss’s deep respect for children.

I think its very important to show that children can create change just as much as a adults can! Having the two friends also adds another teaching element to the story about how friendships can come in all shapes and sizes, too. So, what was the most challenging thing about adapting the book to the stage?

Dawkins: Gosh, it’s all been challenging, which makes it all the more full of rewards. I don’t mean challenging in the negative sense, but in the sense that the bar is set high by the amazing source material, and it’s a challenge to rise to that level with creating that whole Seussian world in 3D. Whenever you take something from page to stage, it’s a challenge. I like a challenge.

I’m sure audiences will enjoy the 3D Seussian world you created! Tell me, what is your favorite scene in the show?

Dawkins: I would tell you, but then anyone who’s not in that scene might get their feelings hurt.

Fair enough! Audiences will have to guess when they see the show. Aside from “The Sneetches,” what is your favorite Dr. Seuss story?

Dawkins: This will sound like a lie, but my favorite Dr. Seuss story has always been “The Sneetches.” For some reason, it wasn’t a Dr. Seuss story that I read as a kid. I came to it in [around] high school. A teacher shared it with me, and it quickly became my favorite. It’s always really resonated. I was a bullied kid, pretty badly, in fact. So, the bullying in the story hit me really hard. The idea that we can come through our differences, survive, and move on together is still one that is challenging to me.  As a kid, I was a big fan of “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.” The line “There’s a Wocket in my Pocket,” always made me laugh really hard, too.

(credit: Dan Norman)

(credit: Dan Norman)

Thank you for speaking about the show with me! The show has never been adapted for the stage before, but the book helps aide the writing of the script and offers an overall message for the show. Tell me, how do you use your songs to further that message?

Mallamud: Speaking to the music in the show, the idea was to use it both to highlight the differences of the two groups of Sneetches and to differentiate the Sneetches’ world from our world. The Sneetches’ story is an important allegory, and I think it can teach us a lot about ourselves. Since it’s generally easiest to learn about oneself at a distance, the music helps support the message in aiding the different-world-ness of the play.

The storyline of “The Sneetches” is all about separation and division. This is shown by half of the cast having stars on their bellies and the other half not having stars. This is pretty straightforward for audiences. Why do you think it is important to add music to a story – particularly one like “The Sneetches” – to help further this message?

Mallamud: Because there’s such an inherent musicality in Dr. Seuss’ language and the world he’s created, I think it would be hard to imagine his stories on stage without music. Also, the fact that it’s a story about two groups within a society – music lends itself very naturally to supporting the similarities and differences between groups. It also helps to support the dramatization of bringing them together.

In general, what can music do for a message that spoken word cannot?

Mallamud: Music adds another dimension and can very quickly tell you things about the characters that they might not even know about themselves. It’s also a story that deals with some emotional shades of grey in terms of the characters. You have misanthropic characters that are good and good characters that are behaving badly because that’s what they were taught. Music can capture these shades of grey very naturally.

While it must have been nice to be able to create a whole new score with nothing to go off of, I can see how that also may be a bit daunting! Tell me, what was the most challenging thing about creating songs for the show?

Mallamud: That there’s no existing music for the world that it is set in. If it were set in Argentina in the ’30s, you know that sound world and that musical world (probably involving tangos – either on-the-nose or off), and even if you go for something totally different, going against type, you know what you’re going against. In the case of the Sneetches world, there was no type, so I had to really come up with a sound world for the show with no sonic jumping off point.

I can see how that would be a bit scary to be responsible for creating the whole sonic world for the Sneetches! So, after you’ve seen the finished product, what is your favorite song in the show?

Mallamud: My favorite song in the show for its message is “It’s Possible.” “Pre-fall Free For All” is my favorite song because it’s fun.

There are many layers of this show, including fun as you mentioned. What message do you hope kids will take from your songs/this show?

Mallamud: Thinking of my own kids, the message I’d like for them to get is that change is possible and that deep down we’re all the same. That “the other” is essentially a different version of ourselves, and that change with regard to the other is possible. [And that] just because something’s been done the same way for many years, just because you, or your culture or your belief system occupies a certain place in society, doesn’t mean you have to accept it, or that it has to stay that way. This is the message of the show, and of “It’s Possible.”

That’s a very powerful and positive message that I also hope audiences will come away with. So, aside from “The Sneetches,” what is your favorite Dr. Seuss story?

Mallamud: “Gerald McBoing Boing.”  It beautifully and clearly teaches individuality and non-conformity.

Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches” is open now through March 26. Tickets cost $15 to $71. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit the Children’s Theatre Company online.

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