This charming piece of work has a long history. Its original run was off Broadway at Theater 80 in the East Village, where it settled in for a smashing run of 1697 performances. Arthur Whitelaw was then the young producer who had the vision to encourage Clark Gesner, a young writer who had written a collection of songs based on Peanuts the popular Charles Schultz cartoon strip. When he applied for the rights, he was originally turned down, but he self-produced a recording, featuring himself as Linus and Orson Bean as Charlie Brown, and Mr. Schultz changed his mind and the recording was released in 1966. Arthur Whitelaw heard it, arranged a meeting with Gesner, and offered him an off Broadway production if he would add some kind of connecting book to the string of songs.
In full disclosure, about here I must reveal that I was then a theatrical agent, and Clark Gesner became one of my first clients when he accepted my offer after I caught his very promising work as composer/lyricist on the Princeton Triangle Show. Clark sought my advice as to whether or not he should accept Whitelaw’s offer to make a stage musical of the Peanuts material, and my advice was “No. There’s no story. In my opinion, it doesn’t make sense as a stage piece.” So Clark wisely ignored me; Whitelaw put him to work and the “book” was loosely put together by the fictitious John Gordon, for it was mostly Gesner’s work himself, but cast members contributed to it too, and this was his way of acknowledging their contribution.
Tours have been produced, a slightly revised version was remounted on and off Broadway in later years, but never has the material been better presented than in that original small space in St. Marks Place in the east village, with a cast of gifted adult actors playing the cast of six six year olds and a dog. Joseph Hardy directed this original company, and Patricia Birch created what little choreography was required. The show opened in March 1967 and continued to brighten the scene until 1971, bringing great good fortune to Arthur Whitelaw and his investors, to Joseph Hardy, to Charles Schultz, and especially to the delightful Clark Gesner and his not very wise agent, me.
Now, all these years later, James Morgan and his York Theatre Company have given Director Michael Unger another full scale New York production, as part of the York’s current season. The material continues to shine, for Clark Gesner truly got the Schultz message. In dealing with little kids as characters, he was able to put words in their mouths via lyrics that often dealt lightly with very heavy matters. Loneliness, jealousy, inferiority, self-doubt, fantasy, sibling rivalry and the need for nurturing and acceptance; really heavy stuff, keep pouring out of the mouths of babes. This time out, the decision was to cast real children.
Of all the performances by these young actors/singers, two impressed me the most. At the matinee I saw, Charlie Brown was played by the standby, Graydon Peter Yosowitz, whose job also included standing by for Snoopy, the dog. As Charlie, he came through in true Ruby Keeler form (see “Forty Second Street”) with confidence, style, a voice that belted beautifully when needed, and modulated to project the softest lyrics. This youngster has a future in theatre, for in addition to a well produced and beautiful voice, his instinct for comedy timing is clearly being formed. He’s already learned to listen, to wait and show thought before slamming a home run with a well-intended punch line.
Aidan Gemme as Snoopy is a loose-limbed comic actor, who brought a sort of Ray Bolger “Straw man” quality to this loyal animal, who loves Charlie Brown a lot. But as is the case with most of the very young cast, a great deal of the irony and comment in the writing is rushed through and lost. It takes experience and training to be able to play animals and small children with knowing humor (think Sarah Jessica Parker or Annaleigh Ashford as Sylvia (a dog not unlike Snoopy) or Fanny Brice as “Baby Snooks”.)
Clark Gesner died in 2002, having always remained young in spirit and attitude. He had a happy debut as actor at the York Theatre in 1998, in a revue called The Jello is Always Red, of which he was the composer/lyricist. He could never quite match or top his early success with Charlie Brown, but he remained a very dear human being who left us this unique work.
The current production has its heart in the right place, but I think the original idea was a better one — to cast older actors as the little kids who certainly tell us a lot about the secret concerns and unbridled joys of their very questioning minds.