Friday, November 27, 2015

Friday Dance Party: You're Still A Good Man, Charlie Brown

Charles Schulz would have turned 93 years old last week, if he hadn't died 15 years ago. His death has not seemed to affect the cultural significance of his Peanuts gang, who are as present in our society as ever.
"Wait for it...INCOMING!" Gary Burghoff might never have been able to repeat those famous words had he not been in the touring company of You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown. The show landed in LA while Robert Altman was casting his feature film M*A*S*H; Burghoff snagged the role of  his career, Radar O'Reilly.
It always seems to me that the Peanuts gang become even more present this time of year. 
The gang is back on the big screen, after a
35 year absence. This time they're in
3-D. I haven't seen this one, but the idea of
these folks reaching out of the screen to
touch me is a little frightening.
Perhaps it's my imagination, or perhaps it's the repeated showings of various holiday specials starring our gang which pop up this time of year. There is, of course, the flagship of all Peanuts Specials, A Charlie Brown Christmas, the program against which all others are compared. Its 50th Anniversary this year is getting lots of hoopla.
The only piece of Peanuts memorabilia I own is a commemorative plate with this image. I did not pay much attention to it before buying it, as a short inspection would have revealed its glaring inaccuracies. Ostensibly, this is the final moment of A Charlie Brown Christmas, but as you have undoubtedly recognized, it's been bastardized with the addition of characters not present (or even yet invented) in the special: Franklin, Peppermint Patty, Marcie, and Woodstock. And where the hell are those obnoxious busybodies Violet and Patty?
There are also two Thanksgiving specials, The Great Pumpkin for Halloween, and at least three (!) additional Christmas specials starring our gang. This year, a new feature film has been released as well.
There are two musicals actually created for the stage featuring the Peanuts gang, but the success of A Charlie Brown Christmas on TV was so huge that theaters can now license it as a stage show.
This week's Dance Party doesn't come from any of those pieces.  Instead, we'll feature a clip from the most famous and successful of the Peanuts stage musicals. Yes, there are more than one.
My first knowledge of YAGMCB was this TV
version, shrunk to fit into an hour slot on the
Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1973. That's Wendell
Burton as Charlie Brown; he's primarily known
for costarring with Liza Minnelli in The Sterile
and for getting raped in Fortune And
Men's Eyes
. That's Barry Livingston as Linus,
best known as one of My Three Sons.

The story goes that composer/lyricist Clark Gesner grew tired of writing music for Captain Kangaroo and, in the early 60s, penned a series of songs based on the Peanuts characters. He had no luck getting the rights to perform these ditties from the company in charge of syndicating the Peanuts comic strip, so eventually he leapfrogged those losers and sent his music to Charles Schultz himself. Sparky gave his blessing for a concept album to be produced. It was a bit later that a stage production was planned, which opened in 1967 Off-Broadway in New York.  
The original cast of You're A Good Man Charlie Brown (YAGMCB). You'll recognize the pre-Radar Gary Burghoff on the far right. That's noted character actor and director Bob Balaban as Linus (holding the blanket); his long career has included several Christopher Guest films and a story arc on Seinfeld, playing a lovesick studio head. The top left is Reva Rose, playing Lucy, who became the go-to gal to play harried housewives in commercials of the day. One of the talents behind the scenes was Patricia Birch, who went on to choreograph a little show called Grease.
That first production was a success story, running a whopping 1,947 performances (that's almost four years). The critics loved the simplicity of the show, which is really a series of gently comical vignettes featuring characters we already know. The adult cast played with the openness and innocence of children, and not a hint of irony.  
Some scenes from Off-Broadway.
It was said that after a few minutes, the audience forgot they were watching adults. Gary Burghoff was probably the most recognizable face to come out of this original cast.  After opening the show in New York, he joined the national tour, which landed in Los Angeles in 1969 (future Tony winner Judy Kaye was also in this cast). It was lucky Gary was in LA so he could audition for the role of his lifetime, Radar O'Reilly, which he was to play in the Robert Altman classic M*A*S*H as well as the resulting TV series, for which he won the Emmy.
This was the sequel to YAGMCB, which opened in San Fransisco before landing Off-Broadway in 1975. It was certainly not the embarrassment other musical sequels were (nobody could be proud of Bring Back Birdie or Annie Warbucks), but its run was only 4 months. David Garrison got nice notices as Snoopy, and Peppermint Patty, absent from the original YAGMCB, was played by Sondheim expert Pamela Myers, then by future sitcom star Vicki Lewis, and finally by Lorna Luft. Like its parent Charlie BrownSnoopy is often revived in schools and amateur theaters.
Despite endless tinkering, expanding, and crossing of media, the original Off-Broadway production remains the most successful version of You're a Good Man Charlie Brown.  A few months after the Off-Broadway production closed, the show re-opened on Broadway, with a new cast, a bigger orchestra, and a more lavish set. The thing sank under the weight of all those changes, and closed after 32 performances.

My first introduction to this little musical came in 1973, when I saw a TV version produced for the Hallmark Hall of Fame. This was not the musical's only TV adaptation; in 1985, the decision was made to actually animate the musical with the cartoon characters which had become so recognizable to the general public. (CBS also produced an animated version of the sequel to You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown: Snoopy! The Musical.) 

This week's Dance Party doesn't come from any of these productions. Instead, it comes from the most recent Broadway revival, which ran about 4 months in 1999. 

If it weren't for this snow tasting scene in the Christmas show, nobody would remember Patty, an early Peanuts character who was included in the original Off-Broadway YAGMCB. She's now long gone.
This incarnation was again revised and enlarged, with notable changes being made in the cast of characters. The original show featured Patty, an obnoxious secondary character in the strip (not to be confused with Peppermint Patty); she was replaced in the updated musical by Charlie Brown's sister Sally. 
The 1999 Broadway revival of You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown was stolen by these two. Roger Bart as Snoopy and Kristin Chenoweth as Sally snagged all the good reviews and the only Tonys the production won.
The show now featured a multi-cultural cast (Schroeder was black, Linus was Asian) and some new music from Andrew Lippa.  It is one of Lippa's new songs which you can see below, sung with flair by Kristin Chenoweth. (Chenoweth received a Dance Party a long while ago, one of my favorites in fact, go here to enjoy). So, in honor of Charles Schultz and his recent birthday, here we go: