- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

Quick, name one of the top 10 most-produced plays in America. “Cats”? Scram. “The Cherry Orchard”? Nyet.

“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”? Now you’re talking.

Commissioned by the Kennedy Center five years ago, the musical which was adapted by Judith Viorst from her cherished children’s book, with music by Shelly Markham, ranks ninth among the country’s most frequently staged plays. Strindberg should be so lucky.

The Kennedy Center and the “Alexander” creative team hope lightning strikes twice with today’s world premiere of “Alexander, Who’s Not, Not, Not, Not, Not, Not Going to Move.” The first “Alexander” dealt with the fact that it is perfectly acceptable for a youngster to be in a bad mood once in awhile. “Alexander Who’s Not” addresses another momentous event in a child’s life: moving away from home.

The new musical finds Alexander moving “a thousand miles away” due to his father’s job. His brothers Nick and Anthony are busy packing, along with his mother. But not Alexander. He can’t abide saying goodbye to his best friend Paul, his treehouse, the nice guy at the dry cleaner, and the neighbor’s dog.

“Judith is a compassionate and wise person,” says Nick Olcott, who directed the first “Alexander” and is happily lending his talents to the sequel. “She has an uncanny sense of what happens in kids’ lives and the importance of them.”

Mr. Olcott believes that the “Alexander” books, which have been around since the 1970s, endure thanks to their ability to speak to all ages. “Moving is a traumatic experience for parents and children — it ranks right up there in stress levels with losing a loved one or getting laid off from a job,” he says.

As for Miss Viorst, she likes moving as much as dental surgery with rusted instruments. “I hate to move,” she says emphatically. “My kids moved once, from Dupont Circle to Cleveland Park, before they left home and married, and at the time they said, ‘Never again.’ Moving is a visceral issue, kids tend to be conservative people who like things the way they are.”

Turning the first “Alexander” picture book into an hourlong musical was “one of the greatest pleasures of my life,” Miss Viorst said in an interview with Dramatic Publishing, which published the play version. “The whole process made me feel, as I kept telling everyone in dazzled disbelief, as if I were starring in a Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movie called ‘Let’s Put on a Show.’”

Miss Viorst and Mr. Markham jumped at the chance to do another “Alexander” musical, especially after the success of the first one. Miss Viorst is anything but a jaded theater veteran the second time around. “The stardust is not out of my eyes,” she says. “I practically jumped through the phone when the Kennedy Center called and asked me if I wanted to do another musical. I still find it amazing to see how the words and music fit together, how the sets and costumes add another layer, and then the actors lending their personalities to the characters. When I write, it is me with the door closed, but musicals are so breathtakingly collaborative.”

With the first “Alexander” adaptation, Miss Viorst almost stopped before she ever began. “I didn’t know what a musical looked like on paper so I called my agent, who sent me Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Pacific Overtures,’” she recalls, laughing. “Thanks a lot, I thought. Now I’ll never write again. Sondheim is the god of ambivalence and nuance. He’s my hero.”

She got over trying to write “Sweeney Todd” for the SpongeBob set, and gives much of the credit to her comfortable relationship with composer Mr. Markham, who lives in California. “He calls me up, he sings, we discuss this line or that, it is very easygoing.”

“Shelly has such a great ear for style,” says Mr. Olcott. “His music for the show ranges from a fake reggae number to rock musical ballads, a soft shoe song that’ll take you back to the 1930s and a waltz about getting dog doo on your shoes.”

Being a print writer most of her life, Miss Viorst faced an adjustment. “In theater, you have to let go of ‘mine, mine, mine,’” she says. “In my first drafts, I used to write a lot more detailed directions, like: ‘He hung his head in embarrassment’ or ‘He skipped happily’ and I used to ask, ‘Why are they emphasizing this syllable or that syllable? That’s not what I wrote.’ Now I have learned that if you have too much control, you lose the creativity of other people. And that’s not fun for anyone.”

In “Alexander, Who’s Not,” Miss Viorst views her biggest challenge as introducing all the new characters. The friends and neighbors Alexander must leave behind. “There is this wonderful dog, Woozy, a very important character. I had to write a lot more detailed dialogue on this musical, more playwriting, more show than tell. I loved it.”

Mr. Olcott agrees, adding that in the sequel, the cast of seven gets to “do what they do best, play wildly divergent multiple characters, ranging from the grocer to an over-enthusiastic dog. Except for the actor playing Alexander — he’s just Alexander.”

The trick with directing a musical, Mr. Olcott says, is “grounding the show in enough reality so that the audience doesn’t think ‘Why are these idiots singing and dancing?’” He adds that young audiences can be particularly demanding.

“Children are a much less forgiving audience. Adults will just sit there politely, but kids let you know right away when something isn’t working, you can hear them moving around, kicking the chairs, talking,” he says. “A show has to pass the Velcro test: if you can hear them playing with the Velcro on their shoes, they are bored.”

Mr. Olcott says he’ll never forget the first audience for the first “Alexander.”

“When Alexander said to Paul, ‘How come you’re being so mean to me? You’re my best friend,’ I glanced around me,” Mr. Olcott recalls. “There were 800 kids, totally silent, totally rapt. They were on the edge of their seats, waiting for the answer to that question. Our play mattered to them. Deeply. We were telling the story of their lives, playing out their deepest fears, enacting their greatest tragedies. I’ve never seen ‘Hamlet’ matter to an audience as much as ‘Alexander’ mattered to that one.”

WHAT: “Alexander, Who’s Not, Not, Not, Not, Not, Not Going to Move.” (Recommended for audiences ages 5 and up.)

WHERE: Kennedy Center Theater Lab today through Dec. 29.

TICKETS: $14,

PHONE: 202/467-46OO


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