On Stage, Charlie Brown! by Peter Filichia
By Peter Filichia
The Peanuts Movie had me remembering a feeling I’ve had for decades.
Charlie Brown got away with murder.
I don’t mean that Charles Schulz’s pie-faced cartoon character actually killed anyone. Although I do believe that if the kid ever did rub out Lucy van Pelt, a smart lawyer for the defense in “The State of California v. Charles Brown” could get him off.
All the legal eagle would have to do is produce hundreds if not thousands of Schulz’s pages in which Lucy was shown to blatantly annoy and criticize Charlie, which added to his inferiority complex. Many a jury would be convinced that Charlie had committed justifiable homicide.
No, if I did finger Schulz’ lovable loser as a murderer, I wouldn’t have italicized Charlie Brown in that second sentence. I used the two words as shorthand for the world-famous musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. And when I say that it got away with murder, I’m speaking metaphorically – meaning it succeeded despite a very strange decision made by its composer, lyricist and bookwriter Clark Gesner.
Schulz had established time and time again that Charlie was unpopular with the Peanuts gang. One hilarious cartoon has Charlie sitting in front of his house on a bright sunny day, stating staunchly that for once he isn’t going to seek out any of the neighborhood kids to play with him. “Let them call on me,” he loftily says. The final panel shows a jet-black night with a moon in the sky and Charlie, still sitting where we first saw him. “Well,” he says, “that was a day wasted.”
So under these compliment-deprived circumstances, why did Gesner start his show with Lucy, Schroeder, Patty and Linus all joyously singing “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” to him? Schulz had gone to such great pains to establish that everyone in the neighborhood thought the kid was good for nothing; why did Gesner not honor this time-honored situation?
Was the reason that “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” is such a good song in the rousing musical comedy tradition of a spirited opening number?
Okay, but it would have been truer to the script if the show had opened with everyone picking on Charlie, then walking off and leaving him alone – prompting Snoopy to come on and sing “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” A dog is man’s best friend, you know, so I’m sure that that label and level of friendship applies to little boys, too.
Still, without my “help,” You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown has done extraordinarily well for nearly a half-century. It originally opened in 1967 at 89 Theatre St. Mark’s and stayed there until 1971, closing as the third-longest-running production in off-Broadway history. Alas, a transfer to Broadway lasted less than a month, but a live-action version of Gesner’s work made it to television in 1973 and an animated one in 1985.
During those years, the musical was often the number one choice of community and school theaters all over the world. “Clark made so much money from it,” says his agent Richard Seff, “that he used to get embarrassed whenever I called him to say that more was on its way. He was very modest about writing the show, too. You’ll notice that the original album says ‘Book by John Gordon,’ although Clark wrote it. He just didn’t want to hog all the credit, so he invented this ‘John Gordon.’ Years went by before he officially acknowledged that he wrote the book, as you can see from the new credit – ‘Music, book and lyrics by Clark Gesner’ — on the revival cast album.”
Whenever I’m asked “What Broadway revival did you like more than the original production?” I say that of the 163 I’ve seen, only the 1999 edition of Charlie Brown seemed to me an improvement. The off-Broadway set offered a few blocks of wood that could have easily fit into a U-Haul. The Broadway production had plenty of scenery and a look that resembled one of Schulz’s Sunday color comic strips. Compare the instrumentation, too, on the original cast and revival cast album. The former has a piano and percussion, which mostly meant xylophone. (Many an off-Broadway musical of the ‘60s made the xylophone its instrument of choice – just as many an off-Broadway musical of the last thirty-five years has opted for the cello.)
In contrast, the revival cast album gives us six musicians, adding violin, viola, reeds, bass and guitar (although, to be fair, the last-named was made available only for the recording and not for the production). Michael Gibson’s fine orchestrations make for sweeter sounds on the nice songs (B.D. Wong’s Linus sang with bedroom eyes about “My Blanket and Me”) and more exciting ones on the raucous numbers (“T-E-A-M,” also known as “The Baseball Game.”)
This also makes the show sound a bit more “adult.” One criticism often levied against the musical came from those who knew and loved the many Charlie Brown TV specials: Vince Guaraldi’s cool jazz dovetailed nicely with the overly-sophisticated characters. Gesner’s score, they maintain, was babyish (which, in fact, the xylophone exacerbated).
My affection for this revival was not mirrored by the critics or the public; the show shuttered after 149 performances. I’ve always maintained, however, that the musical was too overexposed by 1999, at least for tourists that had seen it so often in their own home towns for ten bucks a pair. They weren’t going to pay anywhere from fourteen to eighteen times that now.
That the show was non-traditionally cast may have also bothered some less sophisticated theatergoers. Perhaps they found an Asian Linus (B.D. Wong) and a black Schroeder (Stanley Wayne Mathis) too far afield from the images they had in their heads. Some may have balked at the choice of Charlie Brown, too; Anthony Rapp, whom many, many audiences had already come to know as Mark Cohen in Rent, may have seemed too old to them. In 1967, few theatergoers knew anyone in the original cast, which actually helped the look of the show.
However, one cast member in the revival came out smelling like a bouquet of American Beauty Roses: Kristin Chenoweth, who got the boost of her early career after New York Times critic rose-tinted her world with a rave. Chenoweth portrayed Sally, whom Schulz created in 1959 but in 1967 wasn’t in the strip enough to catch Gesner’s attention; he opted for Patty (not to be confused with Peppermint Patty, whom Schulz had only then recently created). Patty didn’t have much of a personality, and I daresay that if anyone in 1967 were asked “What are the names of the kids in Peanuts?” he’d name every other character long before he mentioned Patty.
But by 1999, Sally Brown, Charlie’s much-better-adjusted sister, would have been cited much more readily. Hence, a new song was required. Gesner, although then only sixty-one, was but three years from his death, and wasn’t up to writing one — but, oh, Andrew Lippa certainly was. Had he not created “My New Philosophy,” Chenoweth wouldn’t have won the Tony as Best Featured Actress in a Musical. She, however, had to add a jutting jaw and defiantly positioned arms and legs to solidly put over the number – and did.
However, Roger Bart as Snoopy didn’t need any new material to win Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Of course, when you’ve got a number such as “Suppertime” – always listed among the great eleven o’clockers – you’re already ahead of the game. But Bart’s smooth voice on “Not Bad at All” – especially when he goes high at the end – is quite beautiful. No, the vocal demands aren’t akin to Siegfried in the third part of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, but this may still be the best-sung Snoopy you’ll ever encounter.
Lippa also added a few lines in the opening song. As everyone’s singing the title phrase, Lippa has our quasi-hero musing “Wonder why they stop to say you’re a good man, Charlie Brown? … Never liked me, anyway … I don’t know what they mean.” Seems as if I’m not the only one who doesn’t understand Gesner’s old philosophy in the title number. Still, when all is said and sung, you’re a good show, Charlie Brown.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.