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Adventure Theatre, the children’s theater based in Maryland’s Glen Echo National Park, recently launched an original adaptation of Jim Davis’ long-running Garfield comic strip. The path to creating a new work for younger kids can be bumpy and winding. Arts Desk interviewed some of the principals to find out how the show came about.
Playwright Michael Bobbitt
Arts Desk: Why do a Garfield musical? Was that based on the success you had with Big Nate?
Bobbitt: Adventure Theater really likes doing new work, and as I look to find titles that I think would appeal to both kids and parents, I’m always combing the Internet for ideas beyond adapting books, because so much of what we do is an adaptation of a book. I started looking at comic strips, songs and poems, and the idea for Garfield came before the idea for Big Nate. I reached out to Jim Davis‘ people on Jan. 8, 2010 and he said “no” twice. I was happy that the third time was a charm.
I want to try to find pieces that will appeal to both kids and parents, and there’s nothing like Garfield out there that has a loyal following. Every kid that is exposed to it falls in love with Garfield and every parent has fond memories of the TV show, the comic strip, the movies… It just seemed like a good fit.
What happened when you first called PAWS, Inc.?
I got a response the day I emailed them, but I don’t know if I talked to Jim [Davis] until spring of last year. Jim had a script that was really written for those large sports arena theaters. It was a huge production, with massive technical needs, and I thought maybe I could make that into a smaller production for our theater and other children’s theaters. We went back and forth on that for a year, and I had a playwright that was interested in adapting it, but that didn’t really go anywhere. We finally wrote a new piece.
Were you looking mainly at the strips, or did you look at the TV show and films?
Most of the material in the play comes from the comic strip. I did look at the animated series and the movies, but those stories were very specific. Jim and I had come up with a story that we liked and thought would appeal to younger kids.
Are there costumes? Are we going to see a version of Cats done for kids?
Jim was very involved with the design of the show and he really did not want big, plushy full cat or animal costumes similar to what you’d see in amusement parks. He wanted simple costumes that could be easily replicated. One of the goals for our show is that other theaters can do it, maybe even high schools and middle schools, so we don’t want major, big, expensive costumes. In fact, Jim wanted to see it super-simple. In his eyes, Garfield could be in orange pants and T-shirt.
We decided to take it a little bit further, and the designer put them in sweatsuits, and added tails and Garfield and Nermal‘s stripes. The headpieces are based on those knit caps that flap over the ear with the yarn string and the ball over the ear. The bigger challenge is that Jim Davis draws very big eyes for the characters, and we didn’t want a [four]-eyed character, so we used the lid of the eye to make the shape and then the actor’s eyes are below that. You will see Garfield, and he will definitely be a cat, but the actor is very present. What I love about Garfield is that he is more human than he is cat. He drinks coffee, and eats people food, but Garfield is clearly a cat, and he is clearly John’s pet, but he speaks human. Odie on the other hand, is a dog, and John’s pet, but only speaks dog.
Nermal and Arlene have human lines as well?
They do. I tried very many times in drafts of the treatment to have Odie have some significant scenes and songs, and mentioned to Jim that in the musical version [of Peanuts], Snoopy had monologues and songs, but Jim said “No, [Odie] only speaks dog.” I said, “It’s a musical. He’s got to sing!” Jim responded that he could sing in dog, but not in human. One of the challenges to writing this is that I had a brand that I had to maintain. I couldn’t make up new things about the characters, because they are the characters. I think we’ve done a really good job about doing that.
Getting back to the music…
John Cornelius and I have been writing together for 18 years. He lives in Houston, Texas. He’s a fantastic composer with four degrees in music including a doctorate in composition. I wanted John because I really wanted a pop theater score. When I talked about it, he heard Garfield singing in blues and jazz. [John] can do that really well, because he’s from Jackson, Miss. In addition to all his schooling, he’s got a down-home grasp of blues, jazz, and funk. I think it sounds like Garfield should sound. He’s just a cool cat.
How many songs are in the show?
About 10. It’s an hour-long musical.
The music really is the backbone of the experience?
It is. This is really a musical in every sense of the word. He’s got “I want” songs, an 11 o’clock song, production numbers, tap dancing. It really is everything people want in a musical.
Doing a show like this in children’s theater with children yelling and cheering—do you find that energizing?
Yes, there’s nothing more wonderful than a young people audience because they’re responsive and in the moment. Adults will wait until the number is over to respond, but kids are right there.
[Comics] lend themselves [to making musicals]. The biggest challenge for me was so much source material. To go back to the beginning fo the comic strip, and read every strip, and then make a decision about what the story is, and then figure out which strips pertain to the story, and how do you dramatize them, and how do you take these four panel comic strips where there’s all these little clippy lines—how do you make these into dialogue?
So much of the strip is punchlines—how do you find the jokes and make them smooth, and also find new things about the character that is inferred in the comic strips? It was a bit of a challenge, but fun. Once we honed in on the basic story of Garfield thinking his birthday has been forgotten, we really had fun putting it all together.
It just so happens that the show is opening on Garfield’s birthday, which is just serendipity. In many ways, Garfield has an older spirit, even though Jim Davis thinks of him as a teenager, and so I wanted to find this story that the younger kids would relate [to]. Every little kid can relate to birthday parties, and having a great one, and what happens when you think people have forgotten it and how traumatic that is for you.
What’s your background?
I’m from lower Northwest D.C. I grew up near Howard University. I went to school in Pennsylvania, and then went to New York for more school and to be a performer. I toured the country in regional theater. I settled back in D.C. in 1996 and haven’t left since then. I started at Adventure in 2007. I’ve choreographed at most of the major regional theaters and still do a bit. I’ve done some teaching at four local universities, and then moved into theater management. The next show I’m choreographing is Guys and Dolls at Olney.
Do you usually have people in mind for roles?
For the lead roles, we do have people in mind that we go after. I just think Evan Casey is such a cool guy that a lot of people want to be like. He just seemed like Garfield to me. Once we got the rights secured, I knew I had to ask Evan to do the part. He’s super-skinny and that was a big deal for us because Garfield is supposed to be fat. I asked him to put on weight for the role, and he couldn’t do it, so we’re going to pad him a bit.
We almost try harder to entertain the adults rather than the kids, and most entertainment has to work on two levels. If it only works for the kids, the adults will get really bored, and and if it only works for the adults, every time they laugh the kid will ask what’s funny. The humor has to work on two levels and that’s a hard technical thing that you have to do.
Cartoonist Jim Davis
Did Michael really approach you three times?
Davis: Yes. We had a previous script that was slated for touring and so we weren’t quite ready to take a leap with another script. I’m glad we did, though.
Why did you decide to do this?
Michael was very persistent and persuasive, and together we came up with a story that we really liked. I could also tell from talking to him that he was a true fan who understood the character and would treat him accordingly.
How hard is it to reach you with a proposal?
Not very hard. When Michael reached out to me in January of 2010, it came right to me for consideration. Paws, Inc., is the licensing and creative studio behind Garfield. We’re a small tight-knit group so there are not a lot of layers to go through.
Do you see it playing around the country after this premiere?
Michael’s initial proposal was to create a show that could be licensed to other theaters and/or tour the country. I am excited about Adventure’s production, but will reserve decision on future productions until I see the final product. What’s on the written script pages is very special, so I remain positive.
Did the current crop of plays based on strips like Annie, Fun Home, Big Nate, and Luann influence your thinking?
Not necessarily, but it’s great to know that there is growth in adaptations of comics. I was aware of Adventure’s success with Big Nate.
Did you and Peanuts‘ Charles Schulz have any conversations or rivalry about your respective comic strip empires?
I revered Charles Schulz and do to this day—there was no rivalry. There was one particularly special moment between us. I was working on the first TV special, Here Comes Garfield at Bill Melendez‘s studios. I was having trouble getting Garfield to dance on his back feet. Charles Schulz happened to be in the next room and when he stopped in to say hello, I told him what I was struggling with the dance scene. He said, “That’s because you’re drawing Garfield with little cat feet!” He took my pencil and showed me how Snoopy had little dog feet while he was on all fours, but he had big dog feet when he stood up. That gave him better balance. From that point forward, Garfield was on two feet more often than not.
Garfield seems to be a gateway comic strip for kids. Is he still as popular as ever, or has the gradual decline in newspapers affected him too?
Comics pages, except on Sunday, are most often enjoyed by adults. So even when you see the typical comics poll, the measurement is adult readers. I think a lot of kids see the strip in the comic compilation books and on our website. Garfield seems to always find a new younger audience; with the TV show, “The Garfield Show,” Garfield appeals to kids 4-10. There are now dozens of apps featuring Garfield in game play situations that are popular with the younger crowd. And the old TV series, “Garfield and Friends” is enjoying a renaissance thanks to the digital release of the show on Amazon Prime, Hulu, iTunes, Netflix, etc.
Actor Evan Casey
Were you a Garfield fan as a child?
I definitely read some Garfield and watched some “Garfield and Friends” and Garfield specials as a kid. I wouldn’t say I was necessarily a devotee, but it was pretty hard to grow up in the ’80s and ’90s and not have some relationship to Garfield, because he was so ubiquitous in popular culture.
How did you get the role? Standard audition?
Michael Bobbitt actually emailed me about this project over a year ago. I had been wanting to work with Michael at Adventure for quite awhile, and we had been trying to find the right project to work on together. He sent me the script to read over and we talked a bit about the show, and we decided that this was a great fit.
Why are you in the D.C. area?
The simplest answer is probably that it fulfills me artistically, professionally, and personally. My wife [Tracy Lynn Olivera] and I are blessed to live in a community that allows us to pursue our artistic goals and fill our creative plates while being able to plant down roots, raise a family, and build a life in a community that knows us, supports us, and encourages our careers.
Garfield isn’t really a cat; he’s a short curmudgeon who acts like a human. Does that make the role easier or harder?
It certainly helps as a way of connecting to the role. I think that’s part of what makes Garfield so universally appealing. As Nick Olcott, our director, mentioned during the first rehearsal, Garfield represents the id we would all wish to be if societal rules didn’t force us to be polite and kind. He may be lazy, and selfish, and sarcastic, and narcissistic, but who deep down doesn’t wish they could be, if only for a few minutes a day? We see Garfield and think—-even if only subconsciously—-that guy’s got the life I should be living.
How much of your role is singing?
A decent chunk. There are quite a few songs packed into a show that will run under an hour.
You’ve done all kinds of theater. For a show like this, does playing to (perhaps overly) enthusiastic children energize you?
In many ways, children audiences are the most honest, truthful audiences you will ever get. Children audiences are often unfiltered and unrestrained: They laugh when something is funny, they cry when something is sad, they boo when something displeases them, and if you ask a rhetorical question, chances are it’s going to get answered out loud, probably by multiple people. This certainly presents its challenges, but it’s also invigorating and exhilarating to know that an audience will be responding to you and with you, engaged in everything you are doing.
This is your third comics strip play, after Annie and Dog Sees God. Can you see any type of common thread between the three or does the source material not really matter?
I don’t know if I necessarily see any common thread between those three shows, because they are three very different stories being told in different ways. But truth is truth, regardless of the source material. All that matters is that the artists involved in the production agree on the kind of truth being told, and the audience accepts what that truth is. In the case of Garfield, we’re already entering into a kind of unwritten agreement with the audience that they will be accepting of a world where animals speak and understand humans, and can break into song and dance in certain moments. That’s really no different from what an audience might accept of a Stephen Sondheim world, or a Neil Simon world, or a David Mamet world. Different rules might exist for different plays, or even different productions of the same play, but as long as the audience buys the truth you’re selling, you’re doing something right.
Garfield: The Musical with Cattitude runs on weekends through August 23 at Adventure Theatre in Glen Echo, Md.