Arts & Culture » Theater

Peanuts in the Shell

Acclaimed director Michael Mayer, with a talented ensemble, tests the theater climate as the revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown heads for Broadway


The musical You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown might rival Thornton Wilder's Our Town for frequency of performance on high-school stages across the country -- for a variety of reasons. Both can be done cheaply, which is important with shrinking arts budgets in schools large and small. Both call for ensemble casts, fulfilling those educational directives of cooperative learning. And both can be played as amiable souvenirs of Americana. Every school has an ingenue, a sweet-faced Emily who can ask plaintively whether anyone ever really ever lives every minute of a life, and every school has a class extrovert to bring down the house with Snoopy's celebratory "Suppertime." Friends and family can go home pleasantly entertained, secure in the knowledge that their children haven't been corrupted playing roles that might give them a glimpse behind the facade of middle-class values.

Yet a few seasons ago, director Gregory Mosher brought a production of Our Town to the Lincoln Center stage with a cast that included Penelope Ann Miller, William H. Macy, Eric Stoltz and, as the Stage Manager, Spalding Gray. Mosher and company resurrected the dark themes from Wilder's script that had lain dormant after years of cheery adolescent mouthings. Our Town received, in the truest sense of the word, a "revival," wherein Wilder's vision was given fresh substance.

You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown doesn't harbor within it the unsettling death songs that layer the narrative of Our Town -- it's still a light, vibrant musical comedy for the whole family -- but director Michael Mayer, who has adapted the original, finds levels of complexity that make Charlie Brown ideal for revival. Peanuts contains subtle nuances and sophisticated insights worthy of such study, he finds. For example, in his research of the last 30 years of Charles Schulz's enduring comic strip, Mayer has discovered intriguing shifts in tone in the Peanuts gang.

"Spiritually they are a little more savvy," Mayer says of the characters. "None of them are cynical or ironic -- that's the beauty of Peanuts. You've got this grim adult sense of humor in the bodies and mouths of these kids that refuse to grow up. But a character like Sally, Charlie Brown's sister, continues to this day to be a voice of millennial angst. She can't figure it all out and is continually frustrated in her efforts. I think she speaks very directly to where we all are psychically. I see it every night in the performances where her lines get a huge response because she is so plugged into our consciousness right now."

Millennial angst? Sally?
The idea isn't so far-fetched once one drops the image of cute kids playing cute kids in small-town America. Peanuts may indeed be, as Mayer calls it, "one of the most enduring and vital contributions in the second half of this century that's been made in terms of a national character." One thing that makes Peanuts groundbreaking, as a recent rebroadcast of a Fresh Air interview with Schulz underscored, is that Charlie Brown is a kid who is depressed, a round-headed symbol for a nation that has evolved from Valium to Prozac.

"He's got some lines" Mayer points out, "like 'Sometimes when you're really depressed all you can do is stare into space and lean your head on your arm. Sometimes if you're unusually depressed you have to change arms.' It gets such a big laugh. People are totally connected to that. We live in this society that has recognized depression as a great leveler. We all understand what that is, and because of that, it's a great launching-off point for a terrific sense of humor."

Just as the presence of a director of Mosher's reputation and a name cast alerted the theater world that a very different Our Town was in the offing, so too do the contributions of actors such as B.D. Wong (Linus) and Anthony Rapp (Charlie Brown) and of Mayer, who comes to Charlie Brown after of string of successes. Side Man -- written by Warren Leight, directed by Mayer and starring Christian Slater -- a tale of the effects of a musician's wayward jazz life on his wife and son, is one of the most acclaimed dramas of this Broadway season. Before Side Man, for Mayer, came the Tony Award-winning revival of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, the national tour of Angels in America (which played in St. Louis) and the popular musical Triumph of Love. A list such as this is so eclectic that Charlie Brown doesn't seem such a stretch after all.

"My career has been a history of diversity," Mayer laughs. "It just happened that early on, when I wasn't really in charge of what I was doing, I would take whatever job I could get. Invariably each job would be really different from the one before and would require different parts of me to come to the front. At first I thought of that as a liability -- you know how fond we are of pegging people and typecasting -- so I didn't really have a strong identity as a director. But then it became an asset when my identity became this person who can work in all these different styles. So going from Side Man to Charlie Brown is no different in my mind than going from Triumph of Love to A View from the Bridge or from Angels in America to Hay Fever. Charlie Brown will be in previews in New York while I'm rehearsing Laurence Fishburne and Stockard Channing in The Lion in Winter. It couldn't be more different."

As this revival of Charlie Brown makes its way to Broadway (with a stop in St. Louis this week at the Fox, Dec. 30-Jan. 3) there is the question of whether the Broadway musical audience -- grown accustomed to a diet of helicopters landing and ships sinking and staircases rotating as the music soars -- whether this audience will pay Broadway ticket prices to see an intimate, sweet musical they might have seen last year at New Rochelle Junior High?

Mayer believes such intimacy in musical theater will have its own appeal (Fox Associates, who are producing Charlie Brown, are crossing their fingers, hoping he is right). As Mayer speaks of this belief, his passion and conviction are evident: "I know in my heart and soul that there is an audience that is craving a very simple, intimate experience when they go to the musical. There's always going to be Phantom of the Operas, always. People want that too, but they also want an intimate, personal experience. A small musical can deliver that. Falsettos delivered that. But we haven't had a successful small musical on Broadway since then. It doesn't mean it doesn't belong.

"It's very interesting. The people who run the show in New York will deride the large megamusicals that do spectacle over substance, and yet they seem unwilling to allow for the possibility that the small, intimate musical has value. They can't have it both ways. At some point, we will win -- whether it will be with You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown or whether it will be with the next small musical, whether it be this year or next year. The audience will end up voting, and their vote will be louder than the vote of the critics. They will have an experience unlike any other experience they've had, and they will tell their friends that this is something special. That will translate into dollars."

What "something special" might be (Mayer and the Fox producers hope) is a rediscovery of the inexplicable power that makes an Our Town eternally appealing -- whether it's at Hinterland High or Lincoln Center -- or a Charlie Brown. Mayer puts this in the terms of a rediscovery of the appeal of theater itself. He mentions that he has just received a card from Christian Slater, who, after being in movies since he was a kid, has been drawn to the stage.

"He was thanking me for the miracle in his life of Side Man. He has been able to connect with the very thing that inspired him to want to communicate in this way in the first place.

"We'll never get rid of that. That this is what the theater will always be. It is the first place -- it is the first art. It's holy and magnificent and awe-inspiring for everyone who makes theater. And every now and then you can make something that really connects to an audience, and when you do that there is no better job in the world. It's the best thing you can do.

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