Of Miracles, Magic, and Make Believe The Musicals of Robin and Clar

by Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold

(reprinted from Scene 4 Magazine, August 1, 2016)

For full archived article click here.

Photo1RobinClarkAll the colors of the world are waiting there for me….It is Sleeping Beauty’s Princess Amber who sings these magical words, an invitation to the young audience to join the fairytale heroine on a journey of delight and discovery. And by the sparkle in the eyes of the children – and their chaperones – it is clear the magic is having a profound effect. For the young audiences who have come to experience the musicals of Robin and Clark during the past twenty-six years are treated not only to beautiful singing, dancing, and captivating storytelling of old classics in a contemporary way, but also are able to discover the special magic of live theatre and are introduced in an entertaining and subtly educative way to the world of imagination and dreams.

“Introducing children at an early age to live theatre stimulates the imagination and the appreciation for and acceptance of the wonderful diversity of life. Theatre can both educate and entertain. For Marc and me, it has always been a priority throughout our careers to bring live theatre to a broad-based audience of all ages and communities. By creating a love of theatre in these young people, we give them a gift they carry with them the rest of their lives.”

The speaker is Curt Dale Clark, Artistic Director of Maine State Music Theatre, acclaimed actor, and co-creator of musical theatre pieces for young audiences. His collaborator is Marc Robin, much-admired director, choreographer, and Artistic Director of Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s Fulton Theatre. Together as artistic collaborators and as a husbands-team, they have written book, music, and lyrics for fifteen original musicals based on classics of children’s literature, as well as one full-length, epic musical, Treasure Island.

Robin elaborates on Clark’s sentiments as to why the pair has made young and family audiences the focus of their creative writing and composing: “It echoes my own life. When I was a child, I saw Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk in the space of two months. I was filled with a sense of wonder at going to the theatre, and even if I didn’t fully understand the process, I knew it was special. Family shows allow a family to come together; they hook a child’s imagination, which in turn spurs them on to become better writers, speakers, dreamers. Theatre inspires and gives us so many possibilities for creative thinking.”

Robin and Clark met in Chicago over twenty-six years ago and have shared their lives and work ever since. In the 1990s Robin was Artistic Director of the now defunct Drury Lane Evergreen Park Theatre where he led the Young Audiences Program with Clark’s assistance. From their first collaboration – an original adaptation of The Nutcracker – in 1990, followed by their retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk the next year, they slowly built a catalog of hour-long musical theatre pieces which put new spins on familiar classics. They tailored their content and presentation to engaging the young audiences, as well as their adults, and packaged these in productions distinguished by fine singing, acting, and sparkling stagecraft. Robin often directed these himself, and Clark was a frequent leading man, along with the likes of now celebrated artists like E. Faye Butler, Cory Goodrich, Karen Leigh Multer, and Mark Hawbecker. In addition to the Drury Lane, Robin and Clark built an audience for their creations first throughout Chicago and the Midwest and eventually saw them performed across America and to international audiences. As Robin and Clark became affiliated with other theatres, they often brought their shows with them and as Artistic Directors now, each continues to mount productions of the catalog, just as they continue to compose and write new works.

Among the many things which strike the viewer when attending one of these shows, such as the recent production of Jack and the Beanstalk at Maine State Music Theatre this summer, is the remarkable freshness they have retained over the years. This is partially because both creators are experienced men of the theatre, and they understand how to engage an audience, but also because Robin and Clark view their musicals as ongoing works in progress, adapting and changing scripts to suit current contexts.

 

Asked what makes a good children’s musical, Clark replies: “It’s important to know your audience and never to talk down to them. When I was a boy, I hated teachers who condescended. I would sit in one of those classrooms thinking how I would rather go outside to play or do anything else other than be in that room with this person treating me as less important than they. It is important to us when we write that kids know this is for them. We use their responses; we change what doesn’t work. And we have our actors interact with the audience to draw them into the story. We communicate,” he says by way of succinct summary.

That communication extends to the adults in the audience as well. Robin says, “We try very hard to write shows the adults will enjoy as well. When you bring a child to the theatre, we want to entertain you as well and not have you check out for an hour.”

Clark concurs, “From the beginning we felt that if parents were bringing their kids to the theatre, we didn’t want them to feel that they wanted to leave. So we always include elements that the adults will find funny and will understand on another level. And when an adult comes up to me, as someone did after Jack last week, and tells me he “had no idea he would enjoy it so much himself, that makes us very happy.”

Perhaps another reason the shows are so successful is that they look at familiar source material in an innovative way – one that lends an air of contemporaneity to the works. Hallmarks of their writing include smashing many of the stereotypes from the original tales, maintaining a clever alternation between interaction with the audience and witty distance from the material – you always know this is a musical play – and introducing an array of themes that, in Clark’s words, attempt to “socialize kids and teach them morals and standards of behavior, and help them participate fully with other human beings.”

Robin elaborates with some examples: “Our Cinderella deals with child abuse, our Sleeping Beauty with racism. We give both children and adults something to make them think, something that has a larger meaning than the entertainment value of Barney and the Dinosaur, for example.” Throughout their canon, Robin and Clark battle sexism, gender stereotyping, racism, hatred, and injustice; they poke fun at convention and tradition; they champion diversity, human dignity, and inclusiveness, freedom of choice, tolerance and acceptance of others’ choices, the right to be different, the courage of one’s convictions, and the power of forgiveness. Above all, they articulate an inspirational faith in the transformative power of love and the miracle-working capabilities of imagination and dreams.

 

They present all these themes with a gentle subtlety and often humor that catches the audience a little off-guard and brings the musicals out of their 18th and 19th century contexts. Clark explains that when they create the book, “We always go back to the source material, but in reality the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, and some of these early writers were far more gruesome than today’s society could handle. In Cinderella, for example, the sisters actually cut off their heels in an attempt to fit into the glass slipper. There’s a good reason these parts don’t make it into our versions. And we like to rail against the 19th century idea that a person is either good or evil. In life, no one is all one or the other. There is good somewhere even in Hannibal Lechter, so we make it our job to find the good in many of the traditionally “bad” fairytale characters. For example, in Jack and the Beanstalk, we ask the audience to decide Ogra’s [the Giant’s Wife] outcome, and they weigh her actions and always choose to give her a happy ending.”

The skill, of course, comes in integrating these messages into the overall fabric of the shows so they do not become pedantic, but grow organically from the script, music and lyrics.   In Snow White, for example, the Seven Dwarfs {who are ironically excessively tall chaps] are all based on historical characters who made transformative contributions to the world – Martin Luther [King], Freud, Confucius, Columbus, Caruso, Merlin, and Scrooge. One of the most moving moments in the show is Martin’s “I Have a Dream.” To a glorious, anthem-like, soaring melody, Robin and Clark’s character sings:

I have a dream about tomorrow/A dream that’s deeply rooted in equality….

 I have a dream about our children. . .There must come a day

When a nation sings with just one voice,

A symphony of brotherhood/Where every voice is understood

No matter what their choice….[and it culminates with)

Dreams that have all people living free at last!

 

Or in Sleeping Beauty there is the touching exchange between Prince Hunter and Queen Magenta, who has sworn revenge because she was exiled based on the purple color of her skin. Hunter pleads for Amber’s life and urges Magenta to forgive rather than hurt Amber:

No, wait a minute/There must be another way….

I’m sure they don’t understand/They only need a helping hand

To see things as I do….

And perhaps the most beautiful moment of all is the reconciliation and forgiveness in Treasure Island when Jim repays Long John Silver’s saving his life by allowing the pirate to escape, a moment marked by one of Robin and Clark’s most inspired songs, “Miracles Can Happen.”

Robin and Clark also love taking on traditional fairytale conventions and tweaking them to suit a modern sensibility. Snow White does not see marriage and keeping house for the band of “dwarfs” as her vocation; Princess Amber yearns to do “all the things boys can do;” Princess Zenovia (Aladdin) refuses an arranged marriage, declaring “I can find my own husband.” Frequently, it is the female characters who are the real heroines of the story, while some of the leading men are beset with comic flaws. Prince Hunter is a timid soul whose psychological allergies – (an excuse for a wonderfully wry song) – keep him from heroic deeds until he is at last inspired to be his best because of love; Beauty and the Beast’s Studley is a masterful portrayal of monumental macho conceit (with a brilliant song to match); Prince Wellington in Princess and the Pea is a takeoff on Harry Potter, and Prince Charming in Snow White departs not with a bride but with a mirror to flatter his ego.

Then, too, not surprisingly, in a universe with finely shaded nuances, the “villains” become colorful, complex characters. Their Scrooge is one of the most human and believable in any of the retellings of this tale, his conversion at the end not saccharine, but genuinely heartfelt. The Sea Witch in Little Mermaid has one of the best show-stopping numbers (“Finest Creature”) in all their musicals, Queen Narcissus (Snow White) has a clever solo “Me, Me, Me,” and despite her cruel jealousy she is pardoned by Snow White and her band. Then there is the wronged Magenta (Sleeping Beauty) whose song “Explanation” gains audience sympathy and serves as a catalyst to Hunter’s transformation, while one of their most sculpted portraits is of Long John Silver, who is ambiguous throughout – wily, mercurial, secretly tender, yet violent – a man flawed in every way and capable of the most heart rending redemption.

 

Two other threads run through the Robin and Clark books and lyrics: the healing power of love and the importance of dreams and imagination in living a full and creative life. Virtually all the fifteen shows deal with love in one of its many forms – familial, romantic, healing. It is love which saves in so many cases literally restoring life, as in Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, A Christmas Carol, or The Little Mermaid. Pinocchio, for example, cannot become a real boy until he learns to feel love for Geppetto and Chadwick, the Beast, is willing “to die a happy man for I have learned to love.”

Then there are the exhortations to embrace fantasy, to dream big, to pursue those dreams. Jim Hawkins sings “Look at me I’m on adventure” as he envisions a journey which then becomes reality. Jack urges the audience to “believe in your dreams and everything is possible.” Alice and all her fantastical creatures revel in “Wonderland” – “a place where magic fills the air…a place more magical than dreams….a place where nothing is as it seems.” Peter Pan invites the audience to “Just close your eyes and think of a magic place where no one ever ages…” Fairytales are, of course, about fantasy, but in Robin and Clark’s musicals, these are not escapist dreams, but rather the, “Waiting, Wondering” (Sleeping Beauty) that bears fruit by believing in and pursuing the goals.

But besides having tightly constructed, clever, and meaningful books, Robin and Clark’s musicals are distinguished by the quality of the scores and the brilliance of the lyrics. The songs – many of which can stand proudly on their own without the script – are eclectic, suggested by character, and their range references every style from big Broadway numbers, to legitimate classical, to anthems, to tender ballads, to jazz, gospel, soul, to dance tunes. The orchestral underscoring of the book and the transitions contains some luminously atmospheric writing, and interludes such as the storm sequence from Treasure Island stand on their own orchestral merits. The vocal line is often complex and difficult with passages that require the tenor to sing high Bb ‘s, C’s, and even a D and the sopranos to use their coloratura, their chest registers, and occasionally soar into the stratosphere. The lyrics contain some dazzling rhymes and catchy turns of phrase, heartfelt emotion and cheeky irony. Their sophistication is no small part of the appeal for adults.

“Adults understand the skill involved, and guess what? The kids do, too, subliminally,” Clark asserts. Acknowledging that many of the tenor roles were written for him – (he has used his tenor with its extensive range and colors, its creamy tone and heart-catching emotion to play Cinderella’s Prince, Prince Hunter, the Knave of Hearts, Studley, and Dr. Livesey) – he adds with a chuckle,” We do write the score with alternative notes, but personally, I like to hear it with the higher ones.” Of the lyrics, he adds, “Marc and I beat ourselves up about rhymes. We work and work to get it right, and we argue and compromise until it does what we want.” He goes on to tell the story of creating one of their finest songs, “Miracles.” I came up with the line “Miracles can happen every and each day,” and Marc fought me on the “every and each.” But I stood my ground because I wanted it to be special, not the usual colloquial phrase. (And indeed, with that kind of serendipitous instinct, the reverse of the words conjures up a tiny moment of wonder in the vocal line.)

Audio 3 Studley, Beauty and Beast (Curt Dale Clark)

 

The process of collaborating for these two artists has been an organic one for more than twenty-six years. Each artist describes it in his own way. Robin is the pianist, though he has no formal training, having learned the instrument by ear. “I taught myself to play,” he says, and I have never studied composition. I hear a melody in my head; I play it on the piano; I record it; and I have someone else write it down. Or I will go into a zone for a particular character and lock into a thought and find the music suggesting words, rhythms. Sometimes, Curt will come up with a melody and sing it to me, and then I just figure it out and embellish it on the piano. After twenty-six years, we complete each other’s sentences anyway, and that’s what composing really is,” he concludes.”

Clark describes their collaborative process in much the same way. “Each time it is different. Sometimes Marc will write music and lyrics, and I will come in and adjust lyrics. Sometimes I start humming a tune and put lyrics to it and record it for him, and he takes it and puts it into his fingers and makes it into music. Piano is Marc’s outlet. He can sit down and play for an hour, and sometimes nothing comes of it, but at others, his ears will perk up, and he will realize he needs to put that doodle on tape. And then when we have a little time together, we take these doodles and start to put words to them.” Some shows, such as their current collaboration, Rapunzel, have”, Clark says, “started accidentally; others we set about consciously to write.” Clark maintains that their personal relationship does help their artistic one, but that they both retain a “certain artistic independence as well. We may argue about something for a while, but we eventually find the solution or we take turns in compromising. Either way, we keep at it until we get it right.”

The success and longevity of the duo’s shows also has a great deal to do with the fact that both are theatre veterans, and from the earliest days of producing, directing, and acting in these creations, they have upheld high standards. At the Drury Lane Evergreen Park, the Marriott Lincolnshire, Beef and Boards, and now the Fulton Theatre and Maine State Music Theatre, whenever Robin or Clark have mounted one of their own shows for young audiences, they have given it a fully-staged, stylish, exciting production and have often cast star-quality Equity actors. The likes of E. Faye Butler, Cory Goodrich, John Herrera, Mark Hawbecker, Tammy Mader, Karen Leigh Multer, Paula Scrofano, and Clark, himself, have, over the years, insured the vocal-dramatic quality of these performances and done a great deal to sear into memory how vivid the roles are. Then, too, they have kept the shows fresh, varying lines and topical references to suit changing times and using audience reactions to frame future performances. Clark recounts how when he came to direct Jack and the Beanstalk this June and got the scripts from Marc in Lancaster, where the Fulton had done the show earlier, he found some new lines in the script. “Someone had ad libbed a great line, and Marc inserted it into the script. We can do that because it is our property, and we do have a clause when we license the shows to other theatres that they can play with it and colloquialize it if they wish, but it all remains our property.”

 

Asked for which of their creations they retain a special affection, they both agree that Treasure Island, which grew into a full-scale two and one-half hour epic musical that played to great success in Chicago, Indianapolis, and Lancaster, is their ongoing pet project. Chicago critic Tom Williams wrote:

This is a gem of a new musical . . . a major triumph with a grand future offering a sophisticated tale ripe with pirates, excitement, buried treasure, ships and distant shores peopled with richly developed characters . . .Robin and Clark are terrific storytellers true to the novel’s essence enriching their musical with humor, suspense, action, and loads of heart. Treasure Island is an adventure musical with a strong coming of age male bonding theme sparked by an unlikely friendship. Action and adventure fuel this tuneful musical.

Treasure Island, which another critic compared favorably to Les Misérables, has inspired the creative team to begin work on another full-length show, Sarah, about the bizarrely quirky wife of the Winchester rifle manufacturer. Then they also talk of a Treasure Island revival with some rewrites in the very near future, and they remain justifiably proud at the response the show has engendered.

Videos of two Treasure Island productions – the Fulton Theatre world premiere in 2008 and Beef n Boards 2009 production – are testaments to this appraisal. Staying true to Robert Louis Stevenson’s narrative, Robin and Clark manage to streamline the very episodic novel into a tightly knit book with some rousing and memorable songs and a lush romantic orchestral score. They paint the numerous characters in vivid strokes and give the audience a central trio of sympathetic men, Jim Hawkins, Long John Silver, and Dr. Livesey. Their portrait of Long John is especially complex preserving the old pirate’s trickiness, yet cloaking him in a kind of fascinating ambiguity that makes him completely human. The work contains some of their best songs, among them Jim Hawkins’ “Dreams,” Long John’s deliciously wicked “The Joys of Cooking,” the infectious sea shanty “Drinking Song,” the rousing large ensemble “Mutiny,” and the closing numbers “Someday” and “Miracles.”

Treasure Island, with its swashbuckling action and coming of age story – like the shorter Robin and Clark musicals – does invite its audience to join in the adventure, to access the child within themselves, and to embark on a flight of fancy, to dare, and to believe that anything can happen, that our human journey is about stumbling, falling, persevering, and most of all about learning to forgive, to love, and to believe in the miracle of life.

By the time Jim Hawkins abets Long John Silver in his escape, the young hero has learned to find the good in this complex old salt, and Long John, in saving Jim’s life, has made a life-changing choice to demonstrate his love. Alone on stage in the closing moments of the play, Silver sings this heart-wrenching declaration of his newborn epiphany:

 Miracles can happen every and each day,/Miracles happen many different ways,

And a miracle has happened/But I can’t believe it’s true

For a miracle has happened, /And that miracle is you.
Each and everyone of us/
Has inside a miracle

Waiting to be shared/With all the world.

 Your faith and your honesty/Are indeed miraculous

They will shine in the night like a light/Like a banner unfurled

 Miracles can happen any place or time,/Miracles happen without reason or rhyme

And it may be monumental /Or perhaps it’s very small

Or maybe it is life the greatest miracle of all!

Maybe it is life the greatest miracle of all!

Photographs courtesy of Marc Robin and Curt Dale Clark and MSMT (Little Mermaid, Roger S. Duncan, photographer).

For more information, visit www.robinandclarkmusicals.com. The site is still under construction, but does contain news, press, media, and show information.