Our local “Theatre for Young People” recently put on a production based on Charlie Brown. It was actually a mash-up of two stories. “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and “The Charlie Brown Christmas Special”.
I saw it yesterday.
I’ve always had a special place in my heart for that lovable loser, Charlie Brown. I had flannel Charlie Brown sheets and pillow cases when I was a kid, so he was literally the last thing I’d see every night and the first thing I’d see every morning. The sheets were of a hockey scene, and on one side of the pillow case Snoopy is giving Lucy a big “SMAK” of a kiss, and on the sheets you can see Snoopy is in the Penalty Box. It is uncertain he is there for the unsolicited kiss (#metoo) or if it was from some infraction on the ice, but those were the sheets of my childhood winters.
In addition to the daily black and white comics and the weekend colour strips, Charlie Brown would pop up periodically throughout the year, most famously at Thanksgiving (with the great pumpkin special) and at Christmas (with the famous pageant and sad tree story). I have a Great Pumpkin t-shirt that I used to wear to work on Halloween, although I haven’t in the past couple of years since Peppermint Patty is wearing an Indigenous-style feather in her hair and I feel like maybe THAT part of it hasn’t aged very well. The Christmas one holds up a bit better, I think. In fact, it never really feels like Christmas until I’ve sat down and watched that special, and heard Linus’ speech about what Christmas is actually about. (Or at the very least had at least one run-through of the soundtrack).
In the late ’70’s and early 80’s there were even a few feature-length movies produced with the Peanuts gang. I remember going with a friend and his Dad to a double feature of these in some run down theatre in the West End on some Saturday afternoon. I was probably in grade 2. I don’t remember the first one, but internet research (and the “80’s All Over” podcast) has helped me confirm that the second one was called “Race for your Life, Charlie Brown” where the gang ends up at summer camp.
I was never into drawing much as a kid, but I DO remember sitting down with the Weekend Comics and copying out my versions of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, carefully copying Schultz’s swirls and curls for hair, and the careful lines that made up Snoopy’s snout and nose. I don’t know what ever happened to those drawings, but they should be in a museum, obviously. Proto-fanfic. Seriously though, have you ever looked at a Peanuts character’s head up close? There are a lot of little squiggles that go into making one.
I don’t think I appreciated how much the music in the Charlie Brown specials helped create that “Charlie Brown” mood, until I was in my 20s. There were two albums that came out within a year of each other, “Joe Cool’s Blues” by Wynton Marsalis (1995) and “Linus and Lucy” by George Winston (1996) that borrow heavily from Vince Guaraldi’s original themes. I’ve since lost contact with my Marsalis, but my George Winston is still in regular rotation, more than 20 years later. The first track on the Winston album, a Guaraldi (but not a CHARLIE BROWN Guaraldi) never fails to give me chills. I love the way the last note just seems to hang there in the air forever. Even its name suggests a leap of faith into the unknown: “Cast your Fate to the Wind“.
And I’ll never forget where I was when I first heard Winston’s interpretation of Guaraldi’s “Skating”. I was driving up to Lockport along Henderson Hwy on a perfect snowy day in early December. It suddenly came on “Disc Drive”, a classical music show that used to run on the CBC in the afternoons. I was so taken with it, that I stopped in at a music store that same day when I got back to the city to buy the album.
Shortly after I got my first iPod Touch a few years ago, one of the first games I got into was this thing called “Snoopy’s Street Fair” (I think?!) where you earn coins and you can buy things for this Charlie Brown themed neighbourhood. I actually don’t even remember when I stopped playing it. I just did. It was fun, as I recall, and it scratched all my “Charlie Brown” feelings. My current wallpaper on my iPod is of Charlie Brown and Linus leaning against a brick wall, with snow falling around them, to give you a bit of an idea of how subtly the Peanuts world seems to have seeped into my life.
So, all of this is to say that I have a bit of a history with Charlie Brown, and was curious to see what they could make of it on the stage. I was also curious to see how my eight year old daughter would respond to it, since she hasn’t grown up with the Peanuts gang in any real way. A couple of years ago, Paul Feig produced “The Peanuts Movie”, and I took her to see it. She seemed to enjoy it, and I was happy that it stayed true to the look and feel of the original specials, but as we were driving home I was surprised when my daughter asked, “What was the dog’s name again?” “You mean SNOOPY?!?!?!” Who doesn’t know Snoopy on sight? I guess a whole generation of kids.
The original Broadway production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” debuted in the late 1960’s with M.A.S.H.’S Gary Burghoff in the titular role, along with Bob Balaban as “Linus”. It was revived in the late ’90s with Anthony Rapp as Charlie and B.D. Wong (from TV’s “Oz”!) as Linus, along with that bundle of energy, Kristin Chenowith as Sally. Oddly enough, the original version did not have a Sally.
Since “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” is a full length musical, the production we saw yesterday was an abridged version (so they could tack on the Christmas Special and still have it all fit into 90 minutes. The target audience is children, after all, so it’s unusual for any of these plays to go longer than an hour).
Not being familiar with the Broadway show at all, I didn’t know what was cut, but it still felt like most of the show was represented. Luckily, a friend of ours (who is a huge musical theatre fan, and actually starred in a church production of this play) was in attendance and was able to fill in the gaps for me.
Bottom line: it was really wonderful. (and our musical theatre pal shared our enthusiasm). When you go to enough of the “plays for young people” you get to see some of the same cast over and over, and so I recognized the chap who played Charlie Brown from last year’s Alligator Pie. You may be interested to know that they went with some diversity in their casting choices. Charlie Brown was a person of colour, Sally had dark brown hair, and Lucy was a blonde. (It took me QUITE SOME TIME to keep the two of them straight) and Snoopy was played by the head of our local Jewish Theatre, and I think we can all agree that Snoopy is a Lutheran. There was a live band on one corner of the stage (the seating was on all four sides of the stage. I believe theatre people call that “in the ROUND” although “in the SQUARE” might have been more accurate). The cool thing about the band was that each person was also a character in the play. PigPen was on drums, Frieda was on Bass, and Schroeder, of course, was on keyboards.
The first section takes you through a day in the life of Charlie Brown (which I’m guessing maybe is what the full version does as well?), with a series of short scenes and songs, Godspell style. Snoopy actually speaks and sings in this one, instead of just giving a physical performance (as he does in the second half for the Christmas Special). All the tropes are covered: anxiety over the little red-haired girl, the psychiatrist’s booth, the baseball game, Linus’ blanket, Snoopy’s house and dish, you name it. Even Woodstock and his pals make a lovely cameo appearance at one point. They were all familiar call-backs to my childhood, but maybe new for our daughter? They don’t take any time introducing the characters; they just assume you know who’s who. When you think of it, I guess all of the seasonal specials operate on this same assumption. They just assume you know that Sally and Charlie are siblings, as are Linus and Lucy, and that Peppermint Patty and Marcie are in an untraditional but loving relationship. I don’t know what PigPen’s deal is, and Schroeder is usually just seen as a “love interest” for Lucy, I guess. I looked over at my daughter a few times throughout, and she was FULLY ENGAGED. This was one of the first times that she didn’t seem overly bored or distracted, not even towards the end when you might expect. And we couldn’t get her to wind down when we got home. She was singing and dancing and so full of energy (not songs from the show, but just music. Joyful sounds.) It was lovely to see.
The first section ends with a snowfall, which gives the actors a break and the stagehands a chance to set up the stage for the Christmas Special.
Although the Christmas Special clocks in at just over 20 minutes (and this version is not much longer), it’s where you get the full Vince Guaraldi treatment from the band, and these characters now feel familiar to you after having seen them run through their paces in the first half. Heck, I could even keep Sally and Lucy straight by the time they strapped on inline skates and transformed the stage into a skating rink.
(Cue “Skating” performed by Schroeder, Frieda and Pigpen and I was in my early 20s again, driving up to Lockport for a quick treat on a snowy day 20 years ago. If I closed my eyes I was even further back, eight maybe, crawling into a fully flanneled bed with a library copy of a John Bellairs book or a Hardy Boys next to my Snoopy pillow, safe and secure).
Happy New Year, everyone!
(For Steve. Thinking of you today. We’ll assault the heck out of Hoth when you feel up to it.)