courtesy Kevin Kling
Who among us hasn’t spent hours enraptured by the mundane yet endlessly fascinating goings-on of the anthropomorphic busybodies in Richard Scarry books?
What Do People Do All Day? Well, read that particular book, for one.
And so the Children’s Theatre Company commissioned our own folksy busybody—Kevin Kling—to write a musical from it. It is Busytown the Musical, aimed at the most anthropomorphic among us—our kindergarteners through fourth graders. Oh, and their Boomer grandparents and X-er parents (Scarry’s first and second generation of readers). The show opens this week and runs through Oct. 26.
Here, Kevin Kling answers questions about writing musicals, adapting beloved works for the stage, and why his brother made the whole family call him “Flipper” in the ‘60s.
Stephanie Wilbur Ash: What was your relationship to Richard Scarry and his work before you began this project?
Kevin Kling: I knew his books from the ’60s. I loved to find Lowly Worm in the different locales; he was the first Waldo. And Richard Scarry's illustrations are such great fun, full of action, I could get lost in a single page. There was also a bit of subversion, and the pickle car gave me hope for the future.
SWA: Scarry books tend to have loose narratives. Was a “cabaret” style always the approach from the start? What narrative thread have you pulled through/hung on to?
KK: Yes his books really lend themselves to a variety of styles. I used Lowly Worm and Huckle and Betsy as the main story lines. They seem to appear often in Richard Scarry's world.
SWA: How was it working with Michael Koerner? I heard you felt like your task was “Get to the next Koerner song.” Did the songs come first?
KK: The work went back and forth, Sometimes a song would spark a new scene, sometimes it was needed to further the action. Michael is so eclectic. He is a master of all types of styles and genres. I could really cut loose on wild ideas and know he would surprise me with a song.
Sometimes you want a song to move the action and sometimes you want a song because the character is so moved all they can do is sing about it. You can make great leaps in plot because it's an emotional journey—the threads in a musical tend to be a bit more poetic in nature.
In dialogue-driven plays the momentum comes from relationships created in and out of the dialogue, what's unsaid and why. It feels more psychological—for manifestos—whereas musicals are for hankies and hand-holding.
SWA: You also wrote the stage adaptation of the beloved Lyle the Crocodile character. How did this Busytown project differ? How were they similar, aside from both starring anthropomorphic characters?
KK: Lyle books have more plot and a single title character. Busytown is busy—everyone takes the story in turn. Both are great entertainment with healthy messages. Both have withstood decades of winning new audiences. Kids and adults still read and love them. Things have changed, though, since the 1960's! E-mail has mostly replaced mailing a letter and the crocodiles have moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn but these are still hilarious heartfelt stories, perfect material for the stage.
SWA: What is it about anthropomorphic animals that makes kids fall in love?
KK: As kids we associate with animals. They get told when to go to bed, what to eat. They get lost, scared. They're second-class citizens—like a kid. But I think it goes deeper. We feel more of our animal selves as kids, our senses are sharper, our world view includes trying to get food, reality and possibility blur, our inner and outer landscapes are more connected. My brother made us call him Flipper, the dolphin on TV in the 1960's, for six months when he was five. Or was it five months when he was six?