THE GOOD MEN OF CHARLIE BROWN
B.D. WONG & ANTHONY RAPP JOIN THE 'PEANUT' GALLERY ON B'WAY
New York Daily News
January 31, 1999
By Patricia O' Haire
B.D. Wong has had his share of meaty roles on both stage and screen. So has Anthony Rapp. Now they each have a role they can cut their teeth on - assuming, of course, that their characters' second teeth have grown in.
They're both playing kids - a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old - in the musical "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," which opens Thursday at the Ambassador Theater.
Actually, the two men have had a certain amount of experience in their roles. Wong played the thumb-sucking, blanket-carrying Linus in a community theater production of the musical at the local Y in his hometown of San Francisco when he was 15; Rapp was 7 and at a summer camp in Island Lake, Pa. (where his mother was the nurse), when he played Snoopy in the camp's musical version of the show.
They both went on to bigger things, of course. Wong won a Tony and a Drama Desk Award for his work as a man masquerading as a woman in the 1993 play "M. Butterfly," and Rapp, who had the leading role in the hit musical "Rent," just returned from London, where he played the role again for several months.
The two were gabbing about the show they did as kids and the one they're doing now as adults, during a break in rehearsal. The musical is, of course, based on the Charles Schulz comic strip, "Peanuts," which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
The strip is about a group of 5, 6 and 7-year-olds and maybe a sister or brother or two, who look at life through wide-open and innocent kindergarten eyes. No grownups are ever seen in the panels.
Rapp - slim, blond and very young looking at 28 - spoke of his first role in the play. "I think it was at that camp that I was bitten by the acting bug," he said with a laugh. "Come to think of it, I was bitten by a deer fly there, too. Didn't make me a deer, though."
Wong, cast again as Linus, complete with rumpled clothes and uncombed hair in this edition of the musical, joined in.
"I understand Linus very well," he says. "When I was a kid, I had a piece of cloth, just like Linus, that I carried with me everywhere. I even had a name for it - I called it Boo-Boo. I remember it being a white linen cloth, with a kind of waffle-weave, more a dishtowel than a blanket. A couple of times when I couldn't find it, someone would hand me a diaper as a substitute, but I knew it wasn't the same.
"So I can relate to that great sense of comfort Linus gets from his blanket. I understand the feeling. If you notice, Linus doesn't chew on his blanket like a lot of kids do. He doesn't need to. He'd rather suck his thumb."
At the same time, he thinks the blanket is his most important prop - Linus hides under it as well as holds it. Wong says he "was very active in its selection. I wanted to be sure it was right, and big enough. After all, Linus is very little - he's only 4 - so we wanted to be sure the blanket would be big enough to hide me."
Since he won the Tony six years ago, the dark-haired Wong has been one busy actor. He's played such a variety of roles that being a kid onstage is child's play to him now.
At present, he has a recurring role in the TV series "Oz" as a priest; before that, he was a monk in the movie "Seven Years in Tibet" with Brad Pitt. He played it for laughs as Martin Short's assistant decorator in "Father of the Bride" and its sequel, "Father of the Bride II," and he helped Steven Seagal rescue passengers aboard a hijacked plane in "Executive Decision."
Rapp is quieter, a serious sort, who's been working as a professional actor since he was 9 in a production of "Evita." For him, playing a child is simply playing another role.
He says he admires Charlie Brown, even though he admits Chuck is a terrible loser. When he pitches in the baseball game, he gets blasted 42-0 or thereabouts; when he goes out with his kite, he can't get it to fly even when the wind is high. He's frustrated at love - he never does get up enough courage to talk to the red-haired girl he has a crush on - and he's constantly being upstaged by his own dog.
"What I like about him is how he never gives up," Rapp said. "Maybe he doesn't win things, but he does have his own self-respect and, ultimately, the respect of his friends. They're finally able to recognize what's special about him.
"I only hope I approach life with the same sense of openness and honesty and heart that Charlie Brown has. I also share with him his procrastination when it comes to writing. But I don't think I'm as prone to self-loathing as he is - except when I do something really terrible," and with that, he makes a horrified face.
Neither of the actors has met the 76-year-old Schulz, who lives in California but has been in touch with director Michael Mayer. "He's very interested in everything about the show," Wong said. "We hope he'll be here for the opening."
When "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" was originally performed Off-Broadway in 1967, it was an enormous hit, with music and lyrics by Clark Gesner, book by John Gordon. Over the years, it has gone through many changes - songs have been added, others dropped, characters have come and gone - but the spirit of the musical has remained.
But this is the first time it has come to Broadway. People who have seen and liked the original will have no trouble reminiscing with this one. There are three new songs and just about every number has been reorchestrated and rearranged. But the ones people remember, like "Suppertime," "My Blanket and Me" and "The Book Report," are still part of it. No one has complained yet, and the crowds waiting at the stage door nightly after the previews to get autographs from the young cast, are enthusiastic.
So are the actors.
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