Working for Peanuts
by Harry Haun

Playbill (the actual, paper version) February 1999, Vol 99, No. 2

The sweet, funny, comical Peanuts cartoon characters are back in a new Broadway production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

Dorian Gray must be green with envy over Charlie Brown: The decades don't make a dent in his forever-young demeanor.  Not that the spread of nearly 50 years could make Charles M. Schultz's [sic.  ed: they misspell Schulz's name throughout this article.] terminally hapless Everyboy loom any less of a beleaguered loser, but outwardly he has changed little from the day he was born (Oct. 2, 1950) in the Peanuts comic strip.

The kid has been kept alive in that white-paneled world of cartoons, removed from the ravages of time.  Generations of readers havelearned to read by following his adventures, which continue to this day (still personally drawn by Schulz) in the world's most widely syndicated comic strip -- one that reaches a daily readership of 350 million in 2,600 papers in 75 countries around the globe.  And through it all -- the feature films, TV specials, T-shirts -- Charlie Brown stays the same, eternally six.

The one time that he did break out of his broad-stroked confines -- on March 3, 1967 -- he broke into live action, and song, for an Off-Broadway musical at Theatre 80 St. Marks.  You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown spent almost all of its five-year run there, eventually spawning 13 national and 15 international companies.

The musical did much to spread the already considerable myth of Charlie Brown.  In fact, its return to Broadway (at the Ambassador Theatre) has been adapted and directed by Michael Mayer, who, as a 17-year-old freshman, impersonated the Beethoven-loving Schroeder in a production at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  Arthur Whitelaw and Gene Person, who produced the original show, have jumped in with all four feet to produce this Broadway revival with Fox Theatricals.  Clark Gesner's songs ("Happiness," "Suppertime," the title tune, et al.) will be used -- along with two or three new ones penned by the show's musical arranger, Andrew Lippa -- but the book has been radically revised and updated to include situations that have come up in the comic strip during the 32 years since the musical was initially conceived by its creators.

You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown -- like its comic-strip source -- invites a deep read.  Under Linus's blanket number ("My Blanket and Me"), director Mayer cites as an example, you can find "everyone's search for a world where they feel they belong, where they're not an outsider.  It is so much in the spirit of Peanuts to have a world where Charlie Brown isn't a loser, where Linus isn't a baby with his blanket, where Schroeder isn't the only person who loves Beethoven -- there the things that make us special are embraced by others.  And the opportunity to talk about this in a way that children can hear it -- and get it -- is a great gift.  I think that's such a good thing to say to people when they're young and struggling to fin who they are and to feel good about themselves."

The gang's all here:  The talented cast of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown reflect on their beloved alter egos...

Anthony Rapp (Charlie Brown): Having originated Rent's camcorder chronicler Mark in New York and London, Anthony Rapp finds Charlie Brown's playground at the very least a refreshing change of pace.  "It's really nice to dwell in a different world for a while," he understates.  "Both characters are so different in so many ways, but what I think they have in common is that they operate from such a heartfelt place.  Both come from a place of such hope.  Charlie Brown's situation is things like not being able to fly his kite.  It's not quite the same thing as losing a friend to AIDS, but he's up against stuff, too.  And both continue to go day after day with renewed hope."

Ilana Levine (Lucy):  Ilana Levine comes to the role of the abrasive Lucy, who dispenses five-cent psychiatric help to Charlie Brown whether he wants it or not, from the unsympathetic part of the strident debutante in The Last Night of Ballyhoo.  "From Lala to Lucy," she says, turning the roles over in her mind.  "It's not a big jump in terms of numbers of letters in an name.  'Independent thinkers' is how I like to think of these characters.  I don't mean to sound corny, but Lucy was the first feminist character I ever knew.  She was able to look pretty all the time in terms of her fashion choices, and she could really get what she wanted.  She had a sort of power in the world and was a really strong feminine kind of symbol for me."

B.D. Wong (Linus):  Lucy's browbeaten little brother Linus, who clings to a security blanket in this cruel world, sucks his thumb and spouts surprisingly sound philosophy, would seem to be light-years away from B.D. Wong's best-known, Tony-winning work -- M.Butterfly -- but director Mayer found something in the actor that was particularly appropriate for the caracter.  "I'm not sure how to describe it," Wong admits.  "It's about sensitivity.  When I first met Michael, he said, 'You had some kind of love/hate relationship with a sibling, didn't you?'  Which I did.  I had no idea how he knew that -- or how appropriate that was for me in playing these scenes -- but then, as we worked on the part, I understood what he meant.  Like Linus, I just absorbed."

Roger Bart (Snoopy): Snoopy, the eager-beagle who's a mite Mitty in the imagination department, gives Roger Bart -- the court jester in Triumph of Love -- a full and frantic workout.  "A yummy part," he calls it.  "It's the juiciest kind of part because you have 50 years of an audience loving you before you actually enter."  The gamut he runs goes from deadpan to drama queen: "You can't push it, and, yet at the same time, because Snoopy's got such an active imagination, he's prone to histrionics."

Stanley Wayne Mathis (Schroeder):  Stanley Wayne Mathis, who plays the piano-playing Schroeder, is the only member of the six-member cast to have a history of humanizing cartoon characters (in his case: Banzai, the head hyena, in The Lion King).  "The exact opposite of Schroeder," he says.  "Banzai was all out, full out, brassy, loud.  But the big difference -- for an actor who has acted behind a mask and a costume for the past year and a half -- is that I'm out of the closet, so to speak, exposed.  I had to just pull back and strip it down to the bare necessities and deliver it that way.  I'm modeling the character after my best friend of 5 years.  His name actually is Schroeder.  He's not a musician, he's an artist -- but he's very serious about that and very intellectual.  And, in that, he's funny because he's so passionate about his work."

Kristin Chenoweth (Sally):  In the original musical all the girls other than Lucy were lumped together in a composite character called Patty, who, in the current edition, has been supplanted by Sally, Charlie Brown's malaprop-spewing kid sister.  And she's played by a squeaky-voiced Kristin Chenoweth, who, to get into her character, simply dials N for niece.  "My niece is four -- the same age as Sally -- and all I have to do is just call her on the phone, talk to her for a while, and my character clicks in.  I just love those little odd things kids say that they think makes sense."

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