My friend Neil e-mailed me the other day. "I can't take another day of this," he wrote. "If I hear about one more 'Junior' production being staged in Phoenix, I'm going to throw myself under the wheels of a bus."
Like me, Neil is a theater critic who's troubled by the epidemic of "Junior productions," those trimmed-and-edited versions of famous musicals aimed at a kiddy audience that have been breeding like rabbits around here lately. Gilbert Fine Arts Youth Theater just wrapped a production of Guys and Dolls, Jr. , a sanitized version of Damon Runyon and Frank Loesser's gangsters-and-gamblers musical. (I'm guessing this small-fry version isn't set in the sewers of New York; that its mobsters only make strong suggestions to their "clients"; have never heard of a floating craps game; and that the cigarette girls actually sell cigarettes.) At the end of the month, Valley of the Sun JCC Youth Theatre will mount Into the Woods, Jr. , an expurgated edition of Stephen Sondheim's famous musical. And a kinder, gentler sun will apparently come out tomorrow when Arizona Jewish Theatre presents Annie, Jr. next month.
"What the hell is Annie, Jr. ?" Neil hollered when I phoned him about his e-mail. "I mean, it's Annie! How much more kid-friendly can a musical get? And what's this about Fiddler on the Roof, Jr. ? Do the Russians pelt the revolutionaries with pies instead of trampling them and driving them from their village? What's next -- The Full Monty, Jr. ?"
I saw Neil's point. Cleaning up an adult-themed musical so that kids can perform in it -- yanking out the "fucks" and "damns" and any necking scenes -- is one thing. But why adapt a musical about gangsters, for example, if you're going to have to obscure the very nature of the characters that people it? Will there be a prepubescent version of Man of La Mancha, in which Dulcinea's gang-rape is replaced by a scene in which some randy 5-year-olds just sort of mess up her hair a little? Can we expect to see a "Junior" production of West Side Story, in which Tony doesn't kill Bernardo, just makes fun of his shoes? In which Anita misses getting roughed up by the Jets because she's at home cramming for mid-terms? In which Chino and Tony end their feud not with bloodshed but with an interpretive dance about the power of forgiveness?
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Why, if there are plenty of plays and musicals that are an easy fix for a "Junior" production, are these naughty shows being cleaned up for kids to see and perform in? Pretty much everyone I asked at local youth theaters told me that "Junior" productions are often chosen because they're smaller, easier-to-stage, easier-to-view versions of beloved shows. Apparently the thinking is that kid thespians need to be exposed to classic American musicals, even if they contain unsavory characters or dark plot lines, and even when they're based on children's storybooks in the first place, as with Seussical: The Musical and Into the Woods, both of which are darkly adult and therefore have "Junior" productions.
As for the kids doing the watching, the consensus seems to be that shorter is better, because young audiences are more likely to make it to the second-act curtain if a show is "trimmed" from its original length.
In other words, it's okay to introduce kids to musical theater, so long as we don't also tell them that plays and musicals usually last at least two hours, during which time the audience is expected to sit still and listen to stories in which sad or nasty things sometimes happen. Which I can only see leading to a generation of actors who are outraged at the language and themes in musical theater ("What do you mean Billy is a thief who slaps his wife around and then dies?" I can just hear a future cast of Carousel whining. "This is a one-act musical!") who are bound to play to audiences who start squirming if a show lasts much past an hour.
I wanted to ask Neil if he thought future generations of theatergoers were being harmed by "Junior" productions, but he didn't come to the phone. "Recovering from having seen poster last night for Aladdin, Jr. ," he e-mailed later. "Will call soon."