Nowhere is Mister Rogers more revered than here in Western Pennsylvania where he lived and broadcast his iconic children’s show, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Those of us who grew up watching him change into that red sweater and sneakers each episode associate Mr. Rogers with comfort, security, and a sense of goodness. Seeing those episodes now, I’m struck by the humanity of his messages. Fred Rogers never spoke down to children - he spoke to and with children. Also, as a music educator, I’m impressed by his musical talent and the caliber of musicians he hosted on his show. Rogers allowed kids to experience music that many others would consider too sophisticated for an elementary audience.
When choosing musicals, I think Mr. Rogers is a great example to follow. We miss a great opportunity to spread Fred Roger’s love of and respect for children if we choose a show only because of its popular appeal. Kids have the ability to experience deep emotions and recognize messages of goodness and hope, so why not give them characters who are like themselves? Also, regarding music, it’s a mistake to assume kids will only want to sing the newest, most recognizable songs. We don’t give our students, including the youngest of them, the credit they deserve for musical taste and sensibility.
Think about the last show you directed. Hopefully, it was a big success! Who doesn’t love to watch kids perform? And I’m sure your kids loved their time on stage. But also ask yourself – what message did the kids come away with? What was the point of the story? Is there a concept or principle they can apply to their own lives? Did you discuss the importance of the message? Did the music convey meaning and emotion in a way kids could grasp and perform?
We all spend untold hours creating scenery, finding props, contacting parents, etc., but what is the point of all that activity if the experience doesn’t help your kids become better people? Or give your audience something to think about? Entertainment for entertainment’s sake is not a bad thing, but as children’s musical directors, I think our standards should be high. We miss the entire point of a theater experience if we let kids think that entertainment is the only goal. And if your show’s musical quality is lacking or exposes kids to only one style or genre, how will they appreciate other artistic experiences?
I’m speaking to myself as well as you. It’s so easy to get caught up in the supposed desires of your kids or community; giving them an unfamiliar show or one with a more challenging message seems risky. And taking the time to talk to your young cast about issues deeper than blocking or costumes seems unnecessarily time-consuming or, possibly, not part of your job as director. However, you can produce a wonderfully entertaining show AND promote a deeper understanding of theater and – even more – how to live our lives.
“At the center of the Universe is a loving heart that continues to beat and that wants the best for every person. Anything that we can do to help foster the intellect and spirit and emotional growth of our fellow human beings, that is our job. Those of us who have this particular vision must continue against all odds. Life is for service.”
― Fred Rogers
I once had a publisher tell me that kid’s musical directors want “light” stories and “staging that is simple.” Is this you? What do you look for when choosing a musical? The publisher’s business is to know what his customers want. Are you looking for “light” and “simple”? Is this publisher’s presumption correct? As a musical director myself, I’d like to push back against that idea.
Musical directors want stories that are "light.” Meaning….what? That drama is not suitable for children? Kids don’t deal with complex ideas or issues? If you work with children, you know for a fact that kids’ lives can be very complicated. You also know that they are strongly affected by the situations they find themselves in. As educators and directors, aren’t we obliged to help kids deal with life’s difficulties? In my experience, children often welcome conversations about the hard things they face – unfairness, bullying, grief, rejection, and more. And they also have profound insights into these topics.
I once wrote a musical adaptation of Good Times on Grandfather Mountain, a beautiful story by Jacqueline Briggs-Martin about a man named Old Washburn, a “fine whittler” who faces hard times by whittling a drum from his lost cow’s milk bucket, drumsticks from the fenceposts of his runaway pig, and even a fiddle from the wood of his blown-down cabin. While he can’t escape trouble, he is determined not to let that trouble define him or change his outlook on life. I chose to adapt this story because the mother of several children in our school (also a personal friend of mine) was battling cancer. She was in the last stages and we all knew the inevitable was coming. While I didn’t discuss cancer directly with our students, we did have conversations about how to confront the terrible events we sometimes face. We sang ballads like Hard Times and This Too Shall Pass, but we also danced to bluegrass and honky tonk tunes called The Itch to Travel and Rompin’ and Stompin.’ That was a difficult school year, but our musical was one way in which we tried to support this struggling family.
When we as directors look for material which avoids “heavy” topics, what we’re avoiding is real life. Who benefits from light shows? The director, because the director doesn’t need to have deep conversations or confront gray areas and difficult situations. I completely understand why teachers, particularly those in public school settings, want to avoid any personal involvement in tangled family situations. However, these topics don’t have to become intimate to help kids and make a positive impact.
Also, stories with challenging topics don’t need to be sad or too adult for kids. If approached in the right way, they can be fun, and even funny! They can build empathy and a desire to help friends who are struggling. Additionally, the conversations around adversity help build a cast who support one another. We already know that theater has the power to change lives. Often, theater gives kids a friend-group and a voice they didn’t previously have. A powerful story simply adds to the impact of a positive theater experience.
If you are directing children’s drama in a church setting, you have an even greater reason to perform an impactful show. As people of faith, we are called to help the hurting, and that includes the children in our congregations. By relating stories which feature children like them facing tough situations, we can make scripture more relevant and meaningful. A great musical message can also launch mission projects such as clothing or shoe donations, foster care support, refugee resettlement, and more.
Regarding the publisher’s desire for shows with simple staging, this is certainly a reality for some directors. Time and resources are often at a premium. However, staging requirements shouldn’t rule out a show with an otherwise great story. Creative directors can find easier ways to create an illusion onstage. Most of us know that powerful drama will still happen even without a big expensive set or elaborate costumes. While those things are great if you have the time, expertise, and money to provide them, they don’t define a show. I would hate to rule out a wonderful story simply because the set may be tricky.
While publishers may find that easy, light children’s shows sell, we aren’t required to buy them. We, as directors, spend untold hours in rehearsal to produce musicals for kids. Why spend all those hours on shows with shallow characters, silly situations, and fluff music? You could spend the same amount of time and effort, have just as much fun, and make a real difference in the life of a child with a quality story, well-crafted kid-friendly music, and a life-changing message. Which will you choose?
Diane Beckstead is an educator, composer, and founder of Musicals for Change, a company devoted to quality kid’s musicals with a greater purpose. For each musical purchased, 10% will be donated to a partner charity. https://www.musicalsforchange.com
It seems like every children's theater production these days has a "Junior" in the name - Beauty and the Beast JUNIOR, The Little Mermaid JUNIOR, Frozen JUNIOR (or sometimes just KIDS). These "miniversions" of popular musicals are everywhere. I'm not here to bash Disney. They have done some amazing storytelling over the years and there is a reason why everyone wants to see their shows. In fact, I just finished directing a high school production of Disney's Newsies (not Junior) and it was a great success. However, I don't typically perform Disney Junior or Disney Kids shows with my elementary and middle school school students, and here's why.
1) Do we only want kids to read Disney stories? Of course not. Then why would we only let them perform Disney stories? The world of children's literature is rich and varied. We do kids a disservice when we limit the kinds of stories they can tell.
2) A condensed show loses its power. In a good story, characters grow and evolve. How do you condense a 90-minute show into 30 or 45 minutes and still develop believable characters? Well-written short stories are meant to pack a punch in just a few pages, and well-written children's musicals should do the same.
3) Kids should be able to tell stories about kids, not adults. Although many Disney stories have child characters, many do not. Instead of pretending to be adults in romantic relationships, it would be nice to see kids just being kids.
4) Most Disney songs are sung by adults. Children want to mimic what they hear, which means that when they sing the Disney songs they've heard, they'll want to sing like adults. Kids need developmentally appropriate songs that help them find their own voice.
5) It's obvious that Disney shows are recognizable and will bring in crowds. Audiences like familiar stories, and so do young actors. However, I don't think it's our job as directors and educators to simply continue feeding kids what they already know. If we don't expose them to new and challenging material, who will?
6) Directors may also gravitate towards the familiar, possiby because it seems easier or because the audiences may be larger. But there is no basis for believing a Disney show will be easier to produce, and even if it was, that shouldn't be the reason for choosing a musical. Regarding audience size, who doesn't want to see kids perform? Families and friends will show up no matter what.
I founded Musicals for Change because quality children's shows are hard to find (other directors also write shows despite the fact that it is immensely time consuming). In addition, shows by Musicals for Change are partnered with worthy organizations to draw attention to causes that kids can understand - a lack of shoes, the need for housing, for acceptance, and for empathy. These shows are meant for kids. It is possible to perform better shows, teach kids important messages, entertain audiences, and have fun all at the same time!
It was so exciting to have an actual, LIVE performance of If You Could Dance in My Shoes this summer. We rehearsed with masks, took precautions, but performed the debut show with smiles visible! Of course, now we're back to square one and wondering when we'll perform live again, but I'm so glad, for the kids' sakes that they had that opportunity.
Our Musicals for Change Theatre Arts Camp was the first time I've produced a new summer camp show with kids. Generally, I've rehearsed musicals over a 10-week period during the school year. However, as a former camp director, I've always believed in the power of the camp experience. There is something about that daily, intense interaction that creates a special bond. This is exactly what happened during theatre arts camp, and I have to say that the closeness our students developed created moments I never could have anticipated.
First of all, if you haven't looked at the preview scripts, video highlights, and listened to the music of If You Could Dance in My Shoes, you should! This show was several years in the making and only got better with extra pandemic editing time. Secondly, the message of the show - empathy and understanding - was not simply acted but powerfully lived out during camp in ways I didn't expect. Our students, ages 10-15, came from several different schools. Some knew each other, others had never met. We did team building activities in the morning and had a policy of "no one eats alone" at lunch. Our choreography included a lot of partner dances, and the students had time to talk during scenery painting and shoe decorating. They also played some wild games of 4-square after lunch each day! Several times I used the Conversation Starters in the Director's Guide to talk about the message of the show: Have you ever worn shoes that hurt your feet? Did you have to wear them? Have you ever been without a home? Where did you live? Do you have someone you could talk to if you were worried? We had some very thoughtful discussions..
The last morning of camp we ran our dress rehearsal in preparation for the evening's show. The kids did well but we had a few tech issues which slowed us down. It was important that we run the show again after lunch; however, we all needed a break and went outside to eat in the sunshine. Before returning to the stage I decided we should gather as a group one more time. I wanted to be sure that, in the craziness of our 2-week drive to the performance, the message of the show had not been lost. The refrain of the song Kick It Up! says "Together, we're better. Have you ever judged or been misjudged? Everyone needs love! Love, love, love, love..." I wondered if the kids had actually absorbed these words. Or did they just perform them?
So, we sat as a group in the shade of the school playground and I asked each student to share one thing about themselves. It could be small (number of pets?) or big. I started, briefly telling them about my time living in another country where I didn't speak the language. Many people there were kind to me, but it was difficult to fit in. This wasn't a very deep story, but it was an opening to what turned out to be a flood gate of the kids' deepest difficulties and challenges. I was completely floored by their honesty, the depth of their feelings, and the empathy and care they showed for each other. There were tears and hugs, but we had to nix the group hug (Covid, after all) and instead circled up with our hands in the middle for a loud "Let's shine!" before heading back to the stage.
The performance was wonderful! The kids really knocked it out of the park, but the highlight of Theatre Arts Camp for me was that afternoon in a circle under the trees, listening to each others' stories. I know it was powerful for the kids too, and a little overwhelming. However, I thanked them for their honesty and reminded them that "what happens at theatre camp, stays at theatre camp." It was a very personal time that I hope they treasure like I do.
What I am finding as I write these musicals is that kids have a lot to share. That seems obvious, but when you allow them to confront difficult subjects - grief, loss, judgment, self-worth - they grow. I grow. It would be easier to write fluff and never have to deal with hard topics, but what is the gain? Kids want fun shows but they also need honesty and a greater purpose, just as we all do. The reward is so worth it! I am grateful to my students for affirming this belief and hope I can continue to write shows that speak to their deepest emotions, whether it be grief, or the joy of being onstage, singing and dancing with friends.
Today was the first day of the 6th Cribs for Kids National Conference in Pittsburgh, and it was a great reminder of why I do what I do. Scientists, health professionals and policy makers concerned with the wellbeing of infants were all saying primarily the same thing - the goal of SIDS research is to gather evidence that will ultimately change behavior and create safe environments for newborns. There also seemed to be a consensus that more pamphlets and information delivered as it's always been delivered are not necessarily the answer. But that's where the arts come in. What moves people to incredible emotional highs and lows, spurs empathy and creates understanding better than stories? And drama? And music? Behavior doesn't change just because we have more knowledge. Behavior changes because we've heard someone else's story and we relate to it on a profound level. The story of how one couple, Maura and Sam Hanke, lost their son Charlie to SIDS is gut-wrenching. That tragic story told onstage through music sung by Charlie's sister can be life-changing for others. I say that's where we start. We communicate, we develop empathy, we change behavior. And we use the arts to do it.
I am a terrible party goer. While I enjoy a good birthday party or a graduation picnic, don't invite me to your candle party. My friends know this about me. I get a little grumpy when I feel like I'm being pressured to buy things that I don't need so you can get things that you don't need either. If you are offended by this, you won't understand the rest of this post. However, if you can relate, you may be interested in learning about my musicals.
To be fair, the candle party is the reason I started Musicals for Change, so I suppose there was a silver lining. By way of explanation, I was pretending to enjoy myself at the party one summer evening and hoping I'd at least win a door prize when it occurred to me that if I were going to gather people together, it would be for a good reason. A charitable reason, something that would result in an outcome better than a candle (candles are nice - they smell good, but there must be something more to life than the scent of Pumpkin Buttercream suppressing the odor of stinky shoes in my mudroom).
As a music educator and church choir director, I am responsible for numerous performances throughout the year. A well-performed concert is certainly an end in itself, and we all know the power of music. It can move people in a way that nothing else can. When you gather people together for a performance, particularly one involving children, you have a rapt, generally supportive audience. Why not do even more than lift spirits? Why not take it to the next level and inspire action? Create change for the greater good?
My first children's musical written with a greater purpose in mind was an adaptation of the book Beatrice's Goat by Page McBrier and Lori Lohstoeter. The book tells the true story of Beatrice Biira, a Ugandan girl whose family received the gift of a goat from Heifer Project International. The goat provided milk for Beatrice and her siblings and extra income from its kids which allowed Beatrice to attend grammar school all the way through college in the US. Our production of Beatrice's Goat featured a Ghanian narrator, African percussion, a cup tapping song, dancing 'goats,' and a live goat onstage. Enough money was raised by that one performance to purchase ten more goats for Heifer Project. The children also made a large graduation card for Beatrice, who happened to be graduating from college that same month. They were very pleased with not only their performance, but their ability to contribute to something greater than themselves.
Now I've written a total of five musicals for various causes. My most recent show, the Christmas musical No Crib for a Bed (to benefit Cribs for Kids®, a national organization dedicated to safe infant sleep) can be purchased at musicalsforchange.com. A portion of the purchase price will be donated to Cribs for Kids® and their partner organization Charlie's Kids to further their mission of providing cribs and safe sleep education to young families.
Musicals like this one have a very concrete mission, one that my young students can understand. In my experience, when children learn about a need and perform a story that inspires empathy, they want to make a difference. They just need adults to give them some direction. And when the parents watch their children perform with such earnestness, they are also spurred to act.
So candle parties are fine for some people, but don't invite me. Not unless you are sending the proceeds to someone who can't afford a meal, much less a candle. There is so much good to be done, too many stories to be told, and too many songs to be sung. Instead of buying a candle, just be the light.