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!