Not By The Book

When Sidney Berger, director of the Children's Theatre Festival at the University of Houston, heard that the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer of Fiddler on the Roof had a collection of kids tunes feeding the moths in his trunk, he asked if he could build a show around them, sight unseen. The composer, Jerry Bock, who had just won the National Theater Conference's Man of the Year award on Berger's nomination, of course, said yes.

"I was awed, to be frank with you, to think about the fact that Jerry Bock, who was one of my icons when I was in training in theater in the '60s, that I was writing a show for him," Berger says of The Magic Journey. "He took it very seriously. He called me lots of times, and faxed me … and asked me for redrafts of scenes. He could have been doing a Broadway show. That was the seriousness with which he committed himself to the project."

Bock originally wrote the songs early in his career for a New York educational radio program that addressed a vastly disparate topic each week. "The burden was on Sidney to construct a book around songs that have existed," Bock says. "Normally the book is written first, and then the score is written accordingly…. This was completely backwards." But, Bock notes, Berger has done a fine job with the material. Bock has even written a new opening song for the show, and has come to town for a week to help fine-tune the rehearsals.

The hard part for Berger was concocting a "book," or story, that tied together songs dealing with everything from Halloween to mothers dressing children in too many clothes. To do so, Berger created five fictional runaways who wind up in a surreal landscape where children "who don't have a place to go to" must confront a guardian angel. The angel sends each child on his own journey so that he can learn that running away is not always the best solution to a problem. The story structure fits the material: It provides plenty of solo space (for each child to tell and sing his own story) and some ensemble sections (for the entire cast to sing the more universal anthems).

This mode of constructing a book around prewritten songs is not unlike the earliest days of musical theater, when "sketch" or "theme" writers were given six to eight prepared tunes to work with. "Since the advent of Oklahoma! … the book was the fountainhead, the source of the score," Bock explains. "It's an odd way of working, but I think it's come off."

The collaborators consciously tried to create a piece that did not condescend to children. "I didn't want to do nursery songs and ABCs songs. I wanted to … assume they understood what was going on," Bock says.

"Children are not fools," Berger echoes. "We should never play down to them, and Bock would catch me when I did."

This experience marks a career first for Bock in at least one area. "It will be my first opening morning. I've been to opening nights, I've been to opening matinees, but I've never been to opening mornings….I love it." So, could Bock be back at the Children's Theatre Festival in the future? "What this experience has led me to is to really do a musical for children … from scratch," Bock says. "I'd love to come back here and do another one that's less of a revue type and more of a book musical."

No doubt Berger would look forward to Bock's return. "He is an incredibly perceptive man, and when he watches a play, he's almost like a child in the audience, and … I think, 'Why didn't I think of that?' It's because I'm not watching the show in as wonderfully innocent a way as he is."

Could this be the beginning of another shiner Bock in our midst?

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Dylan Otto Krider