Pair turns favorite childhood story into musical
By Jeff Favre
Marlo Thomas (TV's "That Girl") released an album of songs and stories for children, in 1972, called "Free to Be ... You & Me."
Created by Thomas for her niece, to fill the void in material that inspired young people to chase their dreams, "Free to Be" became a best seller. It was followed by a book, a TV special, a play, and even a sequel, "Free to Be ... a Family." The original album, available now on CD, still finds its way into the music collections of today's kids via their Generation X parents and boomer grandparents.
And now there's also a musical, spun from one of the fairy tales, thanks to two children of the '70s who grew up listening to the album -- Elizabeth Tobias and Karen Hardcastle. The pair are founders of Creative Playground, which specializes in family theater.
Approached by Powerhouse Theatre to create a musical for the Santa Monica venue, they were asked by producer Andrew Barrett Weiss what story they would want to tell if they could tell anything.
Hardcastle didn't hesitate. "Atalanta," she said, referring to the fairy tale written by Betty Miles and adapted by Thomas for the "Free to Be ... You & Me" album.
But there was a problem. In 33 years, Thomas had never given permission for anyone to adapt the original source material.
Weiss, however, coming off a remarkably successful Powerhouse production, "The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World," contacted her. It took a year, but Thomas finally agreed. "Atalanta," book and lyrics by Hardcastle, music by David O, and starring Tobias in the title role, opens Saturday for a six-week run at the Powerhouse.
"I can't express to you how joyful we were," Tobias said, referring to the response by Thomas and Carole Hart, who produced the album. "'Free to Be,' and 'Atalanta' in particular, changed our lives. To think how Carole and Marlo, two good friends, inspired two good friends almost 35 years later to make this piece is incredible. It's a nice cycle that makes me feel like it's the right thing to do."
For those who didn't grow up with the Thomas album, "Atalanta" is the story of a princess whose father, the king, wants her to be married. But she wants to remain single for the time being and to explore the world.
As a compromise, the wise young woman agrees that the king may hold a race. The winner may marry her. But Atalanta will also run, and if she wins, she can choose whether to marry.
Princes and other noblemen come from far and wide to compete. Young John from the town also enters, simply for the chance to meet Atalanta.
Narrated by Thomas and Alan Alda, the original recording is about 7 minutes long. Obviously, it required plot expansions to become a 70-minute show.
Hardcastle added more information about John, his hopes and dreams. Also, she created a framing device: Diana, a minstrel and a friend of Atalanta's, tells the story.
David O, whose most recent effort was an adaptation at the Kirk Douglas Theatre of "The Very Persistent Gappers of Fripp," was everyone's first choice for composer.
"His music is so beautiful, but it's also challenging," Weiss said. "From the moment we started hearing what he was writing we knew it was going to work. We sent it to Marlo and Carole Hart. Carol called us, and she was almost giddy with excitement.
"Though the music and a few parts of the story are new, it was important to the creative team to remain faithful to the original text.
"The story remains relevant," Weiss said. "I look at my daughter, who is 2 years old, and I wonder if the whole world is open to her, and if she will be able to do anything that she wants.
"Our societies still put limits on what young women can do. It's an important message for all young people, and for adults, that everyone should be able to choose their own path in life."
Tobias concurs. "We feel as providers of theater and as artist-educators that there is not enough that encourages girls to be their true selves, that they can do anything, and that what they can achieve in life doesn't have to hinge on anything other than their determination and will.
"This story says that."
- Jeff Favre is a freelance entertainment writer based in Los Angeles.