BWW Interview: Steven Reineke Talks A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS with NY Pops, NY Theatre Ballet and TADA! Youth Theater
Steven Reineke, Music Director of The New York Pops, is hoping to bring the true meaning of Christmas to Carnegie Hall this Saturday with a brand new family concert version of A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS, based on the beloved TV special by Charles M. Schulz.
With help from a slew of performers from all over New York City and input from the TV special's executive producer Lee Mendelson, this Peanuts concert has the makings of a new holiday tradition.
Reineke recently spoke with BWW about adapting A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS for the stage and the collaborative power behind it.
How are rehearsals going?
Things are in great shape. All the music is all ready to go for A Charlie Brown Christmas, and we're very excited about it. It's a neat collaboration and it's also a one-of-a-kind. Nobody's ever done this performance before. It's something specifically that we're creating between The New York Pops and New York Theatre Ballet, as well as some actors from the TADA! Youth Theater.
I didn't think that I'd seen a staged concert version of the TV special before. Can you talk a little bit about some of the similarities and the differences between the two?
We're trying to tell the story that everybody knows from so long ago. This is such an iconic, classic Christmas tale that many of us grew up on. And it was the first of the Charlie Brown specials, and it aired 19 years ago back in 1965, and it's been going every year since. So we stay very true to the intent of the animated cartoon. But one main difference is that we've added a song. Something that was written after-the-fact by Lee Mendelson, who was the executive producer of A Charlie Brown Christmas. He wrote a song called "Just Like Me" that Charlie Brown is going to sing, and it points out the similarities between Charlie Brown and his sad, little tree and also how beautiful the tree can be. It's really a sweet, charming song.
How does it work with wrangling all the different performers and elements?
We started many, many months ago crafting the script and the flow that we wanted to do and what musical selections we wanted to do and timing them out to involve all of these portions. And the choreographer and director of the New York Theatre Ballet have been huge helps in all of this. They just have such wonderfully creative minds. And they've done an awful lot to envision what this would look like on the stage.
What about working with the TADA kids?
We did go through a lengthy process auditioning kids, and we came up with three of them that are just top notch. And many of them have some other professional experience. Like one of the young boys was in Lion King, another one's done a lot of commercial voice-over work and cartoon work. These kids are real pros -- at a very young age, they're already pretty seasoned. And they're just terrific; they totally understand it. It's funny because some of them sort of knew about A Charlie Brown Christmas but weren't as familiar with it as people of a certain age are. So it's fun for them to really delve into it. We have a Charlie Brown, a Linus and a Lucy. And then we also have our narrator -- the guy that really is going to help us move the story along -- John Tartaglia.
I was actually just going to ask you about John. What's it like working with him again?
Well, John is terrific. He's done a few things with me and the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall already. He's appeared on our galas before. Most notably, though, he collaborated with us and was a huge impetus to help us create our tribute to Jim Henson that we did at Carnegie Hall with all of the Muppets. We combined all of the Muppets, Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock all on one stage. And John was our host and MC for that night as well, which was just loads and loads of fun. So I'm really happy to be back with John. He's become one of my good friends, and he's such a great entertainer and performer. And he's just perfect for this project.
Are there any parts of the program you're most looking forward to? Any favorite moments or songs?
The whole thing is built with a really nice arc to it; it's a lot of fun telling this story about trying to put on this Christmas pageant, and they put Charlie Brown in charge of getting the tree, and of course, he gets the worst looking, saddest looking tree possible. But then Linus steps in and really tells everybody the whole, true meaning of Christmas. And that is just a great, great moment. And it's also when they sing "Just Like Me", and all the kids decide they're going to take this little tree and, they're like, "It's not so bad after all." And they make it into this beautiful tree. It's going to be a very theatrical moment onstage and one that's really going to tug at the heart strings.
I know early on with the TV special, it got some criticism because the message is so strong. I wondered what you thought about that as you go into the concert.
I did think about that; that's always a thought. The fact that they quote from the King James Bible about the meaning of Christmas with that great monologue. For so many people that is the meaning of Christmas, but even beyond a religious standpoint, it gets down to just stripping away the commercialism of Christmas and getting down to the heart of the matter and the things that really matter. So I think it's really just a universal message.
As far as Christmas and holiday concerts go, I'm sure you've done quite a few in your time directing, so how does this one compare to some of the others you've done?
Well, it's always fun, and of course a lot of work, but always incredibly gratifying to create something new that people haven't done before or seen before. So that's what makes this one so special and so unique. And also, it's for the kids; it's for our children's concerts. And in the past we've done The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, we've done The Polar Express, and it's so fun to be in Carnegie Hall and walk out onstage and hear and see all the kids that are there in the audience and their reactions throughout the whole performance. It's really magical to me to have these kids in Carnegie Hall witnessing really good art and being so entertained.
Is there anything that you wanted to add about the concert?
The executive producer, Lee Mendelson, is still alive, and I believe he's going to be there. He is firmly behind this project, so I'm really excited that we can present this and have him be with us as well.
That's amazing. So did you get to speak with him about including the new song in the show?
It was actually his suggestion. I didn't even know the song existed, and he brought it to my attention. And it's a wonderful, heart-wrenching song that is sure to bring a tear to your eye. And I had that reaction to it initially and thought, "We must add this to the show."
Be sure to check back later today for BWW's interview with the concert's host John Tartaglia!
A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS, featuring The New York Pops and Music Director Steven Reineke, Judith Clurman's Essential Voices USA, dancers from the New York Theatre Ballet and actors from TADA! Youth Theater, as well as Tony Award nominee John Tartaglia, is set for this Saturday, December 21 at 2 p.m. in Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage at Carnegie Hall. For more information, visit www.carnegiehall.org.