Interview: On a Magic Carpet Ride: ALADDIN and the Musicals of Robin and Clark

Curt Dale Clark and Marc Robin

When Aladdin, directed and choreographed by Raymond Marc Dumont, opens on August 22, the four performances at Maine State Music Theatre will mark twenty-six years of collaboration and fifteen original shows created by the team of Marc Robin and Curt Dale Clark. These two highly respected artists - Robin, director, choreographer, Artistic Director of the Fulton Theatre and Clark, actor, director, Artistic Director of Maine State Music Theatre - have devoted a considerable portion of their indefatigable creative energy to composing, writing the books and lyrics for a series of musical fairytales designed to introduce new audiences to the magic, make believe and miracles that theatre can offer to the young and young at heart.

When Aladdin on his flying carpet, with his trusted friend the Chimpanzee Cashew reluctantly in tow, hurries to save the Princess Zenovia, sings, "We're on a magic carpet ride/flying higher than our dreams would dare to fly," he is sounding one of the chief recurring themes of Robin and Clark's shows: a call to adventure and imagination, a challenge to dare to dream big, to be original, and to follow one's quest. And when by the end of the hour-long adventure Aladdin has rescued Zenovia, he has also learned a most important lesson - that believing in himself is the most powerful and empowering wish of all.

For Robin and Clark, choosing to write for young audiences has been a special calling. "Introducing children at an early age to live theatre stimulates the imagination and the appreciation for and acceptance of the wonderful diversity of life," affirms Clark. "Theatre can both educate and entertain. For Marc and me it has been a priority throughout our careers to bring live theatre to a broad-based audience of all ages and communities. By creating a love of theatre in these young people, we give them a gift they carry with them the rest of their lives."

Robin concurs, recalling his own childhood: " I was filled with a sense of wonder at going to the theatre, and even if I didn't fully understand the process then, I knew it was special. Family shows allow family to come to the theatre together; they hook a child's imagination which, in turn, spurs them on to become better writers, speakers, dreamers. Theatre inspires and gives us so many possibilities for creative thinking."

Robin and Clark met in Chicago over twenty-six years ago and have shared their lives and work ever since. In the 1990s Robin was Artistic Director of the now defunct Drury Lane Evergreen Park where he led their Young Audiences program with Clark's assistance. Together they began to pen music, lyrics, and books for a series of classic fairytales reshaping them with contemporary twists and adding the dimensions of song, dance, and stagecraft. Their first endeavor was a version of the Nutcracker in 1990, followed in 1991 by Jack and the Beanstalk. Slowly they built a catalog of thirteen more shows, including their Treasure Island, which eventually grew into a full-length epic musical that received two highly acclaimed regional productions.

Several qualities distinguish these works, which include titles such as Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, and Little Mermaid. The team tailors its content and presentation to engaging young audiences as well as their adults, and they package these performances in productions set apart by fine singing, acting, and stagecraft. Then they put new spins on the stories, stripping away many of the stereotypes of the 18th and 19th century originals, downplaying the gruesome and the violent, and using the magic of these timeless tales to provoke thought and inspire positive values. As Clark describes it, "We attempt to socialize kids and teach them morals and standards of behavior and help them participate fully with other human beings." And, he adds, "We do not talk down to them."

Robin elaborates," We try very hard to write shows that adults will enjoy as well. When you bring a child to the theatre, we want to entertain you too and not have you check out for the hour."

Part of the reason the shows appeal to adults as well as children lies in the sophistication of the material and the freshness of the scripts, which the team has updated over the years. "We give both children and adults something to think about, something that has a larger meaning than pure entertainment," says Robin. Throughout their canon Robin and Clark retool so many of the fairytale themes that no longer have resonance for the 21st century. They battle sexism, gender stereotyping, racism, hatred and injustice; they poke fun at convention and tradition; they champion diversity, human dignity, inclusiveness, freedom of choice, tolerance, the right to be different, the courage of conviction, and the power of forgiveness. Moreover, they articulate an inspirational faith in the transformative potency of love and the miracle-working capacities of imagination and dreams. Cinderella, for example, deals with child abuse; Sleeping Beauty protests racism; Snow White and Aladdin bolster new images of the heroines as self-determining women.

What is extraordinary is that these messages are subtly presented, encased in humor, embedded in colorful characters who often speak directly to the audience and engage the youngsters in interactive responses, and, most of all, they are articulated in memorable music and brilliant lyrics. The lyrics are replete with dazzling rhymes, catchy turns of phrase, and cheeky irony. Or they are filled with a sincerity and a genuineness of emotion that is hard to resist. Many of the songs can stand proudly on their own without the script; they are eclectic, suggested by character, and varied in style from big Broadway numbers, to legitimate classical, to anthems, to tender ballads, to jazz, gospel, soul, and dance tunes. The orchestral underscoring of the book and transitions contains some luminous writing and interludes such as the storm sequence from Treasure Island is notable for its inherent melodic/harmonic orchestral merits. The vocal line is often complex and difficult, especially for soprano and tenor - (many were written for Clark's own voice with its extensive range and colors, lush lyricism, incisive delivery of text, and that indefinable heart-catching quality). This complexity becomes yet another factor in the larger appeal of the works, Clark believes. "Adults understand the skill involved, and guess what? The kids do, too, subliminally."

The collaborative process for Robin and Clark is a fluid one. They share a partnership as husbands and as artistic co-creators. "Each time it is different," Clark asserts. "Sometimes Marc will write the music and lyrics, and I will come in and adjust the lyrics. Sometimes I start humming a tune and put lyrics to it and record it for him, and he takes it and puts it in his fingers and makes it into music." Clark maintains that their personal relationship does help their artistic one, but that "We both retain a certain artistic independence as well. We may argue about something for a while, but eventually we find the solution or we take turns compromising. Either way we keep at it until we get it right."

"After twenty-six years, we finish each other's sentences anyway, and that's what composing really is," Robin sums up. Robin is a self-taught pianist, having learned the instrument by ear. "I have never studied composition. I hear a melody in my head; I play it on the piano; I record it, and I have someone else write it down. Sometimes Curt will come up with a melody and sing it to me, and then I figure it out and embellish it on the piano."

Their musicals have been performed worldwide in a numerous regional American theatres, as well as in translation abroad. As Artistic Directors now of two prestigious American regional houses, Robin at the Fulton in Lancaster, PA, and Clark at Maine State Music Theatre, they have been able to mount productions of these works each season for delighted family audiences. One of Clark's [and his managing partner Stephanie Dupal's] goals since assuming leadership of MSMT in 2013 has been to expand the Young Audiences program in terms of number of performances, attracting new audiences, and instilling in audiences at a young age an appreciation for quality live theatre. In the past few seasons MSMT has presented from the Robin and Clark catalog Cinderella (2013), The Little Mermaid (2014), Jack and the Beanstalk (2016), and now Aladdin (2016), while the Fulton has recently staged Beauty and the Beast (2016), Jack and the Beanstalk (2016), A Christmas Carol (2015), The Nutcracker (2014), Peter Pan (2015), and 'Twas the Night Before Christmas (2013). Meanwhile, Robin and Clark are also working on a new title, Rapunzel, and hoping to tweak Treasure Island a bit in preparation for a new production in the near future.

Just as Aladdin's magic carpet ride becomes a metaphor for the soaring heights to which imagination can take us, so, too do many other of Robin and Clark's beautiful melodies and lyrics exhort audiences to do the same. Alice sings of Wonderland, "Imagine such a place/, A place where nonsense fills the air/A place more magical than dreams," or Jim Hawkins sings of his yearning for adventure: "Look at me, I'm on adventure/On the deep, wide open seas,/Look at me I'm on adventure/ But it's just my fantasy..." Or in the same Treasure Island in one of Marc Robin and Curt Dale Clark's most beautiful compositions, Long John Silver surprises everyone with this heartfelt declaration of possibility and wonder:

"Miracles can happen any place or time,/Miracles can happen without reason or rhyme/And it may be monumental/Or perhaps it's very small/Or maybe it is life the greatest miracle of all!/Maybe it is life the greatest miracle of all!"

For Marc Robin and Curt Dale Clark theatre can capture and preserve these miracles, share and communicate them, and launch audiences, especially young audiences on their own voyages of adventure and discovery.

Photographs courtesy of Marc Robin, Curt Dale Clark, MSMT, and the Fulton Theatre

Aladdin will be performed at MSMT's Pickard Theater on August 22, 2016 at 10:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m., 4:00 p.m., 7:30 p.m. 207-725-8769


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