MO WILLEMS has “more fun seeing the world than anybody else.” That’s the skinny from Rosemary Newcott, director of the Alliance Theatre’s Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical.
“He’s just tremendous in the room,” Newcott continues. “His observation skills are so sharp and his ability to see how young people think and feel is really honorable. For me, he is one of those people who really lives his art.”
Newcott, the Alliance’s Sally G. Tomlinson Artistic Director of Theatre for Youth and Families, leads the stage musical of Knuffle Bunny for a second time. In 2010, she directed its premiere at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Willems spun the show out of his 2004 best-selling autobiographical picture book about a daddy-daughter trip to the laundromat. He made sure to include gigantic dancing laundry — “the bigger the better.”
“He has this wicked sense of humor that doesn’t stop,” Newcott says.
She guided the original cast to achieve just the right balance “between showing real love and slapstick frustration,” Willems says. “I’m curious to see how this production differs from the original, which I hope it does. Theater should be an organic opportunity to change and morph.”
“Knuffle,” by the way, is pronounced “KA-nuff-ull.” It’s the Dutch word for “hug.” Who ka-new?
Willems, 47, has created more than 40 children’s books, and several have won top literary awards, including three Caldecott Honors and two Theodor Seuss Geisel Medals. Besides Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale and its follow-up, Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity, his many titles include Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and the Elephant and Piggie early-reader series. Just out is I Will Take a Nap!, the 23rd title in a series featuring best buds Gerald and Piggie.
Willems’ work is “filled with love,” Newcott says, and his humor tickles adults as much as it delights kids. “One of the things that makes his work so spectacular is that there’s a level of sophistication that makes it all-audience programming. That’s what I look for in every single thing I direct.”
Willems wants his work to be accessible and invites kids to try drawing his characters — much like he started out drawing Charlie Brown. He gets armloads of fan mail in which kids include drawings of wide-eyed Pigeon in comical situations. Here’s what else Willems had to say in an email chat:
Question: When did you first start drawing and making up stories?
Answer: I have wanted to draw and be funny from the time I drew on the walls with my poop as a toddler. Once I graduated to crayons and paper as a medium, I focused on copying Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the whole “Peanuts” gang. At age 5, I wrote to Charles Schulz and asked if I could have his job when he died.
Q: How did writing for “Sesame Street” help you grow as a storyteller?
A: “Sesame Street” changed my life twice. First as a child, when I was captivated by how funny the Muppets were and how cool the cartoons looked. I feel certain that sparked a desire to write and draw. Then again, in my early 20s, I was invited to write scripts and create animated films for them. My efforts on “Sesame Street” made me fall in love with the demandingly philosophical world of writing for children. Because children are new here, they haven’t had the time to get the myriad cultural references we take for granted. So your palette is limited to the core philosophical issues: What is love? Why do people hurt each other? Can I drive the bus?
Q: How did you get the idea that Knuffle Bunny could become a musical?
A: Turning Knuffle Bunny into a musical is a terrible idea. Many of my ideas are terrible ideas, because for me “terrible” simply means “hasn’t been tried before.” And I like trying things. The “terrible” idea here was creating a musical starring someone who couldn’t speak. That’s funny. So, the big aria of loss and love and fear is the heart of the show and, to me, “terribly” poignant.
Q: Did you have a Knuffle Bunny or stuffed toy as a child? If so, do you still have it?
A: I did have quite a few stuffed animals that hung out with me. My favorite was Red Lamb, an, uh, red lamb who, incidentally, was also my fiancée. In addition to having a menagerie of stuffed friends, I was employed by an Invisible Boss at an Invisible Invention Factory. I no longer have the stuffed animals and eventually married someone else. I do, however, still have that Invisible Boss.
Q: Of all choices, why a pigeon? Why did that creature become your signature character?
A: A hippopotamus would not fit on the page. Also, it’s a “terrible” idea to give a pigeon a starring role.