Familiar Holiday Story, Big Anti-Bullying Twist

The animated classic Rudolph hits the Merriam, and producers have teamed up with the National Bullying Prevention Center.

The cast of "Rudolph."

The cast of “Rudolph.”

Alright, admit it: How many times have you watched those stop-motion animated holiday television specials, sang along to the songs, and thought, “These would make the best stage musicals?” You weren’t alone. In fact, theater producers put the idea to the test back in 2012 with a live version of Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer, complete with the Island of Misfit toys.

It was a hit, so much so that this holiday season there are three national touring companies of the production playing over 50 cities, including an upcoming stop at Philly’s Merriam Theatre, and that’s on top of two sit-down productions in both Raleigh and Orlando. However, we often forget that the title character of Rudolph was the victim of bullying because of his shiny red nose. Producers took note of this fact and teamed up with the National Bullying Prevention Center to send a clear message to youth that it is downright not cool to bully anyone due to their looks, sexual orientation, physical disability, etc.

We sat down with the show’s Producing Partner, Bob Penola, about why Rudolph is such a good fit for the stage and what anti-bullying resources are available for educators, parents, and audience members who bring youth to the musical.

I think it’s really quite genius, even from a marketing standpoint, to bring Rudolph to the stage. Who is the brainchild behind the idea, and what has the translation process been like? Really, the brainchild was the original creators because the television special was essentially a musical: There were all of these characters, a great plot, and fantastic musical production qualities. The hardest thing about the translation process was bringing all of the things that people love from the television special to the stage, like the misfit toys. What got us there was combining live actors and puppets. They are beautiful puppets. You forget that the puppeteers are on the stage, and it creates such a sense of fantasy. For example, the Bumble is operated by three people. It’s old theatrical effects and great performers.

A scene from "Rudolph."

A scene from “Rudolph.”

I’d love to hear more about the show’s tie-in with the National Bullying Prevention Center and the Shine Bright Campaign. When the show became a live entity back in 2012, it was such a natural fit in terms of story, and that story is one of the reasons that it has been so long lasting. It’s a story about someone who is bullied but who has the greatest gift. It’s completely relevant to bullying prevention across the country. We’re talking about bullying now more than ever. That’s part of the reason why this sort of show can really help. Every kid has that moment when they want to be nasty to another kid, but this gets out in front of that. On the National Bullying Prevention Center’s website, there’s information about the Shine Bright Campaign. It’s a great kick-off for talking points and there’s a lot of educational materials. There are classroom activities, discussions, and activity guides to use with students. There are tons of connections to schools with the tours: There are many special promotions and groups. The show has absolutely got a social connection.

I’m guessing there are a lot of families and kids who show up to the performances of the musical, but I can also imagine that the adults who attend are pretty nostalgic, too. Absolutely. I saw it the other night in Boston, and the audience was filled with little children. I mean, little, little children with their parents and grandparents. But, there were also young couples and single people with friends. This piece has been around for over 50 years and people have such a strong affection for it, whether it is with their families or by themselves.

I think all of those old holiday animated specials would be such good stage musicals. Besides Rudolph, what other ones would you love to see on stage? Oh, God, I’m so connected to this property that it’s hard for me to say. I love them all. But…if I had a nostalgic favorite besides Rudolph, I’d have to say Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

Yes! Or, I’d love to see A Year Without a Santa Claus with the Heatmiser! They all have such lovely musical components. They have these great musical numbers and natural production qualities.

“Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer” will fly into the Merriam Theatre December 17th through the 20th. For tickets and more information, click here.