Saturday, January 14, 2012

From the Page to the Stage: a few tips on how I adapt a picture book into a musical

At Stages Theatre Company on opening night of LLAMA LLAMA RED PAJAMA
I am frequently asked how I take a picture book of say 200 words or so, and turn it into an hour musical. I have a few secrets that I'd like to share.
The book author has already done a lot of the work. They have developed a character, a problem, and an ending. So I begin there.
In the case of Anna Dewdney's LLAMA LLAMA RED PAJAMA, Artistic Director Sandy Boren-Barrett had the idea of having six baby llamas and six mama llamas instead of just one each. Each character has a unique and clear personality. The individual mamas only relate to their own babies, so in essence there are six stories tied together with wonderful musical numbers composed by Shirley Mier.
Then my imagination gets to unleash. One of the babies is a drama llama, another loves to golf, one likes to do magic tricks, Billy is the next "tap-dancing sensation!", one baby plays soccer, and another is an avid reader.
As a result, each baby establishes what they do immediately. They have conversations with their stuffed baby llamas. Once they're tucked in bed, they come up with crazy ideas as to why their mamas aren't coming back to check on them.
"She probably joined the circus." "I'll be she went to outer space!" "She probably joined "Dancing With The Stars." "She went to Hollywood to be on "Are You Smarter Than A Llama?" "I'll bet she went up the beanstalk!"
And yes, I did word play. How could I resist having one of the mama llamas who happens to be a clean freak say: "I'd better clean up in case Obama Llama stops by." Or: "Pick up your dolly, llama." I just couldn't help myself.
Then the audience watches these vignettes come to life through the magic of theatre. It's just enough to keep the young ones engaged and the parents chuckling. What parent doesn't relate to trying to get their child to bed? And how creative do kids get in trying to have their parents return?
There are wonderful musical numbers such as: "I Don't Want to Go to Bed", "Llama Lullaby", "All Alone", "The Humming Song", "What is Mama Llama Doing?" and "Stomp and Pout, Jump and Shout".
I try very hard to stay true to the original author's intent although clearly much is added in the creation of a musical. But I think a lot of the process is wonderful for a picture book author. For example:
  1. Try writing your story only with dialogue. How does it change things?
  2. Try asking: "What if?" Let your character fly to outer space if they feel like it. You can always bring them back later.
  3. Don't limit the dialogue to just the characters. What if the stuffed animal talked to your character? What if their pet spoke to them? The lamp? What would they say, and how would your character respond?
  4. Try different settings for your story. How would it change if your character was in a boat in the middle of the ocean? In a tree? In another country?
  5. DON'T CENSOR YOURSELF! This is a big one for me and a lot of writers. You know that voice that is always telling you: "That is ridiculous. A chicken can't waltz!" Well, guess what? In my world they can! Have fun. The real work begins in the rewrites anyway. 
Jennifer Kirkeby is a published playwright, actress and teaching artist. Her adaptation of Ludwig Bemelmans' MADELINE'S CHRISTMAS (Dramatic Publishing Company) has been performed in more than 45 theatres nationwide. She's the mama of two beautiful girls who were masters of avoiding bedtime when they were little.


Beth Stilborn said...

Very interesting process! Thanks for sharing. Again, I wish I was able to be there in the audience.

Do you first have to get permission from the author, when it's someone else's book you're adapting?

Jennifer Kirkeby said...

Great question, Beth! We absolutely get permission from the publisher and the author. They read the script before it is produced.

Jennifer Lee Young said...

Thanks for going over the process Jennifer, it was very interesting. Also, thanks for the writing tips!!!

MJ Ornaments said...

Hi Jan,
Well, "pick up your dolly llama" is the best line! I enjoy a story where the kids can laugh as well as the adults. Interesting process. Have you ever adapted a book that is all pictures, and no writing?
Xo Martha

Jennifer Kirkeby said...

You are welcome, Jennifer!
Martha, no I haven't adapted a book that didn't have text. However, some of the stories that I've adapted have had very few words. It's a great challenge!

Beth Stilborn said...

Jennifer, to celebrate Llama, Llama, Red Pajama ONSTAGE, and to celebrate getting to know you through 12 x 12, I've just awarded you the Liebster Blog Award. See the details at this post on my blog:


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