This show, as all of you are probably aware, bombed in its Broadway engagement, but to the surprise of everyone, this turned out to be our era’s Candide or Merrily We Roll Along…the flop musical that got continuously reworked in other venues and eventually emerged as a genuine success and a part of the standard musical-theater repertoire. This actually makes a certain amount of sense, as the basic idea is a good one. Indeed, combining multiple Dr. Seuss stories into a single narrative is probably the only feasible way to adapt his work into anything longer than 30 minutes and still come out with something remotely faithful to his spirit (as the recent crop of ‘Sellout Seuss’ movies seems to prove). But unlike those works, which were essentially soulless cash-grabs, this show, however flawed its early incarnations may have been, was a well-intentioned and sincere attempt to pay tribute to one of the greatest children’s authors of all time.
And the basic story at the center of the show…basically the two Horton stories combined, with the smallest Who (here called Jojo) fleshed out into a co-star and Gertrude McFuzz (of the One Feather Tail) added as Horton’s love interest…was a strong one from the beginning. Unfortunately, the Broadway version tried to shove in a cameo by every famous Seuss character, burying their central plotline in an avalanche of go-nowhere subplots. Flaherty and Ahrens wrote the book themselves, which might explain why it took several tries to get it right, since neither had much experience as a librettist. This was compounded by another problem: the visuals. After all, we already know how these characters are supposed to look, and that look is utterly impossible to reproduce on stage, so the show, especially in the Broadway production, looked awkward and wrong.
But the show does have one monumental strength, and this is why Flaherty and Ahrens were right to refuse to give up on it: the music is absolutely wonderful. Endlessly tuneful, charged through with a joyous energy, and with a sound perfectly suited to portray a children’s fantasyland, the score totally justifies the attempts at revision; it’s simply too good to waste. Highlights include the thrilling opener, “Oh the Thinks You Can Think”; two beautiful ballads for Horton and Jojo, “Alone in the Universe” and “Solla Sollew”; two strong love songs for Gertrude, “Notice Me, Horton” and “All for You”; and the jauntily cynical “How Lucky You Are”. No-one…not even Seuss himself in his TV specials…has managed to capture the spirit of the books so successfully in song.
Ahrens’ dialogue and lyrics can come off as trying too hard at times (“If you’re hungry, there’s schlop in the fridge-a-merator”), but they’re true to the spirit of the source material. And despite the authors’ visible inexperience in how to structure a libretto, the decision to keep most of the dialogue in the rhymed-couplet format that Seuss himself used was a wise one; as the authors observed, if your characters have a naturalistic conversation for too long at a time it doesn’t really feel like Seuss anymore.
In its later revisions, the show has been tapered down to a ninety-minute one-act, the plot distractions have been minimized, and the visual look, while still far from perfect, has advanced beyond its embarrassing early stages. The score did end up having to sacrifice a few good numbers to accommodate the shorter running time, but the best of the music, including all of the highlights mentioned above, remains in the show. The show has redeemed itself in children’s theaters around the country, and even played an off-Broadway engagement and received a second New York cast album, which is quite an achievement for a cult flop. It’s not Flaherty and Ahrens’ most substantial effort, but for their most famous flop, it ironically wound up being their most successful show after Ragtime and Once On This Island.