In Defense of Charlie Brown

I've always had a love-hate relationship with the word deceptively. For example, suppose a musical is actually very complex, but it seems very simple. Is that show "deceptively complex" or "deceptively simple"? Yeah, me either. It's a valuable idea to have a word for, but no one is sure which way it works. Look it up in the dictionary, and it'll tell you it means either.

The Oxford English Dictionary website says, "Deceptively belongs to a very small set of words whose meaning is genuinely ambiguous in that it can be used in similar contexts to mean both one thing and also its complete opposite."

Gee, thanks. So the word deceptively is deceptively complex. Well played, sir.

You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown is one of those shows that people tend to think of as a family show or even a kids' show. Just because the characters are all kids. Except they aren't. Just like the deliciously sharp character sketches in T.S. Eliot's Cats poems aren't really about cats either.

At least in Annie, the kids are really kids, even though Annie is also not a kids' show. What kid even understands "We'd Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover," or what a Hooverville is, much less understands why the song is so darkly, angrily ironic?

But at least Annie is about a kid. You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown is not. It's about us in the audience. Just like Charles Schultz' brilliant strip. It's incredibly complex and subtle in its observations, but it comes across as so simple, so artless, so childlike.

In 1966, two fledgling producers approached songwriter Clark Gesner, who had written several character songs about the Peanuts comic strip. They wanted to create a full-length musical featuring Gesner’s songs and using Peanuts creator Charles Schultz’ original strips as dialogue scenes. In the spirit of the times, the show was to some extent group-devised with the actors, shaped and molded in rehearsal.

The show, dubbed You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, with book, music, and lyrics by Gesner, was directed by Joseph Hardy and choreographed by Patricia Birch (soon to do Grease), and opened off Broadway in March 1967 at Theatre 80 at St. Mark’s. It became an instant hit.

Hair was being created at the exact same time (also largely group-devised), and though that show was a more obvious expression of the hippie movement, Charlie Brown was a calmer, gentler, hippie cousin to Hair.

You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown looked both backward to Candide and forward to Cats. Certainly Charlie Brown was second cousin to Candide, perpetually beaten up by the world but always still soldiering on. And just as Cats wasn’t really about cats but more about the foibles of human beings, so too Charlie Brown was not really about kids but about the contradictions and inanities of adult society.

But also like Hair, it was a product of its time, laughing at adult culture under the cover of portraying five-year-olds. The song “Little Known Facts” was an obvious metaphor for the arguably tortured logic of organized religion, at least from the counterculture’s perspective. The show’s finale, “Happiness,” fully expressed the hippies’ philosophy of enjoying the simplicity and beauty of the world around us, letting go of life’s headaches and irritants, a full-throated declaration of love for the simple joys.

As in the strip that gave it life, each character in the show is an adult personality type – the impassioned and oblivious artist Schroeder (children and art!); the Zen-like philosopher (and fetishist) Linus; the pleasure-centric, Id-as-pet Snoopy; the controlling, bipolar bitch Lucy; and the long-suffering, ordinary, hopelessly passive Common Man, Charlie Brown. 

In fact, the whole show is a quirky but ultimately sincere exaltation of the Common Man, fully consistent with hippie philosophy. Though its characters are all stand-ins for adult personalities, their innocence and wide-eyed wonderment just might teach their audience something about living more fully and more authentically along the way.

Just a spoonful of sugar helps the philosophy and theology go down...

Fellow comic strip artist Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury, which also became a stage musical) described Schultz’s Peanuts strip as “the first Beat strip.” Edgy, unpredictable, way ahead of its time, the Peanuts strip had debuted in October 1950 and was regularly suffused with commentaries on literature, art, philosophy, classical music (and the question of what is art?), theology, medicine, psychiatry, sports, law, politics, and the still taboo themes of intolerance, depression, loneliness, cruelty, and despair. Trudeau said the strip “vibrated with 1950s alienation. Everything about it was different.” By the later 1960s, the Beat culture had evolved into the hippie culture, and a new sensibility had become clear in this material.

The producers wisely left You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown off Broadway where it belonged, with its bare set and colorful abstract cubes, rather than try to move it to Broadway to make more money. Richard P. Cooke wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “The characters live in a zone where childhood and adult wisdom and disillusionment meet.” He called it “an unusually worthwhile evening based on what might have seemed an unlikely foundation for the stage.” Walter Kerr wrote in The New York Times, “Charlie Brown’s combo, the best in town, embraces a handful of absolutely real, utterly earnest, deeply philosophical, and slightly insane undersized people.” Clive Barnes wrote, also in the Times, “So far as I can see it will probably run forever. It has a delicate way of bridging generations and bridging tastes.”

It ran an impressive 1,597 performances and sent out several national tours. One company played Boston for a full year. (An interesting bit of historical trivia – it was in Charlie Brown that famed film director Otto Preminger saw Gary Burghoff in the role of Charlie Brown, and recommended the actor to his brother Ingo Preminger, who was producing the 1970 film M*A*S*H. Burghoff was cast as “Radar” and it made his career.)

The musical was revived on Broadway in June 1971 but it only ran a month. It was revived again on Broadway in 1999, after a short tour, with new dialogue scenes from Schultz’s strips, two new songs by Andrew Lippa, and much re-orchestration throughout; and the character of Patty now morphed into Sally. It lasted only about five months and 149 performances, but it was nominated for four Tonys and won two, for Roger Bart as Snoopy and Kristin Chenoweth as Sally.

Perhaps it was never really meant for Broadway. Just like Cry-Baby, High Fidelity, Passing Strange, Sweet Smell of Success, Hands on a Hardbody, and so many other musicals ruined by the commercial impositions of Broadway's insane economic model. Maybe Charlie Brown is too gentle and subtle for Broadway. This show buckles under the size and spectacle and over-sized acting big Broadway musicals usually require, in part to justify the gigantic ticket prices.

You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown isn't a wacky musical comedy. It's not some silly little kids' musical. It works best when the actors play these character as honestly as possible, realizing that each character is both a precocious five-year-old and a weary adult trying to navigate the fast changing world of late 1960s/early 1970s America. Or for that matter, early 21st-century America.

It's a character study of us. And when it's done right and treated with intelligence and warmth, it's an extraordinary evening of potent, adult theatre.

'Cause really, aren't we ALL blockheads now and then?

Long Live the Musical!