Of Bullies and Bioluminescence at the Van Wezel



In 1964, a young Bob Penola sat down in front of the TV and witnessed a little piece of history in the premiere of the animated TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. For near 30 years after that, he watched it almost every Christmas, and the triumphant tale of the bullied little bioluminescent caribou became engrained in his heart—so much so that he spent 20 years adapting and expanding the story for the stage. And for one night only this holiday season, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical comes to the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on December 22.

At its core, Penola says, the TV special was already a musical. “It has great songs that move the plot along, it’s got great characters and it’s got a wonderful message,” he says, but the challenge remained in how to translate such a fantastic story to the stage. The TV special had elves and toys and animals of all sorts—how could Penola make that work without the benefit of claymation?

“We were inspired to make it a living, breathing show that people could experience,” says Penola, so projections and shadowplay was off the table. It took years to “crack the code,” but the answer presented itself in an unconventional form—puppets. Puppets can offer the versatility necessary for such a bizarre cast of characters, yet without losing any physical or emotive presence, says Penola, “so you don’t lose the magic you remember.” For the misfit toys, for example, the puppets can be much smaller than the actor, yet the actor’s face and voice lend all the emotion needed. And for the abominable snowman, which needs to tower over the stage, three puppeteers can collaborate to coordinate one 15-foot-tall monstrosity.

And when it came to adding musical numbers to fill out the story, Penola went right back to the original songwriter—Johnny Marks. “We felt it was the most authentic way to expand the score,” Penola says. “We didn’t even have to look beyond the special.” In fact, three Marks classics lie hidden in the original special, where only a few notes of instrumental versions are used for transitions. Penola simply dug them out in their entirety and repurposed them. Other songs are given reprises or reshuffled, but everything stays true to the adventure that hooked Penola all those years ago.

Today, the musical continues to evolve (Rudolph actually flies now), and gain renewed relevance as the campaign against bullying continues to gain attention. Penola admits he couldn’t have seen that coming when he started working on this two decades ago, but couldn’t agree more with the heart of the message. “The thing that makes you most different,” he says, “is the thing that makes you most special.”

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical comes to the Van Wezel on December 22. Tickets are on sale.

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