The creative team behind “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical” knew sticking with the show’s original blueprints would be a winning formula.
How did they know? Years of experience — the musical is based off the much-loved Christmas TV special that’s aired every holiday season since 1964.
“The original television special has all of the major components of a musical already in place – endearing characters, an action-filled story, songs which define the characters and move the plot along, and an uplifting message of hope,” says Bob Penola, who wrote the adaptation for the musical, which hits the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord on Tuesday, Dec. 4.
The story about the reindeer with the bright red nose got its start in 1939 in the form of a poem by then-advertising copywriter Robert L. May, whose bosses at the Montgomery Ward retail company requested it. May wrote Rudolph as a reindeer because his daughter, Barbara, was fond of the deer at a Chicago zoo. The print edition of the poem was published in 1947, and Rudolph’s fame only grew from there.
The musical adapts the classic 1964 stop-motion Christmas special by the Rankin/Bass production company, wrapping its own original storyline around the poem’s core details. Born in Christmastown, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer is teased constantly by his friends because of his looks. Rudolph meets Hermey, the elf who wanted to be a dentist, and the two run away from home because they’re “different.” They meet gold-seeker Yukon Cornelius, encounter and eventually confront Bumble, the Abominable Snow Monster of the North, and save a group of “misfit” toys not unlike themselves.
Rudolph and friends return to Christmastown in time to hear Santa declare that Christmas is canceled because it’s too foggy for flight. But once Santa sees Rudolph’s glowing nose, he realizes he can guide his sleigh team through the dark skies to deliver presents to the world.
The sparkling set locations and details from the TV special – the innocence of the misfit toys, the snow-capped mountains, and the towering, sometimes comical Bumble, is exactly what the musical’s producers and designers wanted to give live audiences.
“The show follows the original special very closely – and Sam the Snowman is indeed our narrator,” says Penola in an email.
Producers made sure the sets and costumes closely resemble the TV special, almost to the letter.
“The set design is inspired by the original special, and provides the backdrop for all of the action. It’s also a fantastical world to bring to life on stage – the North Pole, Santa’s Castle, the Bumble and his cave,” says Penola.
The trees, costumes, and even Yukon Cornelius appear to jump out of the TV and land on the stage in this faithful reproduction. What may be most eye-catching is the Abominable Snow Monster, which towers 12 feet over the set.
“The combination of scenic pieces, lighting and sound FX bring the North Pole to life,” says Penola.
Shelby Talley, who portrays the plucky reindeer with the glowing red nose in the play, has a background in musical theater and has been performing since she was 6.
“I loved watching the 1964 Claymation (sic) film as a kid,” says the actress, adding, “Rudolph has been a wonderful role to play so far.”
Talley has appeared in “Mutt House,” “Beatniks,” and “Bonnie and Clyde.” She says Rudolph is her second professional show since leaving college last summer. This is her first regional tour.
Watching the original television production was a big deal in Talley’s house when she was growing up.
“My family tends to go all out for Christmas, so that means lots of Christmas movies,” Talley says in an email, adding that she gave the 1964 special some extra views to prepare for her own portrayal of Rudolph.
“Watching the film really was my study guide for Rudolph. I worked on the voice a ton and really tried to stay true to his age. The show really is the film coming to life on stage,” says Talley.
Penola, a producing partner for the musical and an award-winning playwright, says the decision to keep the show as a musical was easy — its song selection closely follows the 1964 version. Familiar songs like “There’s Always Tomorrow,” (sung by Clarice) “Silver and Gold,” (sung by Sam the Snowman) and “The Most Wonderful Day of the Year” (sung by the Elves) will bring warm memories to theater-goers.
“All of the original songs are intact, along with a few reprises. We have also added three new musical numbers, which were featured only as instrumental music in the original special,” he says.
Penola also makes sure to address one of the main parables of the play: that being different from others is OK, even welcome.
“It’s a show everyone can love together – and one that conveys a heartwarming message – that the thing that makes you different is the thing that makes you special,” says Penola.
“The story of Rudolph has such an important message of acceptance. I’m so happy I get the chance to play this role and portray this wonderful Christmas message,” says Talley.
As the play progressed, Penola noticed the production’s dedication to the original Rankin/Bass classic has resonated with audiences.
“As we developed this show, time and again we were struck by the audience’s desire to see what they knew and loved,” says Penola.
And he’s seen families of all ages attend the play.
“We see generations of families come together to see this show – grandparents who saw it as a special in the 1960s; their children, now fully grown parents themselves, raised on Rudolph; and their young ones – children for whom this will be their first experience with these characters and this show,” says Penola.
Talley, too, understands the gravity of playing an iconic character like Rudolph, and says she’s up for the challenge.
“I’m very excited to get on the road. We haven’t started just yet, but I’m sure my favorite thing will be being able to bring to life such a fond and memorable film for multi-generations,” she says in an email.