David Emerson Toney agreed to write the book for a children’s musical at Adventure Theatre based on Ezra Jack Keats’ well loved book “The Snowy Day”. But he was stuck.
In the book, Peter is excited that school was cancelled because of the snow. “I’m from Cleveland,” he told us. “In 17 years [of going to school], I can remember only one snow day being called. We all went to school no matter what the weather was.” The adult Toney came to enjoy snow breaks. “All the pressure was gone. I saw how clean it made everything … and how quiet it got all of a sudden.”
But how to get into six year old Peter’s head? Playwright/director Mary Hall Surface had a suggestion, and it turned out to be the key that opened the book up for him. “Picture yourself looking out a window and seeing your son alone in the snow. What would you wish for him?”
The answer came immediately. That his dreams should come true. And one of those dreams would be that he set off on an adventure.
So in the play, premiering this week at Adventure Theatre, Peter meets a snowman who is afraid he’ll melt when the sun comes out. Peter, who sees himself as Peter the Great, wants to get the snowman to the North Pole even though the snowman has no feet and his mother says he’s not allowed to go beyond the corner.
No problem for Toney or for DC composer Darius Smith, who came in to write the music and lyrics. Together, they laid out the plot, taking what little there was in the original book – a picture book needn’t have many events – and suggesting story ideas to Michael J. Bobbitt, Adventure Theatre’s Artistic Director.
Toney’s first inclination was to take the story along a dark, dramatic path but Bobbitt, with an idea of what would win the publisher’s approval, said “that will never fly” and sent the two back to rethink the storyline. “Michael really knows the field he’s in,” Toney said. “He told me things I’d never have come up with. For example – events don’t have to be big. When you’re three, or five, falling down is an event.” In an early draft, Toney wrote the snow in as an unseen character, and imagined voices of the snow coming from all areas of the theatre. But Bobbitt knew “children don’t like to hear disconnected sounds. It scares them, doesn’t make them feel safe.”
David Emerson Toney settled in DC because he knew he would be able to both act and write here. He mentions two favorite DC productions of his plays – Kingdom, a meditation on Richard III, which takes place in Cleveland, 1968, produced by African Continuum Theatre and The Soul Collector about two garbage collectors who come across a woman inhabited by spirits (Erika Rose), produced at Everyman. He is working with Christopher Youstra on a musical based on King Lear set in reconstruction Alabama, titled Elysian Fields, which workshopped last year at the Intersections Festival.
As an actor, he is very much in demand. He played Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare Theatre which closed January 7th, while preparing to play Frederick Douglass in Necessary Sacrifices at Ford’s Theatre, and finishing Snowy Day. Darius Smith, meanwhile, is a sought after orchestrator and a professor at Howard University.
So no time for meetings over coffee for the busy collaborators. They worked, instead, in sessions over Skype, grabbing time between rehearsing, teaching and other writing projects. “One thing that worked for us” he said, talking about their writing process, “is I would write some dialogue, and then write some very bad lyrics where the songs go.” And Smith, the composer, would turn that into great music and lyrics.
“The Snowy Day” was the first children’s book with an African American child as the lead character and it won the coveted Caldecott Medal in 1963. While the story is a universal one, “We didn’t want to homogenize the musical in any way.” It’s Smith’s genius for musical stylings that keeps it squarely among the five musicals Adventure Theatre has planned as part of its African American series. You can hear some of Smith’s music for the show in this interview with Rebecca Sheir heard recently on WAMU.88.5.
The entire process, from agreeing to do the project until now has taken two years. And, while the Snowy Day cast is in final rehearsals getting ready for the opening on January 20th, Toney has turned the show entirely over to Smith. “I just get an occasional note. I hope I’ll get to see it.” For David Emerson Toney must be setting some kind of Washington theatre record. He will have two shows opening on the same day – his story of Peter and the snow, and the one he tells as an actor, playing Frederick Douglass at Ford’s Theatre.
“It’s all about compassion.” he said about Necessary Sacrifices. The actor’s job is “to show human kind who they really are – not who they think they are.” “Hopefully, people of color will see a man play a role and realize how wondrous they are.” The same goes for seeing a boy out in the world on his first snowy day.
The Snowy Day opens January 20th and runs thru February 12, 2012 at Adventure Theatre, 7300 MacArthur Blvd Glen Echo, MD.
Details and tickets
DCTS review of The Snowy Day musical
Keats’ children’s book “The Snowy Day” as read by storyteller Jane Harvey