"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Starring in the title role of "Because of Winn Dixie," which makes its world premiere at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre this week: Taran, a 150-pound Irish wolfhound.
"It's a lot harder than it looks," said co-star Julia Landfair — an 8th grader at Episcopal Collegiate School who has been performing at the Rep since she was 8 years old — of working with an animal onstage.
"Because of Winn Dixie" is the first pre-Broadway musical to star a live dog in a leading role, and brings together an all-star creative team: music from Duncan Sheik (Tony and Grammy Award winner for "Spring Awakening"), lyrics and book by Nell Benjamin (Tony nominee for "Legally Blonde") and direction by John Tartaglia (Tony nominee for "Avenue Q").
The musical is based on the award-winning children's novel written by Kate DiCamillo in 2000. The book was also adapted into a film for 20th Century Fox in 2005, but Benjamin and Tartaglia both said they intentionally avoided watching the movie.
"We all wanted to create from the book," Tartaglia said. "I read it in two days and couldn't stop thinking about it. It dealt with very adult subjects and some of life's hard knocks in a way that was really intelligent and really profound and it just kind of sat with you."
The story takes place in a small town in the Florida panhandle, where 13-year-old Opal (played by Landfair) has just moved with her father, a preacher. Opal adopts a dog she finds in a Winn Dixie parking lot. The dog, which she names Winn Dixie, helps her meet people in town and navigate her difficult feelings about her mother, who abandoned the family years before.
"The thought of picking up some of the darker, cooler themes of this book through some kind of theatrical magic really appealed to me," Benjamin said.
One of the keys to that theatrical magic: Bill Berloni, the Tony-award-winning animal trainer who has been responsible for bringing hundreds of creatures big and small to the stage over the last three decades, including Sandy for "Annie" and Toto for the "Wizard of Oz" (actually, lots of Sandys and lots of Totos). Most of the (human) cast of "Winn Dixie" went to Berloni's Connecticut farm and worked with his dogs over two weeks.
"It was a big experiment," Tartaglia said. "It was so wonderful because there were so many what-ifs and all of them kind of worked. These dogs are so regal, and they have such presence, and they're so calm and they move in such a graceful way that actually they add to the scene."
"We had to come up with the dog rules," Benjamin said. "Like Asimov's rule[s] of robotics. One of the things that we were very strong on was that we wanted the audience to feel like, if they had ever had a pet, they recognized, 'Oh, my dog does that for me.' For instance, if Opal was sad the dog would go over to her in a way that your dog does, that would be real to everybody, as opposed to the dog fetching her a Kleenex box. Bill could certainly train him to do that, but that would make it more of a Disney animated character and not a real being."
When Benjamin signed on to the project, she pushed to bring in Sheik to write the music, and the two seem to share the mindset of creating a family musical that avoided the schmaltzy excesses that some might associate with the genre.
"There could be a version of this show that is sappy and sentimental and not that cool," Sheik said. "Nell has done a fantastic job of making sure that it's got an edge, some bite." (Benjamin chimed in, on cue: "A dog musical, with bite!")
For all of his acclaim scoring musicals, Sheik is still probably best known as a singer/songwriter who became a pop-rock star in the 1990s. His eponymous debut album went gold on the strength of its hit debut single. If you've listened to the radio in the last 18 years, you've heard "Barely Breathing," which stuck around on the Billboard Hot 100 for more than a year, one of the longest runs in history.
Once upon a time, Sheik said, he hated musicals, but after a friend approached him about an adaptation of a play he admired, he decided to give it a try. Now, he said, "I have a lot respect and admiration for musical theater composers, who I stuck my nose up at before. I love the medium. It's incredibly difficult to make musicals work."
While reading the book on which "Because of Winn Dixie" is based, Sheik said, he began thinking about the Southern rock he grew up around in South Carolina.
"It wasn't stuff I was necessarily a fan of but it was just in my environment," he said. "And I just thought this could be really fun and I kind of played with that musical style for this particular story. There are some ballads and stuff that is a little more musically sophisticated, but there are also songs where I was playing with ZZ Top or the Doobie Brothers or Southern rock radio songs and you don't even know who the band is."
"The score reflects Opal's point of view," Tartaglia said. "Often you think family musical and you think 'everything's going to be fine.' Nell and Duncan have written a show that's very honest to what a 13-year-old feels and sees and hears. It never feels put on. It feels very true and that's what families will relate to."
"Thirteen-year-old kids are much more sophisticated in their musical tastes than adults usually think they are," Sheik said. "They can get with way cooler music. That was the challenge — keeping it accessible, but knowing it's gotta be interesting to kids in a cool way and not just simple dumb pop songs."
The result, said Tartaglia, is a story and performances that will be moving to adults as well, the rare family musical that "everyone in the family is genuinely going to want to sit through and really invest in it."
"Because of Winn Dixie" runs through Dec. 29. Performances are 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $60 (or $25 to $55 in advance), half-price for kids.