White’s ‘Trumpet Of The Swan’ Debuts On Stage
December 7, 2008
NPR’s All Things Considered | with host Andrea Seabrook
The E.B. White children’s book The Trumpet of the Swan has been adapted for the stage, and it received its world premiere at The Kennedy Center in Washington this past week. Actor Richard Thomas, writer Marsha Norman and composer Jason Robert Brown talk to Andrea Seabrook.
If I told you that an Oscar winner, an Emmy winner, a Tony winner, and a Pulitzer Prize winner were in Washington to stage a show at the Kennedy Center, you’d think Shakespeare, right? Tennessee Williams? Rodgers and Hammerstein? Well, how about E.B. White, a children’s author?
SEABROOK: E.B. White wrote “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little.” This lesser known story is “The Trumpet of the Swan.” It inspired Pulitzer-winning playwright Marsha Norman to collaborate with Tony-winning composer Jason Robert Brown on a stage production of the story. They recruited Oscar-winner Kathy Bates and Emmy-winner Richard Thomas to join the cast of eight, plus a full symphony orchestra. The world premiere was this past week at the Kennedy Center.
Mr. RICHARD THOMAS (Actor): There are terrific people being pulled together to be a part of it, and you just want to be at that party, you know. You just want to be – it’s nice to be asked to that party.
Mr. THOMAS: (As Sam) This is a story of Louis the Swan.
SEABROOK: That’s Richard Thomas. You might remember him as John Boy from “The Waltons.” He’s the narrator and the voice of Sam, a boy who goes on a camping trip with his mom and dad and befriends a family of swans.
Mr. THOMAS: (As Sam) I didn’t tell them about the swans. I like to keep things to myself. But I wrote about them every night in my journal and went back to the pond every day. And within the week, there were five eggs in the nest.
SEABROOK: When Richard Thomas heard about Marsha Norman’s plans for “Trumpet of the Swan,” he was immediately intrigued.
Mr. THOMAS: She’s done something, I think, very extraordinary. She hasn’t just turned it into a dialogue or a play. She’s kept the narrative sense of it as a novel, as a story told.
Ms. MARSHA NORMAN (Playwright): There are no costumes. There’s no set. There’s no dancing. There’s no singing.
SEABROOK: Marsha Norman calls it a novel symphony, sort of like “Peter and the Wolf,” a dramatic reading with a full orchestra to paint the pictures.
Ms. NORMAN: It’s a perfect match of form and content. This story is best told in this way.
Mr. THOMAS: (As Sam) When he was a baby swan, he could not even make a beep. And when he was a teenage swan, he could not call out the majestic co-ho.
Ms. NORMAN: “Trumpet of the Swan” is about a swan born without a voice.
SEABROOK: The young male, or cob, is named Louis. His parents worry he’ll never be able to find a love of his own if he can’t make a swan call. So Louis’s father flies all the way into town, crashes through the glass front of a music store, and steals a trumpet for his young son to help him find his voice. Louis hangs that trumpet by a cord around his neck and learns to play. Heck, he learns to wail.
SEABROOK: Louis gets so good he ends up getting jobs blowing hot jazz in Boston and Philadelphia. He sticks his money in a sack around his neck along with his slate and chalk and other possessions. And all the while, Louis is trying to make enough so his father can repay the music store for the stolen trumpet.
Ms. NORMAN: And ultimately, Louis does that. He earns all this money, gains all this fame and attention, and in the process, gains the love of Serena, the girl swan that couldn’t pay attention to him when he was mute. And they are able to leave Philadelphia and fly back to the lonely lakes in the north and live their happy life.
SEABROOK: “Trumpet of the Swan” is an impressive odyssey of story and music, especially impressive when you learn just how fast the thing came together. Marsha Norman and that hotshot Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown couldn’t start working together until this past summer.
Ms. NORMAN: I worked on the adaptation. I did finish by June. It took me about a month to do it. Jason was then in rehearsal for “13,” his musical that opened this year on Broadway.
Mr. JASON ROBERT BROWN (Composer): I wasn’t able to start writing until October 15th, and it had to be done by November 22nd. It’s, you know, a little over five weeks of writing, and that was all.
Ms. NORMAN: I wrote the descriptions to the musical scenes. I would say, intro to pond, you know, and then I would describe what happened in the pond and the marshes. I mean, I would – I really did a full description, as if, you know, that’s what you would be seeing. So Jason worked from those snapshots.
Mr. BROWN: So I was able to take the script she had sent and really just – again, because I had such a short time to write it, I literally started at the beginning and just went. There wasn’t an awful lot of preplanning that I was able to do. I just sort of put my pencil down and went.
Mr. BROWN: And the fact that the music is so often in the foreground of the piece meant that I really couldn’t blow it off. I mean, I couldn’t just sort of say, oh, just repeat this measure for about three hours, and well, you know, somebody will take this solo on top of it. You know, it was – these are hardcore cast of musicians, and I wanted them to enjoy playing it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Ms. NORMAN: And then we all came here Tuesday for the first rehearsal at 1:30. That was the first note of music I had heard.
SEABROOK: This past Tuesday?
Ms. NORMAN: This past Tuesday.
Mr. THOMAS: (As Sam) Louis lowered his trumpet and bowed solely to Serena.
Unidentified Woman: I have never seen such a fine looking young cob. And certainly, I’ve never seen a swan with so many personal possessions.
SEABROOK: It’s funny. It’s wry. It’s a story of young love.
Ms. NORMAN: You know, it’s not just for kids, this piece because it’s a story of, you know, how you find your voice. If you’re born without the thing that you think you have to have, like a voice or money or position or whether, you know, how do you do it? How do you get to where you want to go?
SEABROOK: Ultimately, though, the story does aim at the kids in the audience, and it makes you wonder, how does such a classical performance play with the YouTube generation? Can it wrench them away from their Nintendos and iPhones?
Ms. NORMAN: Boy, I didn’t see a kid looking bored yet. I mean, those kids in that audience are as silent as any student audience I’ve ever seen. And there are 1,100 of them. You’d think somebody would cough, right? But it didn’t happen.
Mr. THOMAS: (As Sam) He was the happiest bird alive.
Ms. NORMAN: A friend had a child there last night who is 15. I said, what did you like? And he said, well, I liked that there wasn’t any dancing and singing. And I thought – and he said the orchestra had such affect. And I thought, you know, kids don’t get to see orchestras.
Ms. NORMAN: That experience of the physical, symphonic music landing on your body is a thing that we’re missing. So this is a very rare and wondrous opportunity to, you know, get those kids back to the symphony hall.
SEABROOK: Marsha Norman hopes that venues all over the world will try “The Trumpet of the Swan.” All you need, she says, is an orchestra, eight actors, and a rapt audience.
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