“There’s a monster in the closet!” might not inspire thoughts of rock music or friendship, but that’s exactly what Laurie Berkner and Barbara Zinn Krieger have created. Adapting Eileen Spinelli’s book Wanda’s Monster into a musical, the kindie rock singer/songwriter and writer have created Wanda’s Monster The Musical, which will be presented by Making Books Sing, a New-York based nonprofit promotes children’s literacy and social development through theater productions and arts-in-education programs.
Wanda’s Monster The Musical is the first collaboration between Making Books Sing and Laurie Berkner (“The Laurie Berkner Band”). Berkner, a popular children’s singer/songwriter, has written original songs for the play as well as including one of her all-time hits, “Monster Boogie.”
Wanda’s Monster The Musical tells the story of Wanda, a 5-year-old girl who thinks there is a monster in her closet. Her grandmother convinces Wanda the “Monster” does not live in her closet because he is scary, but rather because he is shy and doesn’t have friends. Wanda befriends the monster with Granny’s help and learns about friendship and acceptance, turning what could have been a scary experience into an important lesson.
Krieger said Wanda’s Monster appealed to her because she enjoys books who feature young central characters that go on journeys of self discovery that are relevant to today’s audience.
“I want to be able to ‘explode’ the story, dig more deeply into the motivations of all the characters, both child and adult,” she said. “Since I am creating a version of the story that will be told primarily in words and music, that has to be justified. Why do they sing? Usually it’s because the emotions the characters are feeling are so strong that mere words will not be enough to convey them.”
Two of the feelings that are conveyed in Wanda’s Monster The Musical are love and acceptance, which Berkner thinks are two of the thing humans want the most in the world.
“I connect to that very deeply, especially since I like to write from the child’s perspective and wanting love and acceptance are a big part of my inner child!” she said. “What I’m finding is that it’s wonderful to bring my child to the theater and have her see themes that are appropriate for her age. That’s one of the things that was exciting to me about working on Wanda’s Monster. It’s aimed at kids 4-8 years old, a time when many kids struggle with turning out the light and are wrestling with their own nightmares and monsters.”
Berkner has experience in working with children, having been employed a music specialist for Rockefeller University’s Child and Family Center, which led to her first album Whaddya Think Of That? She has performed on The Today Show, and was asked to be a part of the series Jack’s Big Music Show on Nick Jr.
But Wanda’s Monster The Musical can be enjoyed by adults as well as children, according to Berkner and Krieger, who mentioned that while children make up fifty percent of the audience, the other fifty percent are adults who were children once.
“I always want everyone who hears my music to enjoy it, no matter what their age, and I certainly feel the same way about the whole production of Wanda’s Monster,” Berkner said. “When I write, I think about the kids who the songs are aimed at and I also think about if I, as an adult, would want to listen to these songs over and over again.”
Krieger said she usually writes for an older audience, focusing on shows that have themes of historical or social significance. She cited The Butterfly, which told the story of a Catholic family that hid Jews during the Nazi occupation of France, saying many parents reported seeing the show started a conversation about discrimination.
“I was delighted to discover in Wanda’s Monster an age appropriate story for young children that also dealt with important themes, for example reaching out and trying to understand someone very different from yourself,” she said. “Also as a Granny myself, I identified with the wise Granny is the story who gently helps her granddaughter Wanda put herself in the ‘others’ shoes, thereby overcoming her fear.”
Both Krieger and Berkner said they think theater can encourage certain qualities in children, including independence and confidence.
“I think music that is written from the child’s point of view, gives them a voice, and is easy for them to remember and sing by themselves, inspires confidence,” Berkner said. “I also think that happens if the message in a piece of music, or in any performance, is that kids are important and their ideas and feelings are worthwhile.”
“I second what Laurie has written and would add only that by not writing ‘down’ to children, you also empower them,” Krieger added.
One aspect of empowerment found in Wanda’s Monster The Musical is that both of the main characters are female and go on a journey of discovery together. In contrast with recent marketing schemes that sell shirts saying, “Smart like Daddy/Pretty like Mommy,” Krieger said she enjoys writing about and for smart young girls.
“I have written both strong female and strong male characters, but I have to say it gives me great satisfaction to find spunky smart girls and wise female adults to write about!” Krieger said. “I remember a time when I thought I had to hide my intelligence to ‘fit in’. I hope that has changed for today’s generation of girls and women, and you certainly won’t find that attitude in anything I’m involved with.”
Wanda’s Monster The Musical opens April 21 and runs through May 12 at Theater 3 (311 West 43rd Street).