I grew up performing in children’s theatre. This included roles in many Disney kid-friendly shows, from playing Scuttle in “The Little Mermaid” to Cogsworth in “Beauty and the Beast” to Horace in “101 Dalmatians.” What did all of these productions have in common? They were part of Music Theatre International’s “JR.” or “KIDS” collections.
According to MTI’s website, “JR.” and “KIDS” productions are shortened and made more kid-friendly, and songs are transposed into keys that are easier for “developing voices” to perform. They are marketed towards educational theatre companies and schools for the purpose of introducing young performers to the world of Broadway musicals.
This is all fine and dandy for shows that are already generally kid-friendly, like the aforementioned Disney productions. These are all adaptations of films that I had watched and enjoyed as a child, and from the ages of nine to 13, they were a great level of challenge for a young kid like me and my fellow cast members getting their starts in educational theatre.
But when MTI starts to censor shows embodying more adult themes like the truth of “happily ever after” or complicated relationships at the height of the AIDS epidemic of 1980’s New York City in order to appeal to young performers, they sacrifice artistic expression for the purpose of trying to introduce musicals with adult themes to an inappropriately young audience.
One of the worst offenders of the “JR.” collection, in my opinion, is “Into the Woods JR.” This Stephen Sondheim classic follows the stories of several familiar fairytale characters like Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel. After a witch bargains with the Baker and his wife, offering them the child they have always wanted in exchange for the ingredients for a potion that will bring back her beauty, these characters’ stories are combined into a plot which involves death, infidelity and corruption in positions of power, which ultimately questions the reality of “happy ever after.”
In order to shorten the show to the standard 60-minute length and keep the production kid-friendly, the “JR.” version ends at the Act I finale, when all seems resolved and everyone is happy.
Sondheim’s original work is a beautiful artistic exploration of growing up to discover the rough realities of life, as Cinderella discovers the difficulties of ruling a kingdom with an unfaithful prince at her side, the Baker struggles to raise the child he thought he wanted and the Witch realizes the consequences of sacrificing her power for beauty. By ending the show so early, the plot stops at what would be the ostensible “happy ever after,” completely avoiding the show’s thematic points and beautiful songs like “Children Will Listen,” which explores the hardships of growing up and the truths children learn from those who have experienced them.
But it’s not just the missing themes in shows like “Into the Woods” that make “Junior” shows so odd. Often, MTI chooses productions that go even further into the adult theatre space like “Avenue Q School Edition.”
For those who are unaware, “Avenue Q” is a musical parody of children’s puppet shows like “Sesame Street” and “The Muppets.” Rather than life lessons meant for young, impressionable viewers, “Avenue Q” brings a shock factor of extremely adult content to juxtapose and make fun of the familiar children’s media. Songs from the original version of the show include “The Internet is for Porn” and “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” to which parents are (hopefully) NOT exposing their children. In the adaptation, the former song becomes “My Social Life is Online,” while the latter song remains the same. The censored production not only defeats the purpose of the show’s comedy, it still maintains much of its inappropriate nature that the young performers often don’t understand nor should they be exposed to in the first place. Maybe educational theatre companies should stick to the “Sesame Street” side of things.
While MTI “JR.” collection is a good idea on paper and includes many well-written adaptations of full-length shows, there are times when child performers don’t need to be exposed to certain content. I will always cherish the memories of growing up and performing “JR.” shows with friends I still speak to and see performing at the college level and even professionally to this day, but I am certainly glad to have avoided the shows we probably weren’t ready for yet, and that often undermine the artistic messages of their creators. So, to MTI and their “JR.” collection: If you have to censor a show beyond its intended themes for the purpose of making them palatable to young children, perhaps those shows don’t need to be turned into a “JR.” version at all.
Daily Arts Writer Max Newman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.