Last week, the musical adaptation of Mary Pope Osborne’s The Magic Tree House: A Good Night for Ghosts (retitled, A Night in New Orleans) opened in Chicago to an audience of hundreds of Chicago Public School second-graders. You can read our review of the production here. We thought this was a great opportunity to ask Mary about her work supporting young readers, the process of adapting a book for the stage, and the extraordinary collaborators she’s had the opportunity to work with.
Is this the first time you’ve staged one of your books?
No, actually. Before this my husband Will, who is a playwright and a musician, and Randy Courts, a good friend of his, produced and wrote a musical based on The Magic Tree House #29: Christmas in Camelot. We cast that play with everyone in our community and took it to 54 cities around the country. We’re theater people. Will was an actor in New York for years and I studied acting and when we got married I started writing [children’s books] because I would go on the road with him when he was doing plays. So it was kind of inevitable that we would pull theater into our Magic Tree House world.
Will suggested I turn A Good Night for Ghosts into a musical and through a series of wonderful coincidences, we got a book over to Allen Toussaint. A lot of people may not know how miraculous that was but it was miraculous because he is considered by many musicians the king of New Orleans music. He had just come out with The Bright Mississippi, which captured the old sound of New Orleans, so we sent him the book and to our wonder and amazement he said he’d like to be involved. So Will started collaborating with Allen and another composer, Murray Horwitz, who was one of the creators of Ain’t Misbehavin’. Allen worked with Will for two years and it was just a dream come true. Will would go down there and sit in Allen’s studio and they would put Will and Murray’s lyrics to Allen’s music and Allen would sit there at the piano and play. I was there a few times. We couldn’t believe how wonderful it was.
Of course, to our sorrow, Allen died very suddenly this winter. He’d gotten the National Medal of Arts and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and received a tremendous amount of attention in the past few years. So, the Chicago production was special to us because it was the first time the show was done after his death and we felt more than ever that his legacy and the legacy of New Orleans should go out there, out to kids, as well as the history of jazz and Louis Armstrong. So this event in Chicago had a really special meaning for us especially because Louis Armstrong ended up in Chicago, that’s where his career really took off.
The really wonderful thing is that when we do this show, it can be done with local, live musicians on a stage, but Will spent a lot of time with Allen in the studio and Allen brought in the best musicians to create the soundtrack. And Emerald City Theatre chose to use Allen’s soundtrack. So at the performance in Chicago, you are listening to top-rate jazz players that Allen could call and they’d come right over. So that actual music you heard was from Allen’s studio.
A lot of children who come to our shows
are seeing a live performance for the first time,
and I think it could affect a lot of lives.
Which aspect of the books do you really want the play to capture?
Will and I have always felt that theater employs imagination as much as reading does. When children read there are just little squiggles on a white page. They are filling out everything with their own imaginations. You write, “it was a sunny day.” They see the sunny day. They are creating with you. And the same thing happens with live theater. You’re just watching some people moving around on a platform and you are filling in the blanks. So that kind of creative partnership between children and the story is what we were after with theater. And then, on top of that, there’s the musical piece and the dancing piece and children can see that maybe those art forms are something they would be interested in participating in. A lot of children who come to our shows are seeing a live performance for the first time, and I think it could affect a lot of lives.
Were there any challenges you ran into during the adaptation process?
Will really takes my book and from there takes off. I give him my complete blessing. There’s an old Irish storyteller’s maxim that goes, “Take my story and make it better.” And I feel like that happens every time. It gets amplified and tweaked and loose ends are tied and leaps are made. And I’m always thrilled when I see that the story is more alive and more joyful, and I’m more excited by it. For me it’s a wonderful combination. I mean, we’re a great team because I trust him so much. It’s amazing. And he’s always involved even in my storytelling. I call him into my study twice a day to discuss a point of Jack and Annie’s adventures, and whatever book I’m writing, he edits before I turn it in to Random House. So we’ve always been a team that way.
Is there a book you’d like to adapt next?
Well there is actually, and hopefully it will be done within a year. There’s a Magic Tree House book in which Jack and Annie spend time with William Shakespeare. They are in a production of a midsummer night’s dream. It’s called Stage Fright on a Summer Night. So we have a plan (in fact, the first song’s been written), to bring William Shakespeare to kids in a fun, kind of hip-hop way.
What I love to do with the books is throw out names to children that they then own. If they read the William Shakespeare book or the Louis Armstrong book they know those guys, they’re their friends. Even if they don’t comprehend fully the work of those artists, later in life when they hear those names they can say, “I know who that is.” I feel like that’s one of the ambitions, too.
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Mary Pope Osborne is the author of over 100 children’s books, most notably, the Magic Tree House series.