New Hansel & Gretel in Chicago will delight the entire family

Grammy-nominated Justin Roberts and Emerald City Theatre Artistic Director Ernie Nolan have teamed up to create Hansel& Gretel: A Wickedly Delicious Musical Treat– a reimagining of the classic tale into a rock musical, opening soon at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place.

We recently discussed writing for children — and how everybody’s either kind of a Hansel or a tad bit Gretel.

Justin, you’ve been called the Judy Blume and the Elvis Costello of kindie rock; I just wanted to say that sentence out loud. How do you make both kids and their parents dig your music?

Justin Roberts: I guess I don’t really write thinking about what children are going to like, I write stuff that moves me emotionally and brings me back to my childhood. Hopefully it works for other adults and the kids who are living in that moment. It’s all about writing for human beings, and not looking at kids at some other segment of the population.

Ernie, your fun shows at Emerald City have covered so many fairytale classics. Why Hansel& Gretel?

Ernie Nolan: I think it was one we were waiting to do. Justin, I know, became excited when I mentioned it. And I was excited to return to the story knowing that I’d hopefully do something fun with it. The ingredients were all there — it just felt like the time.

So the movie Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters had nothing to do with it.

EN: It’s funny the number of things that I started to do after I picked [Hansel and Gretel]. Like, I watched Witch Hunters, I returned to the opera — my childhood Hansel and Gretel — I tracked down the storybook and cassette, and I started all of these adventure series, which were much more about siblings in danger and facing the world, which is what I’m gravitating towards in the story. In our version, the mother and the children of the village have gone missing, and they don’t know why.

It’s a mystery!

EN: Yeah, it is!

How did this collaboration come about?

JR: Emerald City approached me a couple years ago — I’ve always wanted to write a musical. A lot of what I do as a children’s artist is get inside the song characters’ heads, but I don’t have a lot of opportunity to write from other perspectives. In this case I got to write from all angles and it was super fun.

A live rock ‘n’ roll score is part of the production. How cool is that?

JR: We’re trying to do it like the Sondheim musicals, where they had the musicians onstage in costume.

EN: And Hansel and Gretel is being told by the Grimm Brothers, who have arrived in Chicago and heard that people don’t care for fairy tales anymore, so they share the story of Hansel and Gretel as a rock band to prove that fairy tales rock.

What things will the 3-year-olds will love and what will the 12 year-olds identify with?

JR: There’s a lot going on, musically and emotionally, and the script is really funny and works on that level completely. At the reading, there were kids responding so strongly to characters, and there are hilarious things that even the youngest kids will love.

EN: We’ve created a musical that the whole family can enjoy. I know sometimes that connotation can be lame. But the adults will certainly laugh, and the younger audience members will be fascinated. I really think there’s something for everybody as they take this magical ride together.

Do you have a favorite song from the show?

EN: Totally. When you start working on something, you fall in love with it. Oh man, I just love the opening song. It encapsulates so much and sets up this world. But there’s a really enjoyable moment with a reprise — Gretel sings to a troll who messes up the world, and he’s so excited because it’s finally his moment, that he’s in the show.

JR: I’m a huge Sinatra fan, and I’ve never had the chance to write in a Cole Porter style in my other music. It’s like my dream come true. My favorite is probably “There Will Be Magic For You To Find,” which is sung by the witch, and it has this very creepy, Sondheim-y piano part.

What’s it been like preparing to mount this show at the Broadway Playhouse?

EN: That venue feels like an event for a young person. A really great first formal Broadway theater experience with the ushers and bow ties, but it’s not overwhelming. And of course there will be surprises in the audience. The holidays are a perfect time for a story like this; it’s about belief and love and cherishing the life you have.

JR: People who don’t think they like the story should come see this show — this is not your typical Hansel& Gretel.

In your storyline, Hansel is an idealistic dreamer and Gretel is more street-wise. Whom do you more identify with?

Both: Hmm.

You can say the troll, if you want.

JR (laughs): It was very easy to write the witch. She’s very German cabaret, very smoky nightclub, and it was fun writing that. But I sort of identify with the place of innocence that gets lost as we grow. I think I believe in that Hansel ideal, but I can be a little cynical.

So you’re a Witch/Hansel hybrid.

JR: But Gretel, those parts of her were also very easy to write. You know, “Hansel, you’re a sap,” or “this what I have to do.”

EN: I basically wrote my sister as Gretel and myself as Hansel, a little. Gretel is the ultimate survivor. She’s gonna make that family happen. And he’s the ultimate believer.

Does your sister know she’s so represented in the show?

EN: A little. Well, she will now.

  • Hansel& Gretel: A Wickedly Delicious Musical Treat
  • Nov. 22-Jan. 4
  • Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place
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