Disney vs. Stravinsky: Titans Clash in Off-Broadway Premiere

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Mark Shanahan and Stephen D’Ambrose in Small World: A Fantasia. Photo: Aaron Pepis.

Penguin Rep Theatre has been an often-acclaimed incubator for new plays since 1977, when founder and artistic director Joe Brancato transformed an abandoned 1880s hay barn in Stony Point, NY into Rockland County’s only nonprofit, professional Equity theater. But there’s no need to leave NYC to see what’s new at Penguin Rep. This October, the company will move Frederick Stroppel’s Small World: A Fantasia to 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan. Directed by Brancato, Small World runs through Oct. 7.

Small World imagines a face-off between Russian composer Igor Stravinsky and animation pioneer Walt Disney. Fantasia, the 1940 film that brought together animation and classical music, includes a segment of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring; the composer was reportedly none too pleased that his orchestral masterpiece was restructured for the film. Could Stravinsky have dropped in on Disney during the making of the film? And what about The Rite of Spring — the avant-garde ballet in which a maiden dances herself to death — suggests the dinosaurs in Disney’s masterpiece? As seen in the recent film Saving Mr. Banks, did Disney have a knack for bringing difficult creative types over to his way of thinking?

I recently caught up with Stroppel to learn more about Small World and to ask these big questions.

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Ed Malin: I’m a big fan of Penguin Rep — my family lives in Nyack, NY.

Frederick Stroppel: Penguin Rep is a great place. My friend, Bill Phillips, who is an actor there, told me a couple of years ago that Joe Brancato was looking for another play to fill out Penguin Rep’s season. I sent them Small World, and, suddenly, from nowhere, I was being produced. I had always wanted to be up there, and I was excited.

The issues are current again.

EM: Is this the first production of Small World?

FS: The original production was in 2013, at the Theatre Artists Workshop in Norwalk, CT, where I’ve done a lot of stuff. Then we did a performance in Newtown, CT, about a month after the Sandy Hook school shootings there. We weren’t sure if we should do the play or not, if people were even ready to go out. Our performance was in January and the shootings happened in December; the atmosphere in Newtown was still very raw. There was a cloak of sadness over the town. We did the play, and I made some changes based on that, trying to infuse some more hope into it. It was very well-received, and I was looking for a bigger venue to put it into. Then we did a production at Penguin Rep. Ever since, we’ve been waiting for a space to open in NYC. I’m excited about it getting done at 59E59.

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EM: Have you made changes to the play since Penguin Rep?

FS: It was a two-act play and we cut out the intermission. We added some more connective material to make it flow. We did a read-through earlier this year. Then, I felt the biggest change was the way the world has changed around the play. The characters do a lot of discussion of where art fits in society. World War II is coming, so they talk about the Nazis. It was interesting on an abstract plane, but now, it suddenly seems a lot more real. The issues they’re discussing are current again.

EM: I’ve read Stravinsky’s autobiography that was out in the 1930s describing the premiere of The Rite of Spring. He seemed to be very critical of nationalist composers, preferring to write universal material. I wonder if he argued with Disney on that point.

FS: I started the play based on the anecdote that Stravinsky, while on tour in the US in 1939, had come to visit Disney Studios. He wanted to see how The Rite of Spring segment for the film Fantasia was coming along. Stravinsky didn’t realize that the whole story was going to be changed to be about dinosaurs and the creation of the world. He wasn’t happy with that at all, which is how they ended up clashing about it. I don’t know exactly what other interaction they had in real life. Most of the play is my idea of what might have happened; that’s why I call it “a fantasia.” There is discussion about World War II coming on, and Hitler and the Nazis. It’s an interesting thing because Disney has been accused of being sympathetic to Nazi movements, though I couldn’t find a lot of facts to support that. It was just something that was floating around. Stravinsky is more an argument against those fascist movements. Although, on the other hand, apparently he was enamored of Mussolini. It’s a tricky argument because both Disney and Stravinsky had their sympathies. Stravinsky liked the way Mussolini ran things, at the beginning. He later became disenchanted with Mussolini. Which happens. Beethoven used to think Napoleon was great; he wrote his Napoleon Symphony, decided Napoleon was a dictator and changed it to the Eroica Symphony. Communism, too, seems like a great idea. It’s when you start plugging people into the equation that things start to get screwy.

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EM: You are also an accomplished screenwriter. Did you ever think of making a movie about the making of a movie?

FS: Because a lot of it is on a theoretical plane, I don’t know if this would work as a film. There are certain stories when you’re writing them you can tell that they fit better on the stage. Some of my plays I have tried to adapt to film because they are more realistic and would work better that way. I suspect this story is more suited to the stage, but if someone wants to make a movie of it, I’d be happy to consider it.

EM: I expect these two figures will be entrancing live and up close.

FS: Because of the layout of 59E59, we have reconfigured the set. As we head into rehearsals, I’m excited to see what that’s going to look like. The Penguin has a barn setting. At 59E59, the rake of the audience is much different and we have to find a way to reinterpret the setting for that space.

EM: Do you use music in the play?

FS: There’s a lot of Stravinsky. We use excerpts from The Rite of Spring and Firebird and Petrushka when we’re moving from one scene to another. Because Disney is cautious about giving out the rights, we are not going to be using a lot of Disney music from his shows.

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EM: Did you like Fantasia 2000?

FS: I saw it once. I liked it. I just feel that when you’re watching the original Fantasia you realize how much artistry went into that. I liked some individual sequences of Fantasia 2000, but since you knew so much of it was done by computer imagery, it didn’t feel the same. It’s just my own opinion, but it’s different when you can feel the hand of the animators behind it rather than someone using a machine. I tend to like the older cartoons such as Snow White and Pinocchio, which seem more iconic. That’s one of the debates inside the play. Is an artist someone who is trying to express himself or someone who is trying to reach out to an audience and make them feel something? The two characters go back and forth about how much they are contributing, trying to determine who is the greater artist.

Who is the greater artist?

EM: I have an eight-year-old child and she likes The Magician’s Apprentice right now.

FS: The antithesis of Mickey Mouse is Bugs Bunny. We have a joke in the play about that. When you’re watching, the flow of the story is so good you might forget the characters are not really people. Whereas, in later decades, you got Hanna-Barbera cartoons, which are more stiff and you feel they are more like moving pictures than characters.

EM: Care to plug any other upcoming projects?

FS: Penguin Rep is going to do a new play of mine called Fall River in October. When Small World closes on Oct. 5, we’re going to get ready to open Fall River on the 13th in Stony Point. It’s a two-character play about the life of Lizzie Borden, told through her eyes. This is going to be the world premiere.

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EM: Is it graphic?

FS: Only in the way Lizzie describes things. You don’t see violence onstage. Although you never know how Joe is going to stage it. But it is based on her telling the story. While researching her life, I encountered a lot of things I didn’t know, which I hope will be of interest to the rest of the audience. Also, a bunch of one-act plays of mine have been translated into Russian and are going to be done next year at the Moscow Art Theatre, which was founded by Stanislavsky. It’s bewildering to me that I have a play being performed there. It’s like saying mass at the Vatican. I look forward to flying out and seeing it. If we’re not at war with them by then.

EM: Did I see you’re doing a musical related to Art Garfunkel?

FS: Yes, this is a new musical called The Girl In The Red Dress. The composer, Maia Sharp, has country rock music credits. I’m more of a classical music person myself. But she is composing it and is collaborating with Art Garfunkel, so some of his songs are going to be involved in the show. We’ve done a couple of readings of it and it’s moving along. I was brought on as a book writer last year. It’s a lot of fun. My interests have always been in classical music and in Broadway music, so I appreciate anything that tells a story. I like dramatic music. We’re developing different songs for everybody. Getting any musical done is always an uphill battle, but it’s going well.