Talking To the Director of ‘Elf the Musical’ and Its Return To New York
By Bob Rizzo, Contributing Writer, December 1, 2017
The Theater at Madison Square Garden ushers in the holiday season with the New York return of ELF The Musical. Based on the whimsical 2003 film starring Will Ferrell, the show will play from December 13th through December 29th. ELF tells the comical tale of a man (Buddy) raised as an elf at the North Pole and his quest to New York City in search of his true identity.
The musical features songs by Tony Award nominees Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin (The Wedding Singer), with a book by the late Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers, Hairspray) and Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone).
NYC-based director Sam Scalamoni oversees a cast of 28 with George Wendt (of television’s Cheers fame) starring as Santa Claus.
I spoke with Mr. Scalamoni on the film-to-stage adaptation of this definitive holiday musical.
BR: Tell me when ‘Elf’ first came into your life.
SS: My introduction was to the movie—just as a fan. It’s such a wonderful story that’s turned into a modern day classic. When it first came out I was surprised how charming it was and what a lovely performance Will Ferrell gave. Aside from being hysterical there are some beautiful and honest moments in the film. We try so hard to create these new Christmas pieces and I think they were incredibly successful.
BR: At what point did you learn about the musical adaptation?
SS: I heard about the stage version when it came to Broadway, but unfortunately didn’t get the chance to see it. I was lucky to be asked to build a new company and take it on tour, which was a great thrill. It changed my life in an amazing way.
BR: What appealed to you most about directing it?
SS: Since I hadn’t seen it on Broadway I was eager to read it. I immediately got the soundtrack and listened to the score and just fell in love with what Matt and Chad had done. It’s got this big band kind of feel to it that really excited me. Tom Meehan and Bob Martin wrote the script and are both Broadway comic geniuses. They did such a great job of taking the story and turning it into a Broadway show without making it a carbon copy of the film. All of those components together got me really inspired to direct it.
BR: So how closely does the musical follow the film version?
SS: It’s faithful to the storyline of the movie with some modifications. The writers stay true to Buddy’s journey but they also explore some of the minor characters from the film. We get to know them not only through scenes but through songs that are great storytellers as well. They’ve also made Santa our narrator as opposed to Papa Elf from the film. Now, Santa takes on the persona of both of those characters and we get to see much more of him in the musical.
BR: Speaking of Santa, it must be wonderful to have George Wendt back to reprise the role.
SS: It sure is! I never did the show with George since he was in the original Broadway production. Our version is very different as it’s been reconceived, but George was extremely willing and excited to come on board. He’s so down to earth, clever and funny that it’s been a joy to have him in rehearsals. A perfect fit for Santa, he’s a great addition to the show.
BR: I imagine fans of the film may have preconceived ideas of how Buddy should be portrayed.
SS: Casting is the challenging part. We don’t want to cast a Will Ferrell type because no one can be Will Ferrell. He gave a very unique performance and he’s a special kind of actor. Plus our requirements are completely different. Not only do they have to embody the wonderful spirit of Buddy, but they also have to sing and dance. Luckily this year we found Erik Gratton in Los Angeles. He’s a tremendous talent and extremely funny. At 6’3” he’s the biggest Elf we’ve ever had. The character has to have that childlike innocence without being a child, and Erik has just that quality.
BR: Should we expect to see some dancing in this production?
SS: Our choreographer, Connor Gallagher, is remarkably creative. I brought him on board because he’s a great storyteller and we have a very collaborative working relationship. The dancing is very exciting and there are many big numbers that involve the whole cast. One of our favorites is a bunch of dancing Santa Clauses who gripe about the fact that no one cares about Santa anymore. And it takes place in a Chinese restaurant! It doesn’t get any more New York than that!
BR: Without giving too much away, what will the stage setting and effects be like?
SS: It’s a very theatrical sort of piece. Our scenic designer, Christine Peters, came up with this wonderful idea on how to get us to places in very fun and magical ways. For example, Santa starts the show by reading us a book about the story of Buddy. So Christine decided to turn the book into a pop-up book and then created the scenery as pop-ups too. The set is designed in such a way that the Empire State building will fly in, and then the actors will physically open it up to reveal an office inside. It’s very clever stagecraft.
BR: What about Santa? Will he fly?
SS: Yes! Santa flies in his sleigh at the end of the show in a very simple and lovely way. Like he’s in a pop-up book. People are so pleased and excited by the visual of it. Then again the whole show is very colorful and vibrant.
BR: I bet this holiday musical will be a perennial favorite for many theatergoers.
SS: Elf has become such an iconic film. When I was a kid I used to sit down and watch Rudolph and The Grinch. Now families sit down and watch Elf every year. They have a real attachment to the story that becomes a part of their holiday tradition. Now our show has become part of that tradition in a wide way. People get out over the holidays, come see our musical, and get filled with that holiday spirit.
BR: What’s brought you the most joy from your experience working on ‘ELF The Musical’?
SS: What I love about it more than anything is its message, which isn’t very heavy-handed or saccharine sweet. It’s very genuine. Holiday time is about spending time with your family and with people you care about—and remembering that that’s important. It’s a simple message but one we need to be reminded of. Like at the end of our show, when Buddy comes to discover what it’s really all about. It’s more than just Santa Claus.
I love bringing that message to everyone around the country—and especially to New York City that has been such a special place at Christmastime for my family and me.
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Cover: Erik Gratton and the cast of ‘Elf the Musical;’ photo: Jeremy Daniel.