Anyone else need a hug? Well, if you were a kid at any point in the last 90 years and are even remotely interested in musical theater, there’s good news for you.
Over the next few months, several popular entertainment properties will be brought to life on stage, courtesy of the folks at Rockefeller Productions. The company that thrived before the pandemic assembling stage adaptations of classics like Eric Carles the very Hungry CaterpillarShe is pushing new musicals based on Winnie the Pooh and Sesame Street.
“We’ve been very fortunate to work with the wonderful properties we have,” says 38-year-old founder Jonathan Rockefeller. “Winnie the Pooh? Everyone grew up with him. He evokes so many happy feelings.”
Like most Rockefeller shows Winnie Pooh features handcrafted puppets to bring the Hundred Acre Wood to life. Fusing the classic characters of AA Milne with songs by the Sherman Brothers, who wrote the soundtrack for Disney’s Pooh movies, the musical tells an original story with familiar brushstrokes. (It is produced in collaboration with Disney). It opened to warm and slurred reviews in New York this week and will embark on a national tour of the US in September.
Also in September Sesame Street opens in New York and marks the first time the Muppet crew has taken the stage in musical form. Exact content is still under wraps, but it will feature characters and songs from the long-running television show, with Rockefeller’s trademark attention to detail.
“There’s a lot of content to go through,” he says of six years of development in partnership with Sesame Workshop. “But it’s wonderful. We make sure the experience is something that goes beyond watching the TV show.”
In addition to phew and sesameRockefeller already has a dozen projects either in the pipeline or touring four continents, including two based on Paddington Bear and a puppet spoof of a ’90s sitcom FRIENDS. Much of it is family entertainment in the sense of “all ages welcome”. the very Hungry Caterpillar is suitable for children over the age of two, while phew First printed in 1926, it has attracted fans almost as old as the bear itself.
“We’ve had people in their 70s come to us for their date night,” explains Rockefeller. “And I was there just yesterday for a marriage proposal – our second at phew until now. I really think it’s about people who want to rediscover joy. So many people have loved him over the years.”
The focus on joy — a word that wears about seven hundred hats in 2022 — guides Rockefeller, and speaking to him gives you a refreshing sense that he means business. Cynicism is easy to come by, and his company’s success is so impressive you might expect it… if he weren’t so damn nice.
His focus on the audience itself is emblematic of his ethos, which is rooted in meeting them where they are rather than forcing an experience on them. Rather than pretend business is going on as usual, Rockefeller is – gently, directly – dealing with the aftermath of the past two years.
“You’re dealing with the fear of children who don’t socialize,” he says. “You have to deal with the fear of the parents. For this reason, putting on a show in a 200-seat theater is just as much, if not more, work than putting it on in a larger theater.”
His shows, at least in New York, still require masks for audiences and are still checking vaccination cards for those who are eligible. Those geared towards younger audiences have lights halfway up, low volume, and kids are allowed to come and go as they please — with a book in the lobby telling them everything that’s happening on stage. This also applies to those on the autism spectrum, adding Rockefeller to a growing group of producers catering to buyers with diverse developmental needs.
These methods have borne success. Even accounting for the pandemic gaps, Rockefeller’s shows have overwhelmingly recouped their capitalizations, grossing over $15 million combined since the first Caterpillar opened in 2014. And that success should provide clues, or at least suggestions, for others in the industry as they try to win back buyers. Especially those with children.
“For anyone concerned that their kids aren’t having attention spans, coming to our show is probably a lot cheaper than going to a therapist,” he laughs. “And the parents are also more prudent. They used to always struggle to keep phones in their pockets. Now they are ready to put it down and enjoy that bonding time with their kids. That’s a good thing that came out of it [the pandemic], this appreciation. Wanting to feel a moment instead of documenting it.”
Large-scale live entertainment is still on a steep climb, particularly brand-new ventures that need to launch without federal aid extended to older shows but face the same headwinds of new sub-varieties and depressed tourism. Broadway in particular is struggling to size itself up, with a surprising number of shows announcing closures last week and the Broadway League dropping its mask requirement, despite marquee stars continuing to fall ill.
Rockefeller, meanwhile, remains confident. And while he refuses to whitewash the impact of the pandemic, he is optimistic about the sector’s long-term prospects.
“Many theaters still have problems. But we get access to canary characters” – as in the proverbial colliery – “and the canaries are the young people who come into the theatre. Because if they go, the ecosystem will slowly follow. What we see are our bookings for the very Hungry Caterpillar increasingly. It’s a cavalcade. We have more demand for this show next year than ever before, so much so that we had to build more dolls to accommodate them. That tells me things are hitting bottom again. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s a really good sign.”