The Tale of Peter Rabbit

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“Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were – Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter …” 

Beatrix Potter’s much loved classic celebrates its 110th anniversary with the musical Happy Birthday Peter Rabbit, Celebrating 110 Years. First published in 1902, The Tale of Peter Rabbit has enchanted countless children with tales of the world’s most adorable and mischievous bunny and Mr McGregor’s veggie patch…

Award-winning producer Garry Ginivan has adapted many books for the stage, including Noddy Goes to Toyland by Enid Blyton, in which Garry personally persuaded the Blyton family for permission to do a musical adaptation of Noddy.

Garry talks to us about the magic that is children’s theatre …

You’re one of Australia’s leading theatre producers and have adapted quite a few books for the stage. I wanted to hear specifically about the process of adapting such a precious gem as Peter Rabbit and the importance of getting the adaptation right … 

It originally took me 18 months to get the rights approved, before we could even start working on a script. Peter Rabbit is the jewel in the crown of Frederick Warne, and they’re quite particular about everything. Obviously in the interim I had been formulating ideas on how and what we might present for the stage.

I decided on a mix of the Tales of Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny and Mr Tod, as this would give us the a through line and the inclusion of some drama between Mr McGregor and Tommy Brock and the stolen baby bunnies in the Tale of Mr Tod. It was then decided which  large replicas of the books the action could take place in.

This production is the first production that has ever starred Peter Rabbit in his own production. There was the ballet, which was inclusive of many of Beatrix Potter characters, but there has never been a Peter Rabbit show. This is why I think it took so long for approval and the production finally reaching the stage.

How fabulous for Peter Rabbit to have his ‘moment’, particularly on the 110th anniversary … why hasn’t Peter Rabbit ever appeared in his own show before?

I have produced in the past The Magic Faraway Tree and The Magic Wishing Chair, and they are the only productions that have ever been on stage as well. Our production of Peter Rabbit was first produced for the 100th anniversary, and since that time we have produced it many times. The current production has been adapted into a ‘Birthday Celebration’ for this special year.

Now we have the original stage production based on the stories of Peter Rabbit – Australian created and produced – something of which I am very proud.

Which characters can we expect to meet in the musical?

The characters that are in the show are Beatrix Potter, who plays a narrator, Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, Mr McGregor, Old Mr Bunny, Tommy Brock and Mr Tod.

A lot of the children seeing this production will likely have never seen a piece of musical theatre before. How much responsibility is there to ensure the children’s introduction to theatre is a magical experience for them?

There’s a lot of responsibility, because music theatre in Australia is like the icon of theatre, and that’s what the masses are drawn to. People who have never been to the theatre before go for the first time to see Phantom of the Opera, CATS or Love Never Dies … music theatre in Australia is very important in how theatre can survive.

I think it’s important when we introduce children to the theatre that we do it with integrity. All of our productions, including Peter Rabbit, are designed especially with original scores and script adaptations. Nothing is thrown together. We could actually be doing musicals for adults, and that’s the approach that we use.

Has the rehearsal period been lengthy? 

We have had about three weeks of rehearsals for this. We have highly experienced actors in this production, including one actor who just came out of performing in Love Never Dies and one actor who just came out of the Victorian College of the Arts … it’s always good to be able to give people coming into the industry an opportunity to work with professionals, especially in creating music theatre for children and families.

Why children’s theatre …

I was working in London in the early ‘70s, and the quality of children’s theatre was terrible in the UK – it was pantomime. When I came back to do A Chorus Line, there wasn’t much children’s theatre around of a certain standard. To be honest, my very first show was Noddy Goes to Toyland in a church hall, and I had the cast from A Chorus Line doing this at night time, plus performing Noddy during the day … it cost $2 for a ticket and we actually made money, so I thought we had better keep going with this.

You somehow persuaded the Blyton family to do the musical adaptation of Noddy.

I went to the UK and met Enid Blyton’s two daughters – Imogen Smallwood and Gillian Baverstock. When I went to meet them in London, it was originally to do with The Faraway Tree (Noddy had been the forerunner to this, and so we already had an association). They had been pleased with the Noddy outcome, and so were very keen to pursue The Faraway Tree.

Noddy was first presented in 1978 as a shopping centre production. It gradually expanded and was moved into a small theatre, and from there it just kept growing.

It became obvious to me there was a need for this type of music theatre, based on well- known characters that children could associate and identify with.

Tell us about the lyrics for this production.

Normally I do the book and the lyrics for all the shows I’ve done. It’s just an extension of the dialogue and because I’ve spent 30 years in music theatre, it’s my passion.

To be honest, it’s just the way I’ve always done it, and it’s worked well. I’ve always got a tune I can hum to the composer and they never use it – but there you go!

So Mark Jones, who did the original score on this production, didn’t use the tune as you hummed out loud? 

Mark Jones does his own tunes; he’s the best in Australia. Mark is originally from Ballarat, and I’ve known him for 20 years. One of his first jobs was to compose the music for Noddy Goes to Toyland for me.

He’s a very fine performer as well. Since then, he’s done all of my new works as well, with the exception of Wombat Stew, which was adapted by Gary Young and composed by Paul Keelan in 2010. Mark is in very high-demand in Melbourne and is about to rehearse for the Bell Shakespeare company.

What are some the highlights we can look forward to seeing in this production?

A very tall Mr McGregor – much taller than what the children might think he’s going to be! He’s all in perspective, as you are looking up at him like a little rabbit and has a smaller hat and very big boots.

We’ve also got the battle of Tommy Brock and Mr Tod, which is from the book when Mr Todd finds Tommy Brock in his bed. There are also the Flopsy bunnies, the product of when Benjamin Bunny marries Flopsy – seven little bunnies all in a big pusher. It’s delightful.

Thank you Garry.

This story was published in issue 64 of Manning-Great Lakes Focus

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