St. Scholastica Seuss scholar brings ‘Seussical’ to campus“A person’s a person, no matter how small.” That line was made famous by Dr. Seuss’ “Horton Hears a Who.” But Seuss scholars like St. Scholastica professor Merry Renn Vaughan say the line also conveyed a message of anti-racism when the book was released shortly after World War II.
“A person’s a person, no matter how small.”
That line was made famous by Dr. Seuss’ “Horton Hears a Who.” But Seuss scholars like St. Scholastica professor Merry Renn Vaughan say the line also conveyed a message of anti-racism when the book was released shortly after World War II.
“Seuss openly exhibited some racism toward the Japanese in some cartoons he did during World War II,” she said. “Horton is his answer. It’s sort of his way to make up for that.”
Vaughan recently completed her Ph.D. dissertation on the life and writings of author Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.
Now she’s directing “Seussical,” a musical that incorporates characters, plots and settings from some of Dr. Seuss’ most popular works, set to open next weekend at St. Scholastica. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that she’s doing the musical because of her previous studies of the popular children’s author’s works.
“It’s actually the reverse of that,” said Vaughan, an assistant professor and the chair of the Department of Communication, Theatre and Art. “‘Seussical’ is why I did my dissertation on Dr. Seuss.”
Vaughan, a Moose Lake native, said she was completing a residency program in Cincinnati a few years ago when she first listened to the musical’s soundtrack on a trip home. Vaughan was completing an ethics course at the time and was immediately hooked on the musical.
“I remember thinking, ‘Gee, that Horton sure is an ethical elephant,’” she said. “I wrote a final semester paper about the ethics of Seuss. Then I had conversation with the dean and it kind of went from there. To do my dissertation all about Seuss was a no-brainer.”
Vaughan said she couldn’t wait for the opportunity to direct her own rendition of “Seussical.”
“I love doing musicals, but it’s not something we do often because it’s so expensive,” said Vaughan, who is directing a musical for the first time. “But this is one in particular that I knew I was going to do.”
The production opens in the St. Scholastica Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Friday. The show will continue with several showings through April 28.
Ticket sales have already been strong. About half of the tickets for the show’s run had already been sold as of earlier this week, Vaughan reported.
“It’s a kids’ show, so it’s appealing to the whole family,” she said. “It’s a musical, and everyone loves musicals. And people know and love Seuss. His first book was published in 1938, so he’s covered many generations.”
“Seussical,” written by Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens and Eric Idle and first performed on Broadway in 2000, combines elements of several Seuss works.
The production tells the story of the life of Horton the Elephant and is narrated by the Cat in the Hat. Other legendary Seuss characters including the Sour Kangaroo, the Grinch, the Lorax and the Whos all make appearances.
The production includes 33 cast members, mostly St. Scholastica students. With a large cast — many of them playing non-human characters — it’s a challenge for the actors.
“I’ve had some trouble releasing my inner elephant,” said junior Joey Brueske, who plays Horton. “I’m kind of tall and skinny, and acting like I’m 1,000 pounds is kind of interesting, but I think I’ve gotten the hang of it over the past couple rehearsals.”
Freshman Amanda Ayd plays the Cat in the Hat. Seuss scholars like Vaughan consider the character to be a persona of Geisel himself — a character that could cause the mischief that Geisel couldn’t in real life. Ayd said adapting to the role hasn’t been easy.
“It put a lot of weight on my shoulders to play Seuss himself,” she said. “But I’ve had Merry’s advice to go on. It’s a very fun character to play.”
Vaughan has shared with the actors some of her research into Seuss’ works. Her doctoral dissertation, “There’s More to Seuss Than Meets the Eye: The Social and Political Vision of an American Icon,” examined the context and messages of four Seuss classics.
Seuss’ books often reflected the changing times and political landscape, Vaughan said. “The Lorax,” for example, makes a case for environmentalism, while “The Butter Battle Book,” released in the midst of the 1980s arms race, has an anti-war message.
The “Seussical” authors were well aware of Seuss’ positions when writing the musical, Vaughan said.
“Knowing what he was thinking (when writing his books) I think brings out a lot in this musical,” she said. “The authors really understood Seuss, and they put all the characters together in one story. I think he would have approved.”
WHAT: “Seussical,” a musical based on the works of Dr. Seuss
WHEN: April 12-14, 18-21, 25-28. Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances are at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinee performances are at 2 p.m.
WHERE: The St. Scholastica Theatre, behind Tower Hall on campus
TICKETS: $15 for adults, $10 for senior citizens and students, and $5 for St. Scholastica students. Tickets can purchased in advance at spotlight.css.edu.