Q&A with Jeff Church
On Dec. 6, 1964, a few now-familiar friends came on screen and into the hearts of America for the very first time. In honor of its 50th anniversary—and as one of only a handful of theaters around the country to do so—the Coterie is staging Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical, bringing the famed stop-motion animation TV special to life this holiday season. We caught up with Jeff Church, producing artistic director of the Coterie, for a sneak preview of the production. Spoiler alert: Even your sullen teen might be visibly pleased.
Spaces: Why bring this TV classic to life? What’s the appeal?
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Jeff Church: I don’t know that anything can trump the strange, beautiful art of stop-motion animation. Whenever it came on the TV, everyone stopped everything and watched it. Now of course you can plug in the DVD so it’s a little bit different. But when it comes on CBS at Christmas time, some families still stop and watch it. It’s irresistible. I don’t think Christmas is complete unless you make time for watching the special, whether you have it recorded on old VHS, or you watch it on CBS, or you have a DVD of it. It’s still very much in people’s lives. It really has been consistently there since 1964. I was always fascinated by the show and what strange affection we have for these little puppets that were between 4 and 6 inches tall.
S: The show seems to appeal to all ages. How about the musical?
JC: I watched the show [in previews]. There were very young kids on the floor up close and in the seating area, I was right smack-dab in the middle of a group of teenagers from Liberty North High School. They were all dressed up to go to the theater. Their drama teacher requires them to put on a tie, put on a dress, and they go to lunch after the theater. I thought, “Oh, these kids are going to be thinking they’re too old for Rudolph.” And it was like they got their childhood back again. Everybody has such affection for certain key moments of the TV special. We really try to give them all those delicious moments. It was really fun to watch teenagers watch that show with young kids in the audience at the same time, because my goal is that the play works on every level for all ages.
S: What do you think resonates with people?
JC: [The show] was way before its time in the sense that Hermey wanted to be a dentist; he felt like he was a misfit because he didn’t fit in with the other elves. That little message of tolerance for Hermey and tolerance for Rudolph, who was also different, was ahead of its time. In some ways it’s kind of a pre-bullying classic—before we understood bullying, really. You always had to respect it for that. To support those that are different, and that what’s different is what makes you special, that was novel. You have to remember that 1964 wasn’t the swinging ’60s. It was a lot of ’50s mentality still.
S: What else can theatergoers look forward to?
JC: The Coterie is one of the most inexpensive theater tickets in town. Part of our mission is to keep ticket prices low so everyone can attend. And Rudolph is a gigantic show. We’ve spent so much money and time and detail and care and hours. It’s a big musical for a really reasonable price. What I love about the show is what I think every audience member is going to love. It’s that recognition of seeing some cherished thing from family memories or even of your childhood. You see it dramatized, and it just brings up such affection.
For tickets or to learn more about the production, go to thecoterie.org.