There's more than one way to bring a successful stage musical to the screen. But it's not usually as a 48-minute cartoon, it's not usually for the TV screen, and it doesn't usually substitute children's voices for those of adults. On the other hand, the material in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown , out next Tuesday in a "deluxe" DVD with a short retrospective, did spring from Charles Schulz's Peanuts , a comic strip about kids who talked like adults. So fair's fair.
In 1966, purely on spec, composer Clark Gesner wrote songs that the neurotic Charlie Brown, the blanket-hugging Linus and the bossy Lucy might sing. Schulz heard them, loved them and talked of inserting them immediately into one of his animated specials, such as A Charlie Brown Christmas . According to David Michaelis's 2007 biography Schulz and Peanuts , "an intramural feud among CBC executives grounded negotiations for that plan."
So Gesner issued the songs on vinyl as an original MGM album musical, with himself as Linus; and with Orson Bean, later to play the boss in Being John Malkovich , as Charlie. The songs were, and are, terrific: about suppertime, about flying kites, about Lucy pining for Schroeder to the tune of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata ("Know something else?/ I think the way you play the piano/ Is nice").
The next stop was off-Broadway. Working with an 11-page outline and Schulz's collected strips, the director and six actors hired for the show workshopped the material into a book for the musical, and were collectively credited as John Gordon. The role of Charlie went to Gary Burghoff, who later played Radar O'Reilly in M*A*S*H . Linus was played by Bob Balaban, whose many films include A Mighty Wind .
The show opened in 1967 and ran for 1,597 performances. A couple of dozen touring companies carried it further. By the 1980s, Michaelis wrote, it was the most-produced musical in the history of the American theatre. (Cast of six, minimal set - it's a breeze to mount.) It was revived as a 1999 Broadway musical co-starring Kristin Chenoweth, who won a Tony for her role as Charlie's sister Sally. Chenoweth also made news last September when, accepting an Emmy for the TV series Pushing Daisies , she half-jokingly told the audience she was looking for work. Hey, how about a live-action feature of You're a Good Man ?
In 1984, Lee Mendelson produced the Peanuts television special It's Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown , in which the children who voiced the characters also sang songs. (One of them was Stacy Ferguson, better known now as singer-actress Fergie.) Mendelson says he figured he could find eight- and nine-year-olds to handle the songs in an animated version of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown . And so it came to pass.
The result is not perfect. The children's delivery is often too shrill to do justice to the songs. It's no coincidence that Snoopy, the only character voiced here by an adult, fares best. And it's a shame the show left out Linus's ditty, My Blanket and Me . Still, it's hard to go wrong with Gesner's music. He was a good man.