‘He’s All Impulse’: Making Disney’s ‘Pinocchio’ Naughty Onstage

Posted December 14, 2017 6:56 p.m. EST

LONDON — Pinocchio belongs on a stage, maybe more than any other Disney character. The puppet, desperate to be a real boy, even explains this in song. “Hi-diddle-dee-dee,” he trills, “an actor’s life for me.”

That wish has come true. For the first time, this Disney animated classic has been turned into a musical. The in-demand director John Tiffany has overseen the production, which opened Wednesday at the National Theater.

Disney has tended to guard its oldest classics, wary of transposing them to the stage. Ever since “The Little Mermaid” (1989), however, its films have usually followed the structures of musical theater, and most of its stage shows are drawn from that era: “The Lion King,” “Aladdin” and, now, “Frozen.”

“All the animations before that — ‘Dumbo,’ ‘Bambi,’ ‘The Jungle Book’ — they kind of follow their own rules,” Tiffany pointed out on a rehearsal break backstage at the National. “Pinocchio,” Disney’s second film, released in 1940, has only five songs, and its narrative, about a puppet on the run, retains the episodic structure of Carlo Collodi’s original serialized novel.

Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Group, said in a statement that the company had batted away “many inquiries” over time: “Nothing managed to find its stride — until now.”

If Schumacher holds “Pinocchio” especially dear, it may be because he trained as a marionette operator in his pre-Disney days. It took Tiffany a year to win him over.

“There were a couple of marionettes dotted around his office,” Tiffany said of their first meeting. The director had just finished “Once,” the Tony-winning musical, when he pitched the possibility of “Pinocchio.”

“At the end of the meeting, Tom said, ‘What would you do with it?'” Tiffany recalled. “I said, ‘Give me a year and I’ll come back to you.'”

Tiffany always knew “Pinocchio” needed reinventing. “I was very clear from the start: no lederhosen,” he said.

Next to him on the National Theater’s sofa, Dennis Kelly, the writer of the book for “Pinocchio,” laughed. “It really doesn’t look like the film,” he said.

The proposed overhaul went beyond aesthetics. The aim was to find a theatrical language: Tiffany’s stock-in-trade, be it the rough magic of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” or the explosive physicality of his “Black Watch,” set in Iraq.

The big idea Tiffany took to Disney was toying with scale. Giant puppets will play Gepetto and the story’s other adults, while actors, tied to the flies, will portray its miniature marionettes. In fact, as in “The Lion King,” puppetry will be at the show’s core, from Jiminy Cricket to Stromboli’s stage show.

Tiffany reunited his regular creative team: illusionist Jamie Harrison, designer Bob Crowley and movement director (and his childhood friend) Steven Hoggett. The key question, according to Tiffany: “How do you make puppets move like human beings, and human beings move like puppets?”

That distinction, of course, is pivotal to “Pinocchio.” For Kelly, brought on when Enda Walsh dropped out because of scheduling problems, “the question at its heart is what it is to be human, what it means to be real.”

Kelly, a dramatist with a dark sensibility, who put the mischief into “Matilda the Musical,” was always likely to depart from Disney’s version. “In the film, Pinocchio’s told, ‘When you’re courageous and brave and honest, then you’ll be a real boy,'” he said. “Don’t lie? Of course, we need to learn how to lie. Any kid that doesn’t is going to have problems.”

Kelly sought inspiration in Collodi’s original character, a far harsher presence than Disney’s bashful, blue-eyed boy. Collodi’s Pinocchio kills his cricket with a hammer and burns off his own feet after falling asleep by the stove. “It starts out with an old man having a kid that he’s desperately wanted,” Kelly said, and then that child runs off. “The whole thing becomes about family.” The song “I’ve Got No Strings” almost says as much.

For Tiffany, that’s richly theatrical. “Pinocchio’s really naughty,” he explained, likening him to a rogue or a harlequin. “He’s all impulse: ‘I want to sleep now. I want to eat that. I want to run off to Pleasure Island.’ It’s commedia dell’arte meets Grimm’s tales.”

All of that has fed Kelly, who has borrowed Collodi’s opening image: Gepetto carving a block of wood that, suddenly, starts to giggle. (Joe Idris-Roberts, a 23-year old recent drama school graduate, plays the title character, with Audrey Brisson as Jiminy Cricket in a 22-person cast.)

What makes this Disney’s “Pinocchio,” then? The vintage songs by Leigh Harline, Ned Washington and Paul J. Smith, including “When You Wish Upon a Star,” “Give a Little Whistle” and “I’ve Got No Strings.” But five tunes do not a musical make, and Tiffany immediately ruled out writing new ones.

“Harmonically and melodically, those songs are all very much of their period: late 1930s, early 1940s,” explained orchestrator Martin Lowe, who had worked with Tiffany on “Once” and was tasked with turning the animated film’s small repertoire of classics into a full score. Rearrangements were a start, chopping and changing up those tunes, extending them into the underscoring, but it wasn’t enough.

Lowe looked elsewhere: first, to the six songs Disney originally discarded (one number, “Rolling Along to Pleasure Island,” in particular), then to the title track of a 1947 Jiminy Cricket spinoff, “Fun and Fancy Free.” Yet, even with another 88 handwritten pages of original incidental music, Lowe was still short.

The answer lay in the Alps. Having opened “Once” with a preshow medley of Irish and Czech folk music, he tried the same trick: “The more we listened to the movie’s score, the more we realized they had written new folk songs in the Alpine tradition.” Encouraged by an approving Disney, he started scouring for suitable songs to splice in. “I’ll go anywhere for a folk song,” he said jokingly. “When you start looking, they come thick and fast.” So much so that the final show is more or less fully scored. “It’s more musical than a musical,” as Tiffany remarked.

It is not, however, your average Disney musical.

“It doesn’t immediately sit in the West End or on Broadway,” Tiffany insisted. If Disney and the National seem unlikely partners — the most profitable producer on the planet and Britain’s most prominent nonprofit — the arrangement allows Tiffany the security to take artistic risks.

There’s precedent. While Disney typically produces its sure things, like “Frozen,” alone, it lately has tended to license out riskier fare. “The Jungle Book” began at the Goodman Theater in Chicago in 2013, and “Newsies” surprisingly ended up on Broadway by way of the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey.

This is not a coproduction; the National’s artistic director, Rufus Norris, made clear at a news conference that it would not receive “one cent” from Disney, and that it retains complete artistic control.

“Disney owns some of the rights involved in the production,” Norris said in a later statement, though any future transfers would require negotiations. “The notion that anyone can predict what might become a huge hit is wishful thinking,” he said.

Tiffany firmly agrees with that sentiment. “As soon as I start talking about a future life, if it doesn’t have one, it’s a failure,” he said. “It might not warrant one — and that would be fine.”

In other words, no strings attached.