Good for: Ages 7 and up.
Estimated Time: You need about 11 minutes to watch the videos, but give yourself extra time to read the information here, learn more, try some activities, and discuss ideas with friends and classmates.
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Gerald and Piggie, your favorite elephant and pig, right there on stage, talking, singing, and dancing—as Gerald might say, unpossible? Oh no, very possible! But taking a story from the pages of books to the big lights on stage took a lot imagination and problem solving from a whole team of people.
In the three videos in the resource carousel above, members of the team will discuss the process of bringing “bestus” friends Gerald and Piggie to life. You’ll hear them discuss three main parts of creating a musical—the writing, music, and design. But before you watch, let’s meet the team and learn what they do to create a musical (a story told on stage with actors, songs, and dancing).
The writer or playwright (Mo Willems) imagines the whole story and plans what all the performers on stage will say and also sing. No pressure! And yes, that’s the same Mo Willems who wrote and illustrated all the Elephant & Piggie books.
The director (Jerry Whiddon) organizes and leads the whole team (think of the director as kind of like “the boss”).
The composer (Deborah Wicks La Puma) writes the music to go with the lyrics (the words to go with the songs).
The dramaturg (Megan Alrutz) is an expert in creating theater who helps the writer and director perfect the play or musical.
The scenic designer (James Kronzer) creates how things look on stage.
The costume designer (Kathleen Geldard) plans and produces what the actors wear.
The actors play the roles of all the people (and animals!) on stage—including Gerald, Piggie, and the Squirrelles. Although you won’t hear from them directly in the videos, you’ll see them performing in clips from the show.
And keep in mind these other important people on the team: the lighting designer (who plans and manages all the different lights), the choreographer (who plans all the movements), the music director (who often plays piano during rehearsals and conducts the music during the performances), and the stage manager (the person backstage who makes sure each performance runs without a hitch).
The story of Elephant & Piggie’s We Are in a Play! began as a book—well, six books to be exact. But to tell the stories on stage, the playwright Mo Willems had to adapt, or change, them so they would work together as one story. He describes it as putting them together like a puzzle. Also listen for what Mo says a writer needs to do first. Do you agree with him? Do you do this when you write or imagine stories? Why or why not?
You’ll also hear Mo and the director discuss how Gerald and Piggie face conflicts and crises during the story. Conflict is often created when characters want something and can’t get it, disagree about how to solve a problem, or feel pressured to do something they don’t want to do. Conflict helps create suspense in a story—you wonder what will happen next and whether the characters will remain friends. This is a very important part of storytelling, and it’s called “dramatic conflict.”
In a musical, songs and music play an important role in telling the story—helping audiences understand what is happening, what the characters are feeling, and even how characters are changing. Listen for when Mo says, “What a song can do is…underline the emotion of what the scene is.”
The challenge for the writer and the composer of a musical is to decide when a song expresses actions or feelings better than spoken words alone. For example, they could have Piggie say, “I’m mad.” Or they could have her sing, “I never ever ever ever ever felt so saaaad...maaaad...saaad…maaaad…” Which do you think works better? After deciding where they want to include songs, the writer has to write all the lyrics (words) and the composer creates the music.
So, we’ve talked about what happens on stage and how it all sounds, but what about how it looks? That’s important, too, and the scenic designer, costume designer, lighting designer, and choreographer all help create the look and feel of a show. That’s a big responsibility because, as scenic designer James Kronzer says, “we want to make sure that we’re listening very carefully to the words” and not letting the scenery distract the audience’s attention from the story itself.
Some challenges faced by the designers of Elephant & Piggie:
- Creating an on-stage world that matched the world of the books (which were simple in their design, often having just the characters on white pages)
- Deciding on costumes for the actors playing Gerald and Piggie, and how much they would try to make them look like real animals
- Matching the time period, 1977
Listen and watch for how they approached and solved these challenges.
The Pages That Led to the Stage
The story comes from these Elephant & Piggie books:
I Am Invited to a Party!
Listen to My Trumpet!
I Am Going!
Should I Share My Ice Cream?
I Love My New Toy!
We Are in a Book!
BUT... if you have read other Elephant & Piggie books, you just might see some ideas from a few other books, too! The challenge for Mo Willems was taking ideas from his different books and putting them together to tell one story of these two unlikely best friends.
Jazzing It Up
When Gerald and Piggie sing things like “Boop bap bee bap,” that’s a jazzy sound—and that’s exactly what composer Deborah Wicks La Puma was going for. She noticed how Mo Willems often uses fun words like “zip” and “zoom” in the Elephant & Piggie books. So she thought jazz would be a good way to show that playfulness in a musical way on stage. That’s because jazz music features improvisation, or creating music or song on the spot; plus jazz sometimes has a made-up vocal style called “scatting,” which is singing syllables or parts of words. Kind of like “boop bap bee bap”!
By the way, jazz began in the United States about 100 years ago and many people consider it one of America’s best contributions to the world of music. You can learn more about it in Jazz in Time.
The Trumpet—A Call and an Instrument
In the musical, Piggie decides she wants to speak Gerald’s language—by trumpeting like an elephant. However, since she doesn’t have an elephant’s long trunk (which helps produce that loud, high sound that you might have heard elephants make at the zoo or on TV shows), she reaches for a real trumpet. Both the elephant sound and the trumpet sound involve blowing air. But, of course, the trumpet is a musical instrument made of brass that takes a little practice to play well (as Piggie’s friends discover during the performance!).
Learn more about the trumpet at Perfect Pitch.
Want to learn a little more about real elephants? See this National Geographic Kids feature on African Elephants.
The Joy of the Toy
Listen very carefully during the design video clip, when Piggie sings:
But I don’t care
It’s so fantastic
I just want to hold it tight…
Does the music seem familiar? You might know the sound from concerts, commercials, television shows, or movies. It is “Ode to Joy,” a popular piece of music written almost 200 years ago by Ludwig von Beethoven (LOOD-vig VAHN BAY-toh-vin). Including this classic music, often performed with big orchestras and large choruses, adds drama to Piggie’s love for her toy. So, you can imagine how she feels when she thinks the toy is broken, right?
To hear the inspiration for Piggie’s song, listen to the original “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.
And learn more about Beethoven in Beethoven Rocks!
For the Educator
Aspects of Theater
The videos here offer a great jumping-off point for different theatrical explorations for children:
- Roles in Theater—After students watch the videos and hear from the many people who bring a musical to life, have them research one or two of these careers and report back to the class. Discuss which jobs they find most interesting and why. Are they surprised that so many people work to create a stage production?
- Adapting a Story—Take a favorite book or something the class is currently reading, and ask students to work in small groups to plan a stage version of a short scene. If time allows, ask them to prepare and perform it for the class. Discuss the challenges of making this transition from page to stage. Also, ask them to consider what part of their scene might make a good song, and why.
- Performing as an Animal—Have students consider what costume pieces they would choose and how they would move and speak to perform as an elephant and a pig. Have them demonstrate a few movements to a partner and explain why they chose them.
- Designing a Set—Ask students to consider what Mo Willems said about the set: “It should feel magical. Things should come from nowhere. It should never have a specific location.” Have them sketch some ideas for Gerald and Piggie’s costume pool party and discuss their ideas in small groups or with the class.
Something in the Way They Move
Although choreography isn’t discussed in the commentary, students can see a lot of movement in the performance clips. Discuss the role of the choreographer, the person who plans all the movement. Ask students to pay attention to how movements can communicate powerful emotions and action just as much as music or words can. Bouncy movements might convey joy, fast and abrupt movements could convey anger, and so forth. You might also have them compare the differences in the movements and dancing of Gerald and Piggie and whether their movements match their animal and personality type.
Explore Another Mo Willems Musical
Elephant & Piggie isn’t Mo Willems’s first musical. If you’d like to explore musical creation a little more, have students listen to the Knuffle Bunny audio series as Mo and director Rosemary Newcott discuss the process of bringing Mo’s book Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale to life as a musical in 2011. Unlike with Elephant & Piggie, there was only one book to draw from, and Mo discusses adapting and expanding the book to make it a full-length musical. He and Rosemary also discuss a very important and rewarding part of creating theater—collaboration.
In the separate multimedia series Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical, students can watch clips exploring various aspects of creating this show. Like Elephant & Piggie, the creative team had the challenge of how to show unusual characters on stage—but in this case, rather than animals, it is knuffle bunny, a child’s stuffed animal. Have students pay particular attention to how the creative team solved this challenge and also how they created a fun environment in the unlikeliest of places, the laundromat.
Meet Mo Willems
Mo Willems wrote for TV’s Sesame Street and he’s written and illustrated numerous children’s books, including Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and other books in the Pigeon series, as well as Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, and, of course, the Elephant & Piggie books. He also wrote the script and lyrics for Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical. Among his many awards, Willems has won three Caldecott Honors for his work.
Learn more about Mo at www.mowillems.com, and see the “visit GoMo!” page for online games for children and a “grown-ups” section featuring classroom activities related to some of his other books.