News Column

'Elf the Musical' inspired by family-favorite 2003 film [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA)]

November 24, 2013


Wearing striped tights in public can be a daunting prospect for almost any red-blooded male.

But consider the challenge facing Matt Kopec, who stars in "Elf the Musical." The Christmas comedy opens Nov. 26 at the Benedum.

For Kopec, it's been both a blessing and burden to play a role made famous by Will Ferrell in the 2003 film.

Ferrell charmed audiences with his pitch-perfect portrayal of Buddy, a naive man-child who is raised by elves at the North Pole and journeys back to New York to find his real parents. Kopec, who has played Buddy since "Elf" began its first national tour last year, knows that comparisons are inevitable.

"I would say that is the No. 1 question I get," says Kopec, a native of Dayton. "It was a more daunting question last year. This year, I feel much more at ease. Our production, while inspired by the film, has its own life, in its way."

"Elf" features songs by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, the team who collaborated on the live version of "The Wedding Singer." Kopec says his favorite song is "Just Like Him," which Buddy sings after he is reunited with his father, Walter. His stepmother, Emily, and little brother, Michael, sing "There Is a Santa Claus." Buddy's fellow elves sing "Christmastown," one of the big ensemble numbers.

"I think our show, while it retains the spirit of the movie, focuses a little more on Buddy's innocence and never-ending, wide- eyed positivity and the sheer way he looks at the world," Kopec says.

"Elf" follows movies like "Legally Blonde," "Ghost," "A Christmas Story" and "Mary Poppins" that have been adapted for the stage. Studios like Universal, 20th Century Fox and Sony have discovered a potential gold mine in turning their movies into musicals.

This fall, New York audiences can see live musical versions of "Rocky," "The Bridges of Madison County," "Bullets Over Broadway" and "Big Fish." Disney's "Aladdin" is set to open this winter.

"The movie industry has just been a boon to the musical business because they have such big pockets," says Broadway scholar and author Geoffrey Block. A professor at the University of Puget Sound, in Tavoma, Wash., Block wrote "Enchanted Evenings, The Broadway Musical From 'Show Boat' to Sondheim and Lloyd Webber." (Oxford University Press). "It's more than just a trend. It's the dominant force."

Kopec is no stranger to musicals based on movies, having played in regional productions of "The Wizard of Oz" and "Monty Python's Spamalot." But as the star of "Elf," he's doing the heavy lifting equivalent of eight reindeer.

"It was definitely a big shift from playing a dancing knight to carrying a show," he says. "The show is a lot of Buddy all the time."

Translating a movie to the stage is more than just singing the script and dancing the action. Audiences don't want to pay as much as four or five times the cost of a movie ticket to see a three- dimensional DVD rental onstage. They want to see something different, but they also expect a certain amount of fidelity, particularly when it comes to famous lines or scenes from the movie.

Kopec says fans often ask him if the musical features Buddy's famous phone greeting: "Hi, this is Buddy. What's your favorite color?" (Yes). Or the scene in which Buddy gets drunk in the mailroom (No).

"People have become so attached to the film," he says. "It's 10 years old this year. People all have their favorite moments. ... For the creative team who wrote the show, the biggest challenge for them, I would assume, is to appease the audience that has come to know the film so well."

The associate director on the touring production of "Elf" is Benjamin Shaw, who grew up in Squirrel Hill and attended the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School, Downtown. He moved to New York, where he worked for Disney Theatrical Group, the in- house production company that translated "Beauty and the Beast," "The Little Mermaid" and "The Lion King" to the stage.

"Creating a piece of theater is not an algorithm," Shaw says. "It's always a crap shoot, and it's always an exciting one."

Live theater can't resort to close-ups, cutaways, and back and forth shots between different locations, Shaw says.

"We don't want to re-create the movie onstage. We want to use the movie as our inspiration and, then, do something special and different. ... You look at the story fundamentally as a narrative, then use it as a jumping- off point to do things that the old genre cannot."

Megan Monaghan Rivas is associate professor of dramaturgy at Carnegie Mellon University, Uptown. She's never attempted to adapt a movie into a musical, but the differences between the two present obvious difficulties, she says.

"Most movies, structurally, have many more scenes than any stage play," she says. "Adapting any movie for the stage tends to involve compacting extended sequences of multiple scenes and multiple locations into single, stronger threads.

"If the filmmaker has promoted intimacy by using a lot of close- ups, the musical theater team has to create the same sense of intimacy for those characters using the tools of musical theater. You're always looking at the whole person. They have to start their work knowing the audience is looking at one perspective and one scale the whole time."

One very happy elf is Amy Van Norstrand. She graduated from Point Park University last year and is returning to Pittsburgh as one of the ensemble in "Elf." She plays multiple roles, including a "real elf" at the North Pole and a department-store elf in one scene that takes place at Macy's in New York.

"The set is really interesting," says Norstrand, 23. "It's designed after a pop-up book. It's very children-friendly, very exciting, big colors, big lights."

But "Elf the Musical" isn't just for kids, she says. She credits the "smart writing" of the creative team, who have included plenty of jokes for adults.

"I'm so excited to be able to play the Benedum at a place where I went to school for four years," she says, sounding as excited as Buddy himself. "I've been out of school for only a year, and I'm coming back."

William Loeffler is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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