By Don Leavitt
If Charles Schultz had lived to see them, how would his Peanuts gang have reacted to the horrific things that happened on September 11, 2001? Snoopy would most likely be the first to volunteer, boarding his trusty Sopwith Camel to take to the skies against the bad guys. Perhaps Linus would clutch his security blanket just a little bit tighter. Sally, with her unwavering faith in herself, would try to rationalize the tragedy, trying to make sense of it when even the adults around her failed to completely comprehend it.
And Charlie Brown, Schultz’s Everyman, might grab a nickel to see if the Doctor is in. Doubly unsure now of himself and the world around him, he would still blindingly, trustingly try to kick the ball when Lucy offered to hold it for him, and, when he inevitably ended up on his back staring at the sky, we would smile in spite of ourselves. Good ol’ Charlie Brown.
When Schultz created his comic world more than fifty years ago, he graced it with an innocent charm that some say will never be duplicated. His characters were little people with unique personalities inhabiting a world where adults were always just out of the picture, their voices just so much garbled noise—yet adults, seeing the mature wisdom in the comic characters, were his main readers. Through his born-loser main character, Charlie Brown, Schultz gave us wide-eyed optimism in the face of constant, certain disaster: the sheer joy of a baseball game with your friends even if you always lose; or the quiet pleasure of flying a kite on a beautiful day even if you end up entangled and hanging from a tree.
It was exactly this happiness that attracted fans to Peanuts when it first appeared in seven newspapers in October 1950. Its popularity grew quickly, and, by the end of its run, the comic strip was appearing in nearly 3,000 newspapers worldwide. In the meantime, Peanuts appeared on greeting cards, in several Emmy-award winning animated television specials and as a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical called You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
The musical is the brainchild of Clark Gesner, a gifted composer who created the book, music, and lyrics of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Inspired by Schultz’s comic strip, Gesner originally wrote the songs with no intention of ever turning them into a stage production. However, in the mid 1960s, he played his songs for Broadway producer Arthur Whitelaw, who encouraged Gesner to create a musical based on Peanuts.
Gesner knew You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown would strike a chord with audiences. A devoted fan, he desperately wanted to capture the innocence and happiness of the Peanuts gang in a live show. As a writer for Sesame Street and Captain Kangaroo, Gesner knew how to play to children. But could he write about children in a way that would entertain adults? Rather than create original stories and risk missing Schultz’s unique charm, Gesner decided to use stories written by Schultz in a series of vignettes linked by Gesner’s original songs.
The result was magic. For audiences, it was as if they were reading the comic strip in their Sunday newspaper, watching each scene panel played out before them. It brought the world of Charlie Brown to life in a way that exceeded even Gesner’s and Whitelaw’s expectations.
The play opened off-Broadway at the Theatre 80 St. Marks in 1967 and stayed there for four years and more than 1,500 performances before moving to Broadway’s John Golden Theatre in 1971. The play was not nearly as well received on the Great White Way and closed after only 32 performances.
You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown had made its mark, though. For nearly thirty years, the musical has played in theatres around the country, many times with adults playing the familiar roles. It spawned several national and regional tours and inspired a less well-received sequel entitled Snoopy. Then in 1999, a revival was mounted that returned the play to Broadway. The musical was reworked with new songs, additional music and the inclusion of Sally, Charlie Brown’s younger sister who was missing from the original book. The result was a critical success that won two Tony Awards and the appreciation of a whole new generation.
It’s hard not to like Peanuts, and even harder not to like You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Most everyone can easily identify with Charlie Brown—the feeling of awkwardness, of never quite being in sync with the people around us, and the fear that no matter how hard we try, things might never, ever work out the way we want them to. But Charlie Brown also reminds us that there is a lot of happiness to be found in life, no matter how badly things may seem to go, and that true happiness is found in relatively simple things. Nothing captures this better than Gesner’s finale: “Happiness is finding a pencil . . . learning to whistle . . . two kinds of ice cream . . . being alone now and then. Happiness is anyone and anything at all that’s loved by you” (Act 2).
It’s a nice message for today, when everything seems a little uncertain and scary and complicated. When Charles Schultz died in February 2000, he left us a hero who, despite his failings, never quits. Clark Gesner simply put that message to music: Charlie Brown might never actually kick the ball, but no matter how many times Lucy pulls it away, he’ll never stop trying.