Garfield the Musical with Cattitude

Ivy Tech Waldron Auditorium

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From strip to stage: Cardinal for Kids presents ‘Garfield: The Musical with Cattitude’

By Jenny Porter Tilley
September 3, 2017

Jason Slattery as Garfield and Chris Krenning as Odie during rehearsal for “Garfield: The Musical with Cattitude.” Photo by Jenny Porter Tilley | Herald-Times

Persistence isn’t one of Garfield’s characteristics — it doesn’t involve napping or inhaling lasagna. But it’s how he got his own musical.

When Michael Bobbitt, artistic director for Adventure Theatre, a children’s theater in the Washington, D.C., area, first approached cartoonist Jim Davis about the adaptation, Davis turned him down.

“I’m always looking for big brand titles and interesting projects, so I often comb my own memory — and the internet, and the library — to kind of figure out what’s a good title for us to adapt,” Bobbitt said in a phone interview. “Garfield popped into my head.”

When Davis said no, Bobbitt decided to keep following up every six months or so. Davis was happy to be bugged when it came to getting the beloved cat onto a children’s theater stage. Initially, “I just had so many other things going on that I kind of left him hanging,” Davis wrote in a recent email. “But he persisted, and I’m so glad he did.”

Eventually, that persistence led to Bobbitt working with Davis and his wife, Jill, to write the script for “Garfield: The Musical with Cattitude.” Cardinal Stage Company’s production of the show opens Friday at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center in Bloomington as part of the Cardinal for Kids series.

To prepare for writing the show, Bobbitt consumed as much Garfield as he could, including Davis’s comic strips dating back to 1978, books and cartoon adaptations.

“I just immersed myself in the world of Garfield and tried to figure out what the play was going to be about,” he said. Garfield’s widespread popularity was one of the reasons he’d been so interested in a stage production, but it also brought more pressure to get it right, he said. Another challenge was making sure the plot was accessible to children, which Bobbitt said is easier when the main character is also a child.

“Jim and Jill (Davis) say that (Garfield) is 16,” Bobbitt said, “which is interesting to me, because I always pictured him as like a 45 year old. Sort of a sour, surly kind of guy.” But the creator and his wife, he said, see Garfield as more of a teenager with an attitude.

Instead of the play taking place from the point of view of a younger character, Bobbitt said, he looked for things in Garfield’s world that kids could relate to. He noticed several strips leading up to Garfield’s birthday — June 19, which was also the premiere date for the original production by Adventure Theater in 2015.

“Every kid loves birthdays,” he said. “Birthdays are like the most important thing in the world. (Kids) count their half years and 3/4 years, and they’re so important.” From that came the idea for the story: Garfield wakes up from a dream about a fantastic birthday, only to realize that his birthday is on that much-loathed day of the week: Monday. Even worse, his friends have all forgotten his birthday. He gets mad and decides to run away from home — a plan many children consider, Bobbitt said.

Garfield’s words and actions also had to be just right, Bobbitt said, because he’s so widely recognized. He had to be likable, but also exhibit his usual grumpiness and human-like qualities. Taking on this challenge in the upcoming Bloomington production is Chicago-based actor Jason Slattery.

“Even though in many ways we think of Garfield as a Scrooge … through a series of events, he learns to be a nice guy,” Bobbitt said. “But we had to make sure that we kept it on brand. At the end of the play, even though he learns a bunch of stuff, he’s still Garfield. … Garfield is, in many ways, more human than he is cat.”

Davis has called Garfield a “human in a cat suit. So his behaviors are more human than cat-like,” he wrote. “Most people hate Mondays, disdain diets and exercise, can’t function without coffee and want to control the remote.”

The creators decided early in the process that they wanted the costuming to show human faces. Only one character in the show is an actual human, however. Jon Arbuckle, Garfield’s owner, will be played by NYU graduate Reid Henderson in his fifth show with Cardinal Stage Company. In some ways, though, Garfield is the human his readers wish they could be.

“He gets away with all the things we want to get away with, like not having a job, being lazy, watching TV, eating whatever he wants, being the boss of the house,” Bobbitt said. “I think that’s why people love him so much.”

Chris Krenning as Odie, Ashley Dillard as Arlene, and Anna Butler as Nermal during a rehearsal. Photo by Jenny Porter Tilley | Herald-Times

Fur all ages

Texas-based John Cornelius II, who wrote the show’s music and lyrics, has been working with Bobbitt for almost 20 years. Their goal when writing children’s theater is to create shows that appeal to audience members of all ages.

“The idea of writing for children as if they were just young people, as opposed to really unsophisticated beings, not only made sense for us, but it made for better writing,” Cornelius said in a phone interview. “Then you can write pieces that work on multiple levels, so the kids get something out of it, but their parents get something out of it as well.”

From the pun in the title to the incorporation of Garfield’s widely known attributes, the idea was to get laughs from this live-action adaptation of the classic comic strip. And, Bobbitt said, it’s important that families coming to the theater together to be able to laugh together.

“At any moment in the play when the parent is laughing and the kid doesn’t get it, the kid is pulled out of the play,” Bobbitt said. “And vice-versa, if the kid is having a good time and the parent is bored to tears, they’re not going to come back.”

Cornelius had to turn those comedic moments into music. “The funny thing about music is you can drop a million jokes in the world in dialogue,” he said, “but songs don’t work that way. Songs take time. They have to develop.” Because of the short length of the show, he said, there can’t be a song just for the sake of a song. “It’s got to be more like a release. It gives the audience a chance to catch their breath.”

For “Garfield,” Cornelius got to write large musical numbers including Garfield’s opening number, “I Hate Mondays,” which was inspired by an R&B feel. But he also had the opportunity to write animated fill music.

“The very first thing you hear is coming out of the idea of a cat stretching,” he said. “All of the music is based on that little idea.”

Getting purr-sonal

Most musicals, Bobbitt said, have some kind of love story in them. Garfield has something of a love interest in Arlene, a pink, lipstick-wearing feline friend (portrayed in the local production by IU M.F.A graduate Ashley Dillard).

“Jim describes (Garfield and Arlene) as Sam and Diane from ‘Cheers,’” Bobbitt said. “They never really define their relationship, but you kind of think they’re boyfriend/girlfriend.”

Bobbitt said kids in the audience tend to respond to romantic moments between Garfield and Arlene with a resounding “Eeeeeew!” But they can relate more closely to the love story between Garfield and his teddy bear, Pooky. In discussions with Davis, he learned that Pooky was the only thing Garfield had ever truly expressed love for, and that gave him some sentimentality to work with in the script.

“When you have those kind of Scrooge-like characters, you gotta find a way to soften them up and make them sort of lovable and sympathetic,” he said. “Kids love their teddy bear, so it was perfect.”

Another character a musical needs is a nemesis. Garfield’s nemesis is Nermal, the younger, cuter, more playful gray kitten who occasionally comes to visit. In Cardinal’s production, Nermal will be played by Bloomington’s Anna Butler.

“Nermal was one of my favorites to write, because it makes this little kitten into an evil character,” Bobbitt said, describing one sequence in which Garfield has a nightmare about being replaced by the kitten.

Ruff translation

In past productions of “Garfield: The Musical with Cattitude,” Odie has stolen the show with his big monologue, according to Bobbitt and Cornelius. In the early stages of writing, Bobbitt said he took inspiration from the musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” in which Snoopy has “all these songs and monologues and really great moments,” he said. “So I had created all these cool things for Odie to do, and I got a note from Jim (Davis) that said, ‘Odie doesn’t speak Human.’”

Davis was firm on this point that Odie, unlike the feline characters of Garfield, Nermal and Arlene, only speaks in a dog language. Illinois-native Chris Krenning plays Odie in Cardinal’s show.

“(Odie’s part) was so much fun to write,” Cornelius said, “because I had to imagine what he would have been saying and then translate it into dog.”

The big orange cat’s name may be in the title, but in past productions, Bobbitt said, the happy yellow dog has stolen the show.

Q&A with Jim Davis:

Q: Garfield is such a pervasive part of American culture now that everything about him seems to be common knowledge. How did you come up with Garfield as a character, and where did the ideas for his behaviors come from?

A: I wanted to be a cartoonist from the time I was in grade school. I had asthma as a child and spent a lot of time in bed, so my mom stuck a pencil and paper in my hands and told me to draw to keep myself busy. After I graduated high school, I went on to Ball State University and majored in business, but the dream of being a cartoonist never died. After college, I took a job at an advertising agency, then I heard about a job as an assistant cartoonist for Tom Ryan (Tumbleweeds). While I worked with Tom, I learned the discipline necessary to be a syndicated cartoonist with a daily comic strip. My first attempt at my own strip was “Gnorm Gnat” — the stars were bugs. I tried and tried to get Gnorm syndicated. Finally, a comics editor at one of the syndicates took pity on me and said, “Your art is good. The jokes are funny. But bugs? Who can relate to a bug?” So, I looked at the comic’s pages to see which strips were working and discovered there were a lot of strips about dogs… Snoopy, Marmaduke, Belvedere… but no cats! So, I started doodling pictures of cats, and came up with the kind of cat I knew from my childhood — disinterested, aloof and yet somehow completely in control.

Q: One of the things I like most about Garfield is the way it portrays the attitude of cats versus dogs. One is a cynical, sleepy pet and the other is obedient and excitable. What do you think makes someone into a cat person or a dog person?

A: I’m not sure I’m qualified to get into the psychology behind that question, but I think people like cats because they’re interesting and mysterious. Sometimes you can feel a cat staring at you and you’re thinking “I wonder what’s going on in that mind.” In fact, he’s probably just waiting for you to reach for the can opener. But, cats are cuddly, too, and they have good hygiene. Dogs give unconditional love and are mostly playful and happy creatures. So, you might as well have one of each and make your life complete.

Q: What was it like adapting your characters into other vehicles?

A: Having Garfield go from 2-D to 3-D was fun — there’s so much more latitude when you can take a character out of the confines of a three-panel comic strip. Letting Garfield stretch his legs in other formats have really helped inform the comic strip, too. In print, you have the opportunity to leave things out and let the reader use their imagination. With TV and movie animation, you can do about anything imaginable to the character — there are very few limits. But, on stage, there are a few challenges. Costuming is the first big hurdle. Garfield’s a big cat, and a life-size costume would be very hot, heavy and difficult to maneuver. I think our solution works perfectly, and both the actor and the character get to shine.

Q: Which other character (or characters) from your work were you most excited to see brought to life, and why?

A: I’ve always loved Odie. He’s just sweet and dumb and innocent. He always makes me smile. He doesn’t have anything to say, but he’s so expressive with his eyes, body and tongue! Selfishly, I also enjoyed seeing Jon Arbuckle brought to life — there’s a lot of me in Jon Arbuckle — hopefully, I dress a little better, though.

Q: What was your reaction the first time you saw the Garfield musical on stage?

A: Honestly, when I saw the show I couldn’t stop grinning. I’d been wanting to do a musical for ages, and it just never came together. We worked on the script for months and then brought John Cornelius II in to do the music and it all came together. I thoroughly enjoyed the end result, and that’s not always easy because when you’re so involved in a project you tend to pick it apart. I didn’t — I just sat back and enjoyed the show.