From Screen to Stage: A Conversation On Elf With Sam Scalamoni
Director Sam Scalamoni collaborated with the Broadway show’s original four writers to create the touring show of Elf The Musical that endures today. Check out his unique perspective on the move from hit film to musical theater favorite with these eight questions!
When you came on board Elf The Musical, what did you remember from the movie?
I remembered how incredibly funny and how sweet and touching Will Ferrell’s performance was in it. I knew that that was going to be important. I knew that people might compare the actor’s performance to Will Ferrell’s, but the more I thought about it, Elf is almost an un-Will Ferrell performance: it’s very genuine, it’s not over the top and it’s very sweet and honest. That was helpful to us in finding actors who can portray that onstage.
What makes a good stage Buddy?
Comedy is definitely key, but there is definitely the sincerity. I tell the actors who play Buddy about that fact they’re 30 and they’re adults. That’s what Will Ferrell brought to the character: he has a childlike wonder and innocence, without being a child. It’s quite endearing.
What’s different in the touring show from what was in the 2010 Broadway show?
I had not seen the Broadway version. We were lucky enough that all four writers were game and willing to work with us to create our own version of the show, which is the version that continues to tour the country. It’s all the same Broadway material; the book writers Bob Martin and Thomas Meehan made some adjustments for us. Then it came back to Broadway for a season after we had taken out the tour and the composer and lyricist, Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, decided to write a new opening number. We think this is better.
What is it about the new opening number, “Happy All the Time?”
It’s very smart and hysterically funny. It’s a song about how Santa loves his elves and loves Christmas but it’s a little exhausting sometimes because they’re just so darn happy all the time. It’s a great introduction to Santa, our narrator, and to the elves, and it gives Buddy a fantastic entrance, which he deserves. It’s been an evolving production thanks to their collaboration. And we’ve continued to change things.
How else does the show evolve?
Sometimes the actor informs it. That’s part of the collaboration. This is our fifth year, eighth and ninth company, of the tour; we make tweaks here and there to keep it fresh. A lot of the Broadway jokes were written specifically for a New York audience. Because we’re a touring show, we try to take into consideration that one week we’re in Cleveland the next we’re in Mississippi and the next on the West Coast as we’re crafting jokes and the style, so everyone’s in on the joke. There is a great joke that Tom and Bob wrote about New Jersey, and for some reason that joke lands everywhere we go.
How do you know something’s going to appeal to kids?
My kids are great barometers, and I can tell when they’re bored. But putting myself in the audience is the best way I can gauge if something’s going to work. Obviously, I was a kid, too. So I try to take that perspective while we’re in rehearsal. It’s fun to see how kids who love the movie love the show.
What makes something a bona fide holiday classic?
A great holiday classic taps into the emotion of the time, when we spend time with family. What’s great about Elf, the movie and our show, is that it does tap into that family emotion, whether you celebrate Christmas or not. It dawns on Buddy at the end of the movie and the end of our show that Christmas is more than just Santa Claus; it’s about spending time with your brother, finding your dad. It’s about your first kiss under a glittery Christmas tree. And he’s right. That time of year is about family, friends, taking a minute to reflect on life because it comes at the end of the year. We wouldn’t dare watch them in the summer, but there’s something exciting about that time of year when you sit down with your family to watch the Grinch and It’s a Wonderful Life. Elf The Musical has definitely become that event. We’ve had amazing audience response all over the country. It’s become a part of families’ new holiday tradition.
Is there a message?
We might get a little jaded these days. Snarky tends to be cool. I want kids to feel it’s OK to believe in something even if somebody else doesn’t believe in it. It’s nice to see adults walk out having a little faith in family, feeling that there’s nothing wrong about talking about that kind of sentimentality and emotional connection to your family. I want audiences to leave wide-eyed and know it’s OK to have faith. I want it to be a great time in the theater.