Judging by the number of grown adults walking around the city catching small animated characters and trapping them in balls, it’s clear there is more to the world of children’s entertainment than I’m A Little Teapot.
The modern audience demands a sophisticated level of creativity that appeals both to children and their parents who, after all, are the ones signing the checks. But neither should that mean the loss of innocence or the simple magic of discovery.
When Jonathan Rockefeller was growing up in Australia, it was Mary Poppins, Disney, The Muppets that fired his young imagination. And a raggedy, tattered, well-read copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
He still has that book. These days, it’s signed by the author and illustrator Eric Carle, a sign of a professional and personal friendship between the two men, and a mutual respect. Because Jonathan was granted the rare honor to translate the story that has captivated generations for the stage: “Actually, when I showed the book to Eric, he was like, ‘This was a bad print when it was done.’ But he still signed it. Begrudgingly.”
If Carle has shaped his most recent present, it was Baz Luhrmann who made an early impression, back home in Australia. “I actually approached him when I was 17 with a pop-up book explaining who he was and why he needed an apprentice,” says Jonathan. “Because all great artists throughout history always have an apprentice. You think of Plato, Macedon …
“It got his attention. We met. We had a great conversation. But things just weren’t happening fast enough. So I took it to the next level and sat in his gutter with a cardboard sign reading ‘Bazmark or bust’ until I got a job!”
It was while working with Luhrmann on the Broadway production of La Boheme that Jonathan met his husband, Wilson Rockefeller. “Twelve years later, after very, very solid, long friendship, we decided to make it official.
“I’d say having the last name Rockefeller and having an Australian accent makes me unique! People always do a second take as soon as I open my mouth. But it’s a good story more than anything else. I wouldn’t say it has an advantage to my career any more than me doing hard work.
“And there are lots and lots of Rockefellers in the world these days. This is just who we are. And no Australian even bats an eyelid!”
The Very Hungry Caterpillar has been in print for nearly 50 years, and it has lost none of its appeal. “If you think how many generations have read that book – it’s quite something,” says Jonathan. “In fact, I love saying this, but more people have read The Very Hungry Caterpillar than have seen The Lion King. Just to put things into context.”
The show opened in Australia, is currently on a run at Theatre Row, New York, and a “posh English” caterpillar is just about to take the stage in London. “The puppets come out and meet the kid and it’s like being at a rock concert – every single person wants a photo. The mums go crazy too!”
The audience ranges from as young as a teeny tiny six months through to around 10, meaning it’s a huge challenge to keep everyone’s attention.
“One of the things we want to do is make sure there’s something new and beautiful to look at on stage virtually every minute. We have 75 puppets – it’s a 60-minute show – so on average you’re going to see a new puppet every 50 seconds.
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“It’s a great game the audience gets to play with their parents and us – what animal’s going to come up next? Or do they know this story so well they can guess what’s happening next? We don’t shush anyone. You’re meant to be excited.”
There are four tales in total: The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse, Jonathan’s personal favorite; Mr Seahorse; The Very Lonely Firefly; with the climactic The Very Hungry Caterpillar, complete with 12-foot wide butterfly. Talking about it, and the effect it has on its young audience, still has Jonathan welling up.
“It brings out the inner child in me. If you’re ever having a bad day, just sit in a theater audience full of 200 children.”
He has no plans for children of his own. His next baby will be a puppet show for adults based on The Golden Girls. “It’s a very, very fun project written for a New York audience, but it’s not just for fans of the show.”
He’s also compiling a book he wrote when he was just four years old. “It’s actually called I Want To Be an Artist. I think that’s why I identify so much with Eric’s books. And it’s all about when you run out of paper, what can you paint on? The wall, the dog, the cat …
“It’s very much autobiographical. I still have little notes I wrote to my brothers when I’d been sent to my room saying, ‘I’m in trouble again!’”
This story originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of W42ST Magazine.