For many 00s kids (and plenty of their parents), the image of Will Ferrell joyfully terrorizing a Macy’s belongs in the Christmas movie canon along with the A Christmas Story leg lamp and the pathetic tree in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Now, the modern Christmas classic is getting the full Broadway treatment in a musical production at Pioneer Theatre Company beginning this Friday.
Based on the 2003 movie, Elf follows Buddy the Elf, who at 6’2” sticks out like a sore thumb among the elves at Santa’s Workshop. As an adult, Buddy the Elf learns that he is no elf at all—he is a human who was adopted after sneaking into Santa’s bag as a baby. Heartbroken, Buddy leaves the North Pole and heads to New York City to connect with his real father. Far from Santa’s Workshop, Buddy’s overwhelming love of Christmas and childlike personality confuses, annoys and ultimately wins over the cynical New Yorkers he meets.
For people of my generation—young enough to still believe in Santa when the movie came out in theaters—Elf is a permanent Christmas staple. (The movie is tattooed in my brain from countless day-before-winter-break viewings in elementary school. It still feels most appropriate to watch it on a clunky TV rolled into a carpeted classroom.) Almost two decades later, the film’s mix of self-aware humor and warm and fuzzy Christmas cheer still works—the endlessly quotable dialogue and earnest performances make the holiday movie cliches go down like candy (and candy canes, candy corn and syrup). This musical adaptation, which premiered in 2010, captures the nostalgia of the film and adds a peppy Broadway-pop score.
Elf’s debut at PTC was back in 2013, where it became the company’s most popular holiday production ever. In this new production, Buddy is played by Max Chernin, who was last seen at PTC in Bright Star, with actors Antoinette Comer, Christopher Gurr, Mary Fanning Driggs and Jason Simon playing the other lead roles. Elf’s director, Alan Muraoka, has plenty of experience with family-friendly entertainment. In addition to a decades-long career as both a theater actor and director, Muraoka is best known for his role as Alan on Sesame Street. (The character was introduced in 1998 as the owner of Hooper’s Store, and Muraoka has been a cast member ever since.) This year, he co-directed an episode of the show, “Family Day,” that introduced a family with two gay dads.
Salt Lake spoke with Muraoka about Elf, Sesame Street and his career in television and theater.
Salt Lake: What can audiences expect from Elf?
Just in time for the holiday season, this show brings fun and memorable songs, wonderful humor, energetic dancing, and a great story with heart. The idea of Buddy the Elf searching for his family and a place to call home and along the way spreading kindness and joy which touches everyone he meets is the greatest message to share during this time. This is the perfect show to share with family and friends, and I am very excited for everyone to come back to the theatre to join in on the fun.
SL: Tell us about your experiences working with this cast and crew at Pioneer Theatre Company.
This is my first time working with Pioneer Theatre Company, and I am so grateful for the opportunity. Everyone on the creative staff is so welcoming and collaborative, and I appreciate it.
Our cast is filled with a combination of great local talent and NY actors, and I’m always amazed how quickly in theatre, strangers can bond and become a family. I have personal experience with several of the cast and creative staff. Our Musical Director, Tom Griffin, hired me as an actor for my first professional job back in LA back in 1983. Choreographer Rommy Sandhu and I have been acquaintances for years but have never worked together until now. One of the actors, Howard Kaye, and I did the original Broadway production of Miss Saigon back in the mid-90’s, and another cast member, Danielle Decrette and I did the National Tour of Lincoln Center’s Anything Goes back in 1989 and shortly after she gave up performing to raise three beautiful girls. This is her return to performing after many, many years.
SL: You have spent more than two decades on Sesame Street, but you also have worked extensively in theater. What excites you about working in live theater?
I love both theatre and television for different reasons, but the most wonderful and unique thing about theatre is that it is live. Anything can happen in live theatre, and so every performance is slightly different. I love how the audience actually plays a huge part in this as well. Actors feed off the energy of an audience, and so the audience is a vital piece of the overall experience of theatre.
SL: You have worked both behind and in front of the camera on an iconic show for children and families. What have you learned on Sesame Street about performing for this specific audience? How did you apply this experience to Elf, another kid-friendly production?
Sesame Street has taught me so much, but the greatest thing it has taught me is how intelligent and intuitive children are, and so you must always be honest with them. I always approach every show with finding the truth and honesty in the material. What are the essential heart moments? Where and how does humor come into the world? You always start there, and then find what the style of each production is and augment and heighten from there. Elf lives in a very fast-paced, almost sitcom style, but it has such a huge heart as well. So, it’s finding the balance and energy required so that both elements shine.
SL: You recently co-directed “Family Day,” an episode of Sesame Street featuring a gay couple. What did it mean to you to share this story featuring a queer family?
It is very important to me that everyone feels represented on Sesame Street, because we strive to be a world of inclusion, diversity, kindness, and love. I was very proud to be a part of this episode which shows that there are many kinds of families and that every one of them should be understood and accepted.
SL: You have now been on Sesame Street for more than 23 years. When you were originally cast, did you ever expect to perform in the series this long? What interests you in coming back every season?
My first season of Sesame Street was back in 1998, and we were celebrating 30 years on the air. In my head as an actor coming from theatre, a run of a show is anywhere from a few months to a couple of years. So, in my head I thought, “If I make it to five years on the show, that will be a great run.” So now that I’ve been at Sesame for 23 years, it’s both astounding and surreal. What makes Sesame Street so unique and special is that since we have been producing new shows for 52 years, we are able to address current issues that affect children both here in the US and throughout the world. This past year and a half is a perfect example. During the pandemic we realized that both children and families had so many questions, and so we created a partnership with CNN to host Town Hall specials about COVID where children and parents could submit questions, and a panel of experts (doctors, scientists, and educators), along with our beloved Muppets, helped provide answers and support. We also created specials in response to the necessity of the Black Lives Matter movement (Emmy-winning The Power of We), and in response to the increase of racial incidents against Asian Americans (See Us Coming Together, which premieres on Thanksgiving Day on HBO Max, PBS, and YouTube). I am extremely proud to be a part of a show that educates, entertains, and teaches children everywhere how to be smarter, stronger and kinder.
SL: You recently directed another Utah production: the world premiere of Gold Mountain with Utah Shakespeare Festival. Tell us about this production and your experience with it.
Gold Mountain was special for me because it was a culmination of seven years of collaboration between the composer and playwright Jason Ma and myself. We both felt that the show was a testament to the history of these Chinese railroad workers who helped build the Transcontinental Railroad, literally helped to create the United States of America, and then were erased from the history books. It was a labor of love, and I was so happy with the production, the actors, the designers, and that the reception from the SLC community was so warm and welcoming. We hope it has a bright future, and we are grateful that it began in the state where these two trains met back in 1869.
SL: Had you been to Utah before directing these two productions? How have you liked being here?
I have spent time in both Cedar City and SLC, and I have to tell you there are times that I look up at the mountain ranges with the sun hitting them in the morning and at sunset, and it takes my breath away. I was last in SLC and Ogden in 2019 when we celebrated Spike 150 with a concert version of Gold Mountain, and I was charmed by the city, the people, and the food. One of my favorite food items that is available here in the city are a pastry called a Kouign-amann, which is basically a croissant which is rolled in sugar, so it is both caramelized and buttery. My personal favorites are from Eva’s and Les Madeleines, and I’ve introduced all of our NYC actors and designers to these little pieces of heaven. I gave a bunch of them to the Gold Mountain cast and crew for Opening Night, and they absolutely loved them.
SL: Tell us anything else you would like readers to know about this musical.
For many of our cast this is their first live show back since the pandemic shut down theatres throughout the country, and so there is a sense of urgency in wanting to get in front of live audiences once again. So, we are ready for you SLC. I hope you are ready for us.