Features/Q&A/What to SEE/Musical Theatre

Pooh’s far from your average bear

21 August 2023

Beloved the world over, Winnie the Pooh is now a musical star. Julie Hosking ventures into the Hundred Acre Wood to find out more.

As Winnie the Pooh says: “Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.” 

And the honeypot-loving yellow bear has certainly taken a big chunk out of ours for almost a century – ever since A.A. Milne, inspired by a Canadian black bear called Winnie at the London Zoo, created the stories for his son, Christopher Robin. 

More than 50 million books have sold worldwide, with film and TV adaptations popping up in different eras after Disney bought the rights in 1961. Now Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, Rabbit, Owl, Kanga and Roo – and, of course, Christopher Robin – have their own musical. 

On the back of acclaimed reviews in New York, London and Chicago, Winnie the Pooh: The New Musical Stage Adaptation is touring Australia, opening in WA this week. 

American-Australian creator Jonathan Rockefeller agrees Milne’s beloved stories aren’t an obvious choice for a musical at first glance because they are so intimate. 

Jonathan Rockefeller with Winnie the Pooh. Photo supplied

“If you read the books, most of the stories are small vignettes that often only feature two or three characters. Most of the characters (excluding Owl and Rabbit) are also toys – which may be the real reason why they haven’t really been adapted for the stage in their 95-plus year history,” he says.  

“The answer to us was clear: the creation of large-scale puppets with the ability to fully animate them on stage, afforded us the opportunity to tell the type of story we wanted, while remaining true to the books and movies.” 

Rockefeller has a strong history of bringing children’s stories to the stage, though it wasn’t the career path he necessarily envisaged. 

“I trained initially in film and television before starting as Baz Luhrmann’s assistant at the age of 19,” he says.  “Then I worked as a creative director in advertising, but I was also directing commercials and music videos clips (when Rage and Video Hits was still a thing).” 

Rockefeller Studios first theatrical show, The Very Hungry Caterpillar – a large-scale puppetry show focused on audiences under five – became an Off-Broadway hit almost a decade ago .”It changed the company’s trajectory and theatre shows became a solid part of my creative output,” he says.

We asked Rockefeller to take us into the Hundred Acre Wood and behind the scenes of his musical creation.

Julie Hosking: What are the challenges of bringing such iconic characters to the stage? 
Jonathan Rockefeller: It’s a satisfying challenge. Each character has such a rich history – not just A.A. Milne’s original text, but also the Disney movies and cartoon series. Everyone already walks into the theatre with their own preconceived expectations. With so many tales, songs and beloved quotes to choose from, the challenge was deciding which familiar moments to adapt, while also creating something new. It was a delicate balancing act.  

JH: How do you cast for roles where personality is conveyed through puppetry?  
JR: Part of the magic behind our show is that we never hide the puppeteers. Their performance is as equally important as the puppets, and each puppeteer brings their own individuality to the characters. It’s fascinating seeing how characters we all know so well can feel so fresh in the hands of our cast. Tigger is an especially fun one – we’ve had over a dozen puppeteers play him across the globe, and each one, including Jake Waterworth who plays the role in Australia, brings their own magnetic energy to our bouncy, trouncy friend.  

Puppeteers help bring Winnie the Pooh and friends to life. Photo supplied

JH: Tell us about the genesis of the songs in the musical – are there ones the Sherman Brothers wrote for the early movies or some new ones, too?
JR: Music has always been such an integral part of all that goes into the Hundred Acre Wood – especially since so many of us already know the tunes. With Winnie the Pooh, there is so much music from all the movies and series, it is impossible to get every great song into one show! 

The show features your favourite Sherman Brothers songs (The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers, the Winnie the Pooh theme song and many more), as well as two original A.A. Milne works that appear in the original books. In the books they appear as poems or ‘hums’ that Pooh writes for himself, and I think it’s a great nod to the author’s text to be able to include them.  

Clever listeners will also hear little Easter eggs in the music, including the 1980s’ opening cartoon theme orchestrally in the background – and all of us who grew up on that cartoon know what a catchy tune that is! 

While it was important to include so much of the Winnie the Pooh historical songs, like the script, it was also important for us to introduce something brand new, creating a thoughtful blend of nostalgia and bespoke. The show also features new music by award-winning Australian composer Nate Edmondson.  

Tigger’s enthusiasm gets him into trouble. Photo supplied

JH: You have also adapted other children’s classics, The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Paddington Bear – what draws you to these stories? 
JR: It’s a thrilling challenge to bring iconic and beloved characters ‘to life’ – especially characters so widely known and beloved as Pooh. Audiences feel deeply for all these characters. They’ve often been a big part of their early development, and those of their loved ones. For adults to revisit their childhood and share those memories with others is a powerful thing, and is also something that motivates myself and the entire Rockefeller Studios team. Our goal is to foster a life-long love for the theatre and an appreciation of the arts. 

JH: What do you think is behind the enduring love for AA Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood? 
JR: The Hundred Acre Wood holds something for everybody. Everyone sees parts of themselves in Pooh, Tigger, Kanga, Rabbit, Eeyore and the gang. But it’s the sense of community and the notion that friendship is about helping others, even if you don’t completely understand them – a life lesson for us all. Their stories go to show that even on your blustery days, there will always be someone or something to lend a smackerel of honey.  

JH: Would adults enjoy the musical as much as the kids? 
JR: We designed Disney’s Winnie the Pooh to delight audiences both young and young at heart. Fans have the chance to spend time with the characters from their childhood while also watching world-class puppeteers bring these innovative, wonderfully inventive puppets to life. There is a myriad of ways that audiences will experience the show while sitting in the audience, and we’re thrilled to share all the smiles, laughs, and singalongs our production inspires.  

JH: Do you a favourite character in Winnie the Pooh?
JR: I love Tigger the best. He’s so optimistic and it’s his enthusiasm that is always getting him into trouble.  

JH: What’s next on the horizon for Rockefeller Studios? 
JR: Sesame Street the Musical is playing in New York City, with big plans for next year that we can’t wait to share. The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show has 10 productions playing around the world, and Winnie the Pooh is set to debut in Japan and the Netherlands, with new destinations for the Hundred Acre Wood to be announced soon. There is a Rockefeller production playing somewhere in the world 365 days a year, and we can’t wait to tell everyone about some new additions to our slate very, very soon! 

Winnie the Pooh is at Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre, 25-26 August, then Regal Theatre, Subiaco, 31 August- 3 September 2023.

Pictured top: Winnie the Pooh is winning hearts in musical form, too. Photo supplied

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Author —
Julie Hosking

A journalist with more words to her name than she can count, Julie Hosking has worked for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Melbourne and Perth. She has been a news editor, travel editor, features editor, arts editor and, for one terrifying year, business editor, before sanity prevailed and she landed in her happy place - magazines. If pushed (literally), she favours the swing.

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