Sparklejollytwinklejingley – An Interview with Elf the Musical Director Sam Scalamoni

Performances and Artists

Courtesy StageSmart Teaching Artists

We are just too excited, it’s just less than one month until ELF the Musical opens at The Smith Center! As we wait for Buddy and Santa to visit, Spotlight gets the low-down from Sam Scalamoni, director of ELF, so get reading Arctic Puffins.

Can you tell us about your experience directing ELF The Musical for the tour?

We re-imagined the whole show from scratch, creating a new production. It was an amazing experience! We were able to work with the original writers. Matt Sklar (music) and Chad Beguelin (lyrics) were very generous, as were Bob Martin (book) and Tom Meehan (book). They were incredible collaborators, very open to our ideas on the show, and they continue to work with us each year to refine it. ELF The Musical on tour is really its own entity and we’re very proud of that.

You’ve said the writers are great collaborators. Was there any resistance to the kind of changes you wanted for the show?

Not at all – in fact they really embraced our ideas. Of course, they had strong opinions about things, not only things that they wanted to keep, but some they wanted to change. For example, the second year the show was on Broadway they added a new song and the first year we went on tour we didn’t have that particular song and we’ve added it since.

I am very curious, whose idea was it to put the elves at the North Pole on their knees?

We came to the idea together. It was really a “no brainer.” When we went to Gregg Barnes, (the original Broadway costume designer who redesigned the show for the tour) with it he said, “Oh great, because I designed these amazing things; they’re called ‘knee shoes!’”

Gregg designed these shoes that wrap around the actors’ knees with a built-in kneepad. The actors are as comfortable as they can be and the shoes lay flat on the floor. It’s really brilliant.

Why do you think both the movie and now the musical have become such instant classics?

It’s one of the few contemporary films about the holidays that really connects with audiences. The fact that the story is present day with current content really strikes a chord with people. But I have to give it to Will Ferrell, it might be one of his best performances ever. It’s so genuine and so sincere.

I think one of the key components to taking a known property and turning it into a musical is that it has to feel familiar like, “I know this! There are new shiny things on it, like big Broadway dance numbers, some fresh humor and we get to explore the characters more closely. Best of all it’s happening live in front of me.” I think all of these things help make it work.

Can you talk about the challenge of casting the role of Buddy?

It is a huge challenge to cast that character, but it’s not because of Will Ferrell! The actor doesn’t have to be Will Ferrell but he does have to be believable. They have to be funny and honest and they also have to be something of a marathon runner because these guys are put through their paces between the dancing, the singing, and the amount of time on stage. It’s quite a task in elf shoes! We take great care in casting the role. It’s one of those roles that is a real “tour de force” for the right person and we’ve been very lucky to find some great guys to play it.

Do you find that you have a particular process or way of working that you brought to this show or is your process dictated by the show itself?

That’s a great question! I do have my own process and I’ve been lucky – knock-wood – that it’s worked on most projects. Of course, you still have to tailor your approach to each specific project.

I find it very difficult for the actor to work and collaborate until they’re up and moving around. So I lay the framework of what the blocking should be very quickly, “You go here. You go there. You go here. Just write it down and give me an opportunity to get it up on its feet and I promise we’ll go back through it all and if something doesn’t feel right then we will work to make it their own.”

This process allows the actors to work, to be actors, and not sort of plod through the process of blocking the show. We create together, try things and adjust. That’s what gives it energy, it’s what the actors we cast bring to it. That’s what makes a show – any show – crackle!

ELF the Musical was a part of the 2015-2016 season.