“Rock the Presidents”

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Childsplay, a Tempe-based nonprofit professional theater company for young audiences is staging an original musical called “Rock the Presidents”. Director Anthony Runfola talks about the production.

Singing] ¶ hail to the chief ¶¶

Richard Ruelas: That was Hail to the Chiefs, a song from the new musical Rock the Presidents that's showing for two more weekends at the Tempe center for the arts. The show is an original production of Childsplay, a nonprofit professional theater company for young audiences and families. Here to tell us more about Rock the Presidents is its director Anthony Runfola, who is probably going to say it's not just for kids.
Anthony Runfola: It's not. It's for the whole family. We like to say it's great for families like mine when you have the dad wants to watch Cspan, mom wants to watch VH1, the kids Nickelodeon. This show puts it all together and adds a lot of great rock 'n' roll music.

Richard Ruelas: It's starting here. I get the feeling this will get past our borders. How did the idea come about?

Anthony Runfola: Oh, gosh, five, six years ago now I had a conversation with Childsplay's playwright in residents Duane Hartford. We talked about a show that we could cover all the presidents in. Because Childsplay performs in schools as well as at the theater we usually have to keep the shows to around an hour. We had a title which was 43 presidents in 45 minutes. That tells you how long ago it was. Two years ago he cracked the idea of making it a rock musical.

Richard Ruelas: How many -- you go up to Obama or stop at Bush?

Anthony Runfola: All the way through Obama. We get all 44 now.

Richard Ruelas: which president looking back was most challenging to get a song about?

Anthony Runfola: Well, that's tough, really. Calvin Coolidge. Certainly didn't talk very much, we know that about him. So a lot of these songs become short anecdotes about the presidents. But we had a lot of fun with Millard Fillmore, actually, and what we call the forgotten presidents. They all get together in the lonely presidents' lounge, hang out and sing a bluesy lament about their presidencies.

Richard Ruelas: You mentioned some things like Watergate but try not to dwell on it.

Anthony Runfola: You can't talk about Richard Nixon without going there and talking about Watergate. That's part of his history, but he did great things too and we try to balance that out, highlight both.

Richard Ruelas: What has been the crowd as you have been rehearsing this? What's crowd reaction been like?

Anthony Runfola: The reception has been way greater than we sort of expected it to be. When you've got an audience where you have seven or eight-year-old screaming, I love you, Abraham Lincoln, you turn around and there's a grandmother making the rock 'n' roll sign, I think we've hit on something.

Richard Ruelas: Seems like the songs, we heard something that sounded a little Beastie Boys.

Anthony Runfola: It's everything from Beastie boys rap to rock 'n' roll, country music, some blues, some jazz. It's all mixed in. Rock 'n' roll gives you that permission to do whatever you want.

Richard Ruelas: Are they presented in order?

Anthony Runfola: We bounce around. We sort of group them into sections in a way, so we start with the greatest hits. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, then go into the generals, presidents that were generals, the lonely presidents that I mentioned that people have a hard time remembering. Then on to sort of the legacy presidents as well too. So --

Richard Ruelas: Again, there's some challenges in dealing with some of the political history of this country, but you also seem to infuse the songs with a fair bit of hope going forward.

Anthony Runfola: Absolutely.

Richard Ruelas: Some idea that we have been through bad times and we're going to get better?

Anthony Runfola: The story we wanted to tell about these men was they are human being, they made mistakes and have done great things all at the same time. We try to celebrate that. Yes, one of the closing songs is called The Only Thing We Have Left to Fear, which covers FDR, and I think leaves it on a great hopeful note.

Richard Ruelas: I guess as you get closer to contemporary times, it does seem, I guess if we went back to James K. Polk's time people would say politics is bitter back then too, but it seems to be a trick to not have people boo as you get to Clinton--

Anthony Runfola: One of the ways we handle that in the show is when we get to the more contemporary presidents we sing about them as children. So who would have guessed that this child would grow up to be George W. Bush, George W. Bush, would grow up to be president. We posed that to the audience as well, are you a president to be?

Richard Ruelas: Students will come out knowing a little bit of history, feeling a little bit of self-esteem and hopefully singing a song.

Anthony Runfola: Exactly.

Richard Ruelas: These were just songs I imagine were kicked around?

Anthony Runfola: We wrote them all for the show. The music was written by a woman named Sarah Roberts, who was a composer, musician living in Tempe. She's moved on to L.A. now, having some success there. We created them all for the show. We started about two years ago writing this. It's been in the works for a while.

Richard Ruelas: Again, it seems like one of those ingenious ideas. You don't probably want to think beyond the hopefully sold out engagements in the next couple of weeks.

Anthony Runfola: We do know, we have recorded a cast album available at the shows, CDs there. Then eventually we'll be online, iTunes, Amazon, all that sort of stuff. The show will continue. We will run in the theater until March 11th, then we go into schools. We pack the show in a van and take it to elementary schools across Arizona. Then in September it goes across the country.

Richard Ruelas: Goes across the country is it this touring company that we're going to see?

Anthony Runfola: We're not sure. We'll see what the actors say. If they want to stick around or if they are going on to other things. We'll actually have two companies at the show, one just in Arizona, one that will travel across the United States.

Richard Ruelas: So we can call our Aunt Mildred--

Anthony Runfola: Yes. It's in a lot of places. I know we're doing a lot of Midwest in the fall on the first leg and then hopefully getting more northeast in the spring.

Richard Ruelas: It certainly sounds like something that has the potential to be big.

Anthony Runfola: We hope so.

Richard Ruelas: We'll remember it.

Anthony Runfola: Started right here in Phoenix.

Richard Ruelas: Rock the Presidents is showing for two more weekends at the Tempe Center for the Arts. For more information, visit Childsplay's website, ChildsplayAZ.org. It's on our website. You can click on it from there.

Anthony Runfola:Production Manager Childsplay

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