Cartoonist Charles M. Schultz debuted his comic strip "Peanuts" in 1950, and by 1965 the strip had become so popular that it spawned the first of a long series of TV specials, "A Charlie Brown Christmas," followed in 1967 by the musical stage play "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," with a book, music, and lyrics by Clark Gesner.
It was in 1967 or '68 that I first saw the live stage musical at the Little Fox Theater in San Francisco, mainly because I had a friend who was in it. I was a little dubious at first about live, mostly adult, actors playing the cartoon characters. But it worked out so well I went back several more times over the ensuing years, and the play itself has continued running nationwide for decades. It has run so long, in fact, that it wasn't until 1985 that the animated TV characters took over the job. Which is what we have here, the television special that filled an hour's time slot, presented without commercial interruptions at about forty-eight minutes.
Oddly, perhaps, I remember enjoying the live actors doing the musical better than the animated characters. Strange, I know, and maybe more nostalgia than reality, but the live singers seemed to bring a greater vitality to the show. Naturally, there was always the difference in seeing real people on a stage a few feet away and watching the same thing on a relatively small TV screen. In any case, the songs and characters remain largely unchanged (the play does omit one character, Patty, and replaces her with Sally; no big matter), and that's what really counts. And children voice most of the characters, so it's a delightful experience.
Of course, what you have to understand going in is that there is virtually no story line in "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown." Like the comic strips themselves, the musical is a string of episodic interludes, with only the music separating them from the strips. So, unlike most of the animated "Peanuts" specials that contained some semblance of plot, the forty-eight minute musical is like a collection of separate panels, each depicting a different incident in the lives of Charlie Brown and his friends. Essentially, we get a dozen different happenings, mainly musical, with little or no continuity among them beyond the friendships of the children. Yet, cumulatively, they add up to a charming account of childhood, with all its happy, sad, and frustrating moments to which most of us can relate.
The theme that holds the musical numbers together revolves around Charlie Brown's eternally poor self image. He's always worrying and fretting about things, like why nobody likes him and why he's the only kid in school who never gets a Valentine's card. Then he hears the other kids talking and singing about him and their relationships with him, and by the end of the production he's a lot perkier.
Let me mention some of the songs: "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," an upbeat, marchlike ditty, opens and closes the show. Next we get "Schroeder" at the piano, while a lovesick Lucy sings to him. Third, there's "The Kite," sung by Charlie Brown. After that is the "Snoopy" song, with the ever-faithful beagle speaking and singing about what a great life he's got. Fifth is one of my personal favorites, the "Book Report" song, sung by several of the children. It's pretty funny, at least to an old former English teacher in another life.
Then, there's Lucy's song as she teachers Linus all about the world and getting everything wrong. Seventh is "T-E-A-M," all the gang singing about their losing Little League baseball team; followed by "Queen Lucy," wherein Lucy dreams of ruling the land. Ninth is the gang's rendition of "Home on the Range" for a school play. And, finally, Snoopy sings of "Suppertime," and the play concludes with the best thing in it, "Happiness." We get a reprise of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" during the closing credits.
OK, maybe the songs do lose a little something using children's voices in this reinterpretation of an adult and young-adult stage production. If you remember it from the stage, or if you ever participated in it, you might find the animated version slightly unfulfilling. Still, if the music and sentiment are the important things, you'll probably deem the animated special a worthy alternative view of the work.
As this production originated as a television broadcast from the mid Eighties, we get a 1.33:1 aspect ratio and a monaural soundtrack. However, the video engineers did a good job preserving the picture and sound in this remastered edition, with colors that are a bit subdued most of the time yet show up vividly at others. One observes a touch of grain in the wide expanses of sky and land, and occasionally we see an age fleck or a bit of noise. It's hardly noticeable except on close inspection. Likewise, on close inspection one sees some very minor edge enhancement. In the main, though, the standard-definition image quality should please fans of the animated series.
The soundtrack comes to us via Dolby Digital 1.0 audio, hardly inspiring but clean and clear. It's limited to a very small segment of midrange, which is more than adequate for the songs and voices that make up the play's content. I longed for a little more bass foundation as I listened to the musical numbers, but the soundtrack's remastered dynamic response and its quiet backgrounds impressed me. For what it is, it's fine.
The only extra to speak of is an all-new, 2010 featurette, "Animating a Charlie Brown Musical," about fourteen minutes long. In it, the filmmakers discuss the idea of bringing the play to the screen, the animation based on the stage musical based on the record album based on the comic strip. We even get to hear from Charles Schultz himself in a vintage Johnny Carson interview.
Other than that, we get a trailer for the live-action "Scooby-Doo! The Adventure Begins" movie; some promos at start-up only; no scene selections menu; English, Portuguese, and Japanese spoken languages (the latter two languages not mentioned on the keep case); Portuguese, Japanese, and other subtitles (also not mentioned on the keep case); and English captions for the hearing impaired.
The music in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" is so infectious, so nostalgic, so winsome and beguiling, it's hard to fault the production for having no plot. After all, the comic strips had no plot. One can enjoy each little musical number for its own appealing sake. If you are among the two or three people worldwide who has never seen or heard the musical play, you'll still go away from it with the songs in the back of your mind. And some of them, like "Happiness," may stick with you forever.