I pull up to the Davenport theater to see the matinee of “Endangered,” by Keni Fine. It is a beautiful fall day in NYC, the kind that makes you grateful for every season but my heart is heavy. Hurricane Maria has just wreaked havoc on Puerto Rico and the world is in crisis. I am not sure how seeing a musical about these very topics will make me feel. Especially one for kids…. But I will soon find out it is exactly what I need to see.
I enter the theater and immediately my heart begins to melt with relief. The set transports me to a rainforest (not unlike Puerto Rico’s “El Junque”) and I am calm. The stage has lush greens and the soundscape of light rain and birds fills the theater. Already this experience proves to be unique.
What follows is a stunning, entertaining and profound musical about the journey of a little boy reporter named Levi. Levi gets stuck at the Zoo during “Superstorm Beyonce” and consequently works with the Endangered animals there to stay safe and eventually share their stories with the world. The feeling of hope that this musical left me with is one of a kind and timely.
I was able to sit down with Keni Fine, the writer and one of the creators of the show, as well as Peri Shaw, Producer, to discuss this unique play.
NN: Keni, this is such a unique concept. What inspired you to write an Eco Musical?
Keni Fine: In 2013 I was invited to write a show with my friend Tony Small who is a wonderful composer and lives in DC. He is also the regional artistic director of the Boys & Girls Clubs over there. We got a commission from the National Zoo to write anything about animals for the Boys & Girls Clubs arts camp, so I went to the National Zoo where I had never been. When I got there I learned they had a huge endangered species program. I mean like a whole other campus besides the zoo to preserve endangered animals. I’ve been an environmentalist my entire life and I have always cared about these issues deeply. I said “Let’s make the show about endangered animals.” Tony thought it was a great topic for the kids he works with and that’s where the first inspiration came from.
NN: How did the show develop from a musical for the Boys & Girls Club in D.C. to an Off-Broadway production in NYC?
Keni: We developed the show in DC with the TAP Arts camp. Then we had our first reading at the National Zoo. After that we premiered it at the Kennedy Center in D.C. where we had a huge chorus made up from the Boys & Girls Club. Fast forward to 2016, I was invited to do something Off-Broadway and I knew I had wanted to do Endangered. So we worked on the script as well as the music and updated it for Off-Broadway. That’s how it came about. We opened July 23rd, 2017 and we were running through the end of August. Now we have extended it thru October 8th.
Peri Shaw: I had met Keni last year because we were both doing fundraising for this organization call Amaliah raising money for Syrian
children and mothers who are refugees. We met and just hit it off and I knew we were kindred spirits. Keni shared with me this concept for an Eco-Musical and I had never heard of anything like it before. I just thought it was a brilliant idea. So February of this year we started sitting down together and brainstorming. Plotting and planning and that’s how I got involved.
NN: A Producer can often mean a variety of things. What has that job entailed for you?
Peri: My understanding is that the role of producer is ever evolving and this was my first foray into the world of producing for the theater in this capacity.. Traditionally a producer is the person who raises the money for the show, but I was definitely more of a creative producer on this one. Honestly, I have been involved in pretty much every aspect of the shows creation including merchandise decisions, planning the opening party, marketing outreach etc. I have definitely been a sounding board for Keni and his ideas. In addition to all that I have helped bring in connections to help raise money as well as interns to help work on the show.
NN: What have your Audiences been like and what sort of reaction have they had?
Keni: The reaction has been tremendous. The most remarkable thing is that people have come with kids of all different ages. We have had numerous people say “I brought my 4 year old, my 8 year old and my 12 year old and they all liked it.” We hear a lot of kids walking out and saying things like “animals have feelings too” and “we have to care about the animals.” So it has been really very touching. The cast, as you can see, has been really generous of spirit and we have done a lot of post show signings for the kids. We come out on the sidewalk and the kids will be hugging every cast member and talking to them about the issues in the show. So I know that it has had a big impact already on the people that have come. We’ve also had some adults come who care deeply about these issues and they have responded tremendously as well.
Peri: Sometimes I sit in the audience just to observe the children and they just love it. We had a girl this past Sunday who just could not sit still, she jumped into the aisle and started dancing like it was a Grateful Dead concert. It was so adorable.
After the show I’ll ask the children questions about their favorite character and also if they learned anything from the show or what message they got from it. And they say the most incredible things. One kid said to me: “I learned that predatory animals have feelings to and that we have to be more respectful to the animals.”
Keni did such a beautiful things with this show because he gave children and animals a voice. That to me is the most wonderful thing and I think the children really relate to it because kids can’t always speak up for themselves. The song “The Me That Nobody Knows,” is the heart of the show. In that song “Bamboo” the Panda who has been take from her home in China is really singing from her soul about pain and her feelings and I think the kids are getting the message. What’s exciting for me is that the kids really take this with them. Some people think that not all kids, depending on their age, will get it. They do.
NN: Yes! I was definitely moved deeply by this show. I think the first thing I said to you when we sat down for this interview was “I don’t have a kid but my inner child was definitely in attendance.” Tell me about the cast. How did you find such a phenomenal ensemble and what has it been like working with them?
Peri: We just lucked out with the cast because they are so talented and so committed. They make a great effort to really connect with the audience and each other.
Keni: Yes! I feel like the energy of the show attracted the energy of the cast. We were very fortunate because we had a great casting director. Since the very beginning the cast gelled. It was almost like it was a natural spontaneous thing. They became an ensemble very quickly. In fact the director of the show has said it was one of the most joyous rehearsal processes he has ever been through because everybody was so caring and connected. I think partly the message of the show inspires that too since that’s what they are singing and talking about.
NN: What has surprised you throughout this process?
Keni: A lot has surprised me. There are several new songs in the show and thus new aspects of characters that we never even saw in the first one. There are also so many new characteristics have also come out simply because of the way the actors have portrayed them. So a lot of new stuff emerged that we did not expect. Including audience reactions to certain moments in the show. A moment that we thought was just a beat has turned out to really mean something significant to certain audiences. Often this is because of how much the material in the show resonates with the times we are living in. For example, a strong theme in the show is media and “real news” versus “fake news.”
NN: Yes! I caught that line about “Real News Matters.”
Keni: Exactly – but that was not in there 4 years ago. The show was always about a reporter and a kid wanting to know the truth, but this developed more.
Peri: I’ll say that the most surprising thing for me is that I have seen the show 12 times and every single time that I watch it I cry. I’m so moved because the message is so beautiful and there is such tenderness there. It’s sad but ultimately it is very hopeful. It is a call to action. At the end of the show Levi, the little boy and main character, he turns to the audience and asks “What are you going to do?” This hopefully means the kids are going home and are inspired to talk about it with their family and friends. And from what we know many of them do. It gives me hope.
NN: What challenges you have faced in mounting this production and how have you worked to overcome them?
Keni: Well the biggest challenge I think for any new show that doesn’t have a known commodity – you’re not a known brand or based on a famous book and you don’t have a star – is always building an audience. Family musicals are a whole separate kind of genre in that you’re going after a certain kind of audience. So that’s been the biggest challenge: How to break through the media noise that is out there without spending a fortune. If you have a fortune to spend you just blast through by taking out an ad or a billboard. So what we have been doing to maneuver around that challenge it is to really get people in to see the show who care about the topic of climate change and then inviting them to help spread the word. That kind of word of mouth has really helped a lot.
We have also made an effort to connect the theme of the show to other things that are happening in the world. For example, this week is climate week at the U.N. so we are listed as an official affiliate of climate week. That really helps. Then a lot of it is just being creative. I have tried a lot of different kinds of guerrilla marketing techniques. I had a poster that I walked out into Times Square a few weeks in a row. I also parked my car and had a poster on my car and even though I couldn’t pay for a giant billboard I had a little street version. We have done social media videos with the cast. We just try to be fun and creative like with our cast going outside after the show to sign “auto-giraffes.”
Peri: Yes, we do a lot of guerrilla marketing. We have these really fun stickers that we made for the show and one of the things I have done personally is used those to connect with moms, dads and kids. I will start up conversations with moms about the show and then have the stickers for the kids. The key is that you have to be very bold and fearless, which I am, and just go up to people. You have to be willing to jump in and take opportunities.
NN: So what is up next for Endangered?
Peri: This is the first incarnation of the show Off-Broadway at the Davenport theater and we have already had one extension. We are in talks with some really important conservationists and scholars and the goal is to take it globally. To take it around the world. We are now looking to partner with powerful sponsors, people who care and also have the resources and the vision to help Endangered fulfill its mission. It is really a one of a kind show and because of that it has so much potential.
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+ To learn more about Endangered, running until October 8th, visit the official website <CLICK HERE>
+ To buy tickets for Endangered <CLICK HERE>