ED2013 Children's Shows ED2013 Interviews ED2013 Musicals ED2013 Week3 Edition

Dean Friedman & JD Henshaw: Musical fun that’s silly and smelly

By | Published on Tuesday 20 August 2013

Dean Friedman

Dean Friedman is a long-term Fringe favourite in the festival’s music programme, but this year there’s another place to enjoy his songs too. Though these songs are a little sillier than those you’ll probably hear at his main gigs. ‘Smelly Feet’ is a new musical for children, penned by Friedman and directed by Sweet Venues chief JD Henshaw. A cast of three – Paul Cregan, Grant Keelan and Pippa Reid (pictured with Dean and JD) – perform the story of Pete, a boy desperately seeking a cure for his smelly feet. We put our shoes on and spoke to Dean and JD about the show.

CC: Where did the idea for ‘Smelly Feet’ come from?
Dean: I wrote the title song, ‘Smelly Feet’, a few years ago and it quickly became a favourite whenever I sang it at one of my ‘Silly Song Sing-Alongs’ for kids. I then found myself working out a simple, and silly, storyline that could incorporate the ‘Smelly Feet’ song and a handful of other equally silly songs I had written, and found I had the basis of an especially silly kids musical on my hands, called ‘Smelly Feet’. I added the tag line “a children’s musical that really stinks!!!” to pre-empt any wise-ass Fringe reviewers!

CC: Were all the songs in the show already written, or have some been made especially for it?
Dean: The songs are a mix of old and new. From some of my early kid-tested sing-along songs like ‘Please, Please, Please, Don’t Tease The Bees’ to a very recent one, written in the middle of production at JD’s prompting, titled, ‘Ode To A Snail (I Like You)’. In the song, Pete, who’s feeling despondent about his smelly feet, expresses his fondness for his pet snail Slimey, who, despite having no ears, turns out to be a good listener and companion. It’s sweet, silly, and has a lot of heart, and plays an important part in shaping the story.

CC: There is plenty of singing along and audience participation. Did you write this in from the start, or is the interactive element something that is honed as the play is rehearsed?
JD: The show had interactivity as a big element from the beginning, though it has drastically changed from those initial concepts. And, of course, once the show goes out of rehearsal and into the real world, then it all changes again! We’ve kept updating the interactions to keep up with the audience – kids are harsh critics, so you’ve got to keep on your toes.

CC: Are there any specific challenges in creating theatre for young children? Do you need to be constantly thinking about how to keep their attention?
JD: If you’ve got a good story then you’ve got the essentials to hold that attention. The real goal is to make sure that you never talk down to a young audience. Always keep the show aimed upwards, engage em and challenge em – whether that’s some big ideas or some good use of language. You’ve got to make sure that it keeps them paying attention, challenging them and rewarding them for taking the time to be part of the show.

CC: Dean, as a songwriter, are there certain techniques you can use to make a song appealing to a very young audience?
Dean: When I write songs for grown-ups, I’m constantly having to hold my propensity to be silly and punny in check. The fun part about writing for kids is that they love that goofy stuff, the sillier the better. They grasp the emotional content as well, very intuitively, but they’re always ready for a good giggle.

CC: Dean, you regularly perform at the Fringe over in the music programme. What’s it like being involved in a show of this kind? And what’s it like handing over your songs and script, and watching other people bring it to life?
Dean: I played the Sweet venue last year, and got to know JD and Annie and their terrific production team. I had also seen Paul Cregan, who plays Pete’s best friend Danny, in a Sweet production of ‘The History Of Scotland’, which had just the right mix of whimsical silliness that ‘Smelly Feet’ required, so I knew he would make a great Danny . I broached the idea with JD and he was well up for it, so I went home to New York, finished up the script and emailed it off to Scotland. Except for a tiny bit of long-distance input, I delivered the book and songs and left it in JD’s capable hands. I couldn’t be more pleased with the direction and the performances of every member of the cast. They really do a remarkable job of channeling their inner kid, and I think that’s why the young audiences have responded so well to the production, they genuinely relate to them as kids.

CC: It sounds like it’s been getting a great response. Has the show developed as the Fringe has gone on?
JD: Yes, the response has been fantastic! The families have been great and the kids singing along and joining in makes it all worth it. It changes a little every day as we go along – but isn’t that the point of a long run at the Fringe? I’ve never done a Fringe yet where anyone wanted to stand still with their production!

CC: What future plans do you have for the show?
JD: We’re hoping to take the show on a bit of a tour. We’ll be working on that for the next while – fingers crossed…

CC: And finally, did you discover the ultimate solution to stinky feet in making the show?
JD: Well, that would be telling, but it would be a bit unfair to leave poor old Peter stuck with his smelly feet forever. You’ll just have to come along and help out with some songs to see what happens in the end!

‘Smelly Feet’ was performed at Sweet Grassmarket at Edinburgh Festival 2013.

Photo: Kat Gollock