Before there was Frozen, before there was Book of Mormon, before there was Avenue Q, there was 1001 Nights.
Renowned songwriter Robert Lopez and native Atlantan Adam Koplan collaborated on a puppet show version of 1001 Nights, a minor hit in New York, when they were just upstart theater interns in their early 20s. Koplan went on to become the artistic director of New York’s renowned Flying Carpet Theatre. Lopez went on to write the songs for Avenue Q, Book of Mormon and Frozen, for which he just picked up an Academy Award. (At 39, Lopez is, in fact, the youngest person ever to achieve EGOT, winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and a Tony for his songwriting.)
Koplan and Lopez recently decided it was time to revisit their early work, and Atlantans are extremely lucky that the newly revamped production of 1001 Nights, which is slated to tour the country, is being built at Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts, where it will have its first performances March 25–April 6.
“We would sit around and talk all the time about the kind of theater we wanted to make,” says Koplan of that time in the late ’90s when he and Lopez were interning at New York’s Playwrights Horizons. “It just occurred to us one day, ‘Let’s just write that show right now.'”
Koplan and Lopez decided to create a musical puppet show for family audiences based on the tales of the Arabian Nights. “Both of us wanted to flex our muscles a little bit,” recalls Koplan. “Bobby wanted to show off that he could write in a bunch of genres. The show has a blues number, a reggae, a gospel, and an opening number that is straight-ahead American musical theater.”
Koplan’s book for the show embraces the idea of storytelling as a lifesaving endeavor: Scheherazade tells cliff-hanging stories in order to save her life, and her tales prompt the king to begin contemplating his own cruel actions. Midway through the show, the king sings a Lopez-penned song, “The King’s Blues,” in which he croons the musical question, “Am I a good guy or a bad guy?”
Just after the success of 1001 Nights in 1998, Lopez went on to write the music and lyrics for Avenue Q, and the rest, as they say, is history. Koplan says that it was clear from the beginning that Lopez would go on to accomplish monumental things.
“What was clear in terms of Bobby’s ambition was his mastery of American musicals,” says Koplan. “As he was churning out these songs, he was schooling me on the history of American theater. He never once talked about ‘I want to win a bunch of awards.’ He really wanted to make a mark by writing musicals people cared about.”
With shows like Avenue Q and Book of Mormon, one might understandably begin to think that Lopez specializes in bawdy, adult humor. But Koplan contends that it’s actually Lopez’s ability to connect to real emotions that made those shows into successes, a skill that was also apparent in Frozen and 1001 Nights.
“The lyrics come out of a real emotional context,” says Koplan. “That’s a gift Bobby had from an early age.” 1001 Nights is a family show, but Koplan says it’s got a Pixar or Muppet-like tone, one that works on many levels.
The revamped version will have all new puppets designed by the Center’s resident puppet builder, Jason von Hinezmeyer, and new sets created by Koplan’s Flying Carpet Theatre. Lopez is rewriting a few songs for the new production and working with an orchestrator for more elaborate musical arrangements. (In the original production, a few buddies of Lopez and Koplan formed a small trio to play guitar, keyboard and drums.)
For Koplan, the show’s revival at Center for Puppetry Arts is a sort of homecoming. Koplan grew up in Atlanta, attending the Hebrew Academy and the Westminster Schools. His first experience with Arabian Nights was a production of Aladdin he saw at the Center for Puppetry Arts when he was in grade school. “The genie just seemed huge. I was terrified. It’s a weird karma thing coming back to do a version of Arabian Nights there again. It’s all just kind of freaky and cool.”