Kris Lythgoe — whose father is "American Idol" and “So You Think You Can Dance” producer, Nigel Lythgoe — and his wife, Becky, have a flair for theatrics. The couple staged a murder mystery-themed wedding last April and they're both enthusiastic members of Hollywood's Magic Castle.
Their Lythgoe Family Productions, which puts on interactive, Broadway-style musicals for kids, is becoming something of a force in live, family-friendly entertainment. Lythgoe shows reinterpret panto — the British Christmas tradition dating to the 1700s of musical comedy that mixes classic fairy tales with modern pop songs.
Their latest, “Princess and Pirates Sing-a-Long Concert,” in partnership with the Pasadena Playhouse, is at the Kirk Douglas Theatre on weekends through Aug. 10. It features cast members from the TV shows “Glee” and, not surprisingly, “So You Think You Can Dance” as well as from Broadway's “Next to Normal” and the national tour of “Wicked.” It’s directed and choreographed by “So You Think You Can Dance's" Spencer Liff and “American Idol” musical supervisor Michael Orland.
All the familiar Grimm and other fairy tale characters surface — Snow White, Aladdin, Cinderella, Robin Hood — but they're rocking out to pop songs by Pharrell Williams, Katy Perry, Carly Rae Jepsen and Bruno Mars instead of whistling while they work. The result is a raucous, feel-good family musical that some grown-up fans (OK, Neil Patrick Harris) have called “kinda like the 'Rocky Horror Show' for 10-year-olds.”
The Lythgoes chatted with Culture Monster from their offices at CBS.
Where does the passion to bring panto to the U.S. come from and how does that mix with your TV careers?
Kris: Obviously, our day jobs are in TV — I’m sitting here in the “So You can Think You Can Dance” offices, right next to “American Idol,” so we’re surrounded by the elements of television — but the drive of Lythgoe Family Productions is to introduce kids and lower-income families to theater. Our big goal is to get kids into theaters. It’s tough now with Xbox and television, and theaters could be on the way out. So the best way we know to [inspire kids] is the same way they do it in the UK: kids go to the theater to see panto, so we’re using that as a vehicle.
Also, it seems like nobody is doing family theater, affordably, in L.A. I’ve seen tickets where they actually say children under the age of 8 aren’t allowed in the theater. I’ve been here 12 years from London and there’s just not a lot of programming for families in theater here. I couldn’t find anything suitable to bring my own son to, so that was a major inspiration.
Becky: Economically, look at the big Broadway tours, where it can be $140 a ticket and $600 for the family; that’s not really affordable or the right economic price value to introduce kids to theater. Then there are shows like “Disney on Ice,” where the parents aren’t really entertained — panto is affordable and multigenerational.
How have you Americanized the genre?
Becky: We’ve Americanized it by adding even more pop songs and doing it year-round, not just for Christmas. But we also want to take it across America at the holidays so it becomes a tradition like “The Nutcracker” and “A Christmas Carol.” Also, Kris rewrites the scripts using local analogies and landmarks, bonding the community. We’ve also changed the humor to be less British — the pantos there are a little more risqué, there’s sort of a pub culture. American audiences don’t necessarily want to hear about knickers and bras. We don’t go as bawdy.
Tell us about this production of “Princess and Pirates.”
Kris: It’s a very intimate venue. It’s a sing along, so it’s nonstop; and the kids know most of the songs, from Katy Perry to Bruno Mars. His songs are so feel-good and not that sexual, so every time Bruno Mars comes out with a new song, we can use it. The kids don’t have to sit in their seats, they can make as much noise as they want – and they do!
From a producer’s point of view, this little show is a great introduction to what panto is about; we’ll do “Snow White” at the Laguna Playhouse December 2015 and “Peter Pan” at Pasadena Playhouse in December 2015 as well. This December we’re doing “Sleeping Beauty and Her Winter Knight” in Pasadena.
Becky: It’s sort of like a review of all of our pantos put together in one concert – Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Aladdin – they’re all there. We’re looking to take it to Laguna [Playhouse] next summer.
Any plans to branch out, format-wise?
Becky: We were approached by a movie company in the UK to do a sort of "live from L.A." panto broadcast there. We’d love to put L.A. on the map — through Pasadena Playhouse — with a new theater art form. People are always looking to New York as the epicenter of theater and I’d love, when panto explodes across America, that it can be said it started here, with us.
How does Pasadena Playhouse factor in, going forward?
Becky: We’re signed up with them to do Christmas-themed shows for at least one decade — and we hope to do more after that.
Kris: Our goal with them is to incubate shows – last year we did “Aladdin” and now it will travel to theaters across America and it will always be known it originated at Pasadena Playhouse. I think they were shocked about what panto brings, because it energizes the whole theater with a youthful audience and the box office far exceeded their expectations because you’re simply buying, for example, six tickets rather than two because it’s the whole family – mom, dad and three kids. I love to see a grandparent, a parent and a child, all laughing at the same joke. To me, that’s magical.
Any plans to produce theater for adults?
Kris: We’re doing a play not so much in the panto vein; we’ll be producing the revival of “Two for the Seesaw.” It’s an older play from the early '60s by William Gibson. It started Anne Bancroft and Henry Fonda when it debuted in New York.
Becky: It came about because we have a relationship with [British theater producer] Bill Kenwright. He was so excited about what we were doing with panto and we thought we should work together. We got the rights and are in the process of casting now. And because Pasadena Playhouse has sort of become our home, we’ll do our out-of-town tryouts there January to March 2015. Then we’ll take it to the West End in London – Bill owns seven or eight theaters there. Then, hopefully, New York.
We think it will sharpen our skills and give us even more insight with regard to our panto – more connections to the West End and New York. Basically, everything we do comes back to panto!