Kids can be mean. Anyone who’s spent time on a school playground knows that. Dress differently, speak differently, do just about anything differently, and you’re instant fodder for teasing. Fitting in, or just avoiding sticking out, is all most kids want to do.
Author Eleanor Estes shed light on the tricky task of navigating elementary-school social circles in The Hundred Dresses, a 1944 children’s book about Wanda Petronski, a Polish immigrant to America who wears the same faded blue dress to school every day. After Wanda tells her classmates that she has 100 dresses lining her closet at home, they tease her relentlessly until she moves away and finds a new school. The story is told from the perspective of another student, who stands by—and sometimes joins in—the tormenting so that she herself isn’t ostracized.
Sixty-five years since it was first published, the book remains a popular reading-list pick for early-elementary educators, and it’s a story that still resonates as a very timely one to Chicago Children’s Theatre artistic director Jacqueline Russell. “This is about a child who’s trying not to rock the boat,” she says. “It could be any outsider trying to fit into any group, and remaining a bystander to do so. It’s empowering for kids to see the resulting effect of not doing anything.”
Russell made the decision for CCT to adapt the book into an original musical at the suggestion of Ralph Covert, the kiddie-pop icon best known to hordes of preschoolers and their parents as the lead singer of Ralph’s World. Covert had already written some songs based on the book for a friend staging a reading, and its message stuck with him.
“To me, The Hundred Dresses is a story about kids discovering how to be a friend,” Covert says. “We forget that kids need to learn all of these things. It’s part of the social process when you’re in third grade.” The fact that the story is told from the point of view of neither the protagonist nor the girl being teased provides a vantage point everyone can relate to, he adds.
Covert teamed up with his frequent writing partner G. Riley Mills (with whom he cowrote Emerald City Theatre’s A Nutty Nutcracker Christmas) to work on a script and ideas for additional songs. “I empathized with all of the characters, which made it easy [to come up with] many of the songs,” Covert says. “When I started, my daughter was about the same age as the characters in the book. I was seeing her deal with some of these things.”
Russell played Covert’s tracks for her own preteen daughter—who along with her friends begged to hear them repeatedly—and knew there was going to be something different about this CCT production. “Even though there’s a serious message, this is a very upbeat show,” she says. “All of the artists involved are at the top of their game; it’s a big show in every sense.” Because of that, the opening was delayed from last spring—when it was set to be staged in an auditorium at the Museum of Science & Industry—until a more high-profile space could be secured. Russell eventually worked out a deal with the Royal George Theatre. “We couldn’t risk staging it someplace where it would get lost.”
And though the play centers around female characters, this is a decidedly gender-neutral show. While the two boy characters provide most of the play’s comic relief, they deal with issues of insecurity and bullying themselves. “It’s a story for anyone who has ever felt like a fish out of water,” Covert says.
Previews of The Hundred Dresses start Friday 25 at the Royal George Theatre.