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After a 32-year absence, Snoopy is the new top dog on Broadway.
"I would say it's about time I got back!" barks Snoopy. "What I want to know is: What took them so long?"
The famous beagle joins Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy and the rest of the "Peanuts" gang in an updated musical revival of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" (now in previews), the 1967 slice-of-life charmer about those elementary school-aged kids. Directed by Michael Mayer ("Side Man"), the musical, composed of loosely arranged songs and vignettes, features book, music and lyrics by Clark Gesner, with new material by "Peanuts" creator Charles M. Schulz and two new songs by Andrew Lippa.
Snoopy, in all his guises (World War I flying ace, tennis champ, vulture), is humanized by his new best friend, Roger Bart. Portraying the 49-year-old canine ("Peanuts" was first published in 1950) isn't exactly kibbles and bits for the 35-year-old actor and singer, who grew up in Princeton and Bernardsville.
"First of all, me and all my doggy friends are anxious for 'Cats' to close, so we can replace it with a show called 'Dogs.' Starring me!" says Bart -- er, Snoopy. "Secondly, the only adjustments made in my contract are built-in nap times a couple of times a day. The only sad thing that Equity has done (I lost the battle on it) is they forced me to bathe once a day, which is really difficult. Normally it's a once a week thing -- if they can catch me."
It doesn't take much encouragement for Bart to put on the dog.
What's the best trick he gets to do onstage? "To ride the doghouse and take flight."
What's his favorite hobby? "Eat. Sleep."
His favorite TV show? "Scooby-Doo."
"101 Dalmatians"? "They smell funny."
Rin Tin Tin? "One of my heroes."
Lassie? "Needs a haircut."
Being on the cusp of 50? "It means I'm incredibly wise. And I'm proficient at many, many sports. I think marriage is right around the corner."
And what does he think of Met Life, the insurance company he plugs? "Uh . . . it pays?"
Giving voice to Snoopy -- a strong, silent type -- poses a bit of a challenge, says his interpreter.
"The single most difficult task was getting over the fact that Snoopy actually talks in this show," Bart explains. "I had grown up with Snoopy as a sort of Harpo Marx mute. In this show, he speaks directly to the audience."
Thanks to Bart, Snoopy not only sings and dances -- he conducts one-on-one interviews with journalists.
How does he nip into the anthropomorphized role? "I keep it simple. I think in terms of broad strokes. I'm not dressed as an animal. I don't spend the whole show scratching or smelling myself and pretending I have fleas. A lot of Snoopy's humor in the comic strip comes from the fact that he is a dog. I don't have that advantage. I am human, so I make references to dog behavior every once in a while."
So while Snoopy doesn't howl, he will bark and grunt at his "Peanuts" cohorts.
"Snoopy acts cooler than Benji. He doesn't really like to do dog stuff. He's older than everyone else in the show. I would imagine him to be around 2 years old, which in human years is about 14 years. The 'Peanuts' gang are all about 5 or 6. With the exception of Linus, I have an intellectual edge over everybody."
Filmgoers have heard Bart as the tenor voice of the title role in Disney's "Hercules," performing the song "Go the Distance." A Rutgers University graduate, he is a certified Broadway musical vaudevillian. He has appeared as the Harlequin in "Triumph of Love," Jonathan in Disney's "King David" and Tom Sawyer in "Big River."
Interviewed between recording sessions for RCA Victor's upcoming Broadway cast album of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," Bart describes Snoopy as "an extroverted beagle with a Walter Mitty complex. He is a virtuoso in every endeavor, at least in his daydreams atop his doghouse."
So even though Snoopy has never starred in a feature-length, big-screen film, Bart adds, he has done more for dogs than all 101 Dalmatians combined. A global phenom, Snoopy accompanied Charlie Brown to the moon as mascots of the Apollo 10 astronauts in 1969. In 1990, Snoopy hobnobbed with Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo at the Louvre in a Paris exhibit honoring the 40th anniversary of the comic strip. Two years later, an art exhibit called "Il Mondo di Snoopy" debuted in Rome.
"I always wanted to be the voice of an animal," says Bart, who most recently did the singing voice of Scamp in Disney's "Lady and the Tramp Part II," to be released in 2000. "Once the audience comes into the picture and the curtain goes up, all I have to do is say, 'I play Snoopy.' Then you have 99.9 percent of kids and adults immediately go, 'Oh, we love Snoopy.' And you're off. In a lot of Broadway shows, an actor has to work really hard to win audiences over. In this musical, all I have to do is go on stage with a big black spot on my back -- and you're loved."
So is dog really man's best friend? "Yes. As long as he feeds me on time."
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