Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, December 14, 2001

Never a down moment: Art Freedman passed his time scribbling lyrics on napkins as he waited for his interview to begin.

Holiday drama is child’s play

An isle writer makes a dream come true
with a Christmas play

By John Berger

Art Freedman is one of the happiest people in Honolulu today, and why shouldn't he be? Freedman's musical, "Santa Claus Lives In Hawaii," the show he imagined, wrote, and saw through to completion, opens for a two-weekend run at Army Community Theatre tonight.

The family-oriented musical focuses on the spirit of Christmas as 9-year-old boy Kimo must believe in Santa Claus in order to get a gift for his mom and avoid an encounter with two villainous teens.

Freedman got the show on by being "too stupid to know that I shouldn't do it or couldn't do it -- that there was no market for it, that I didn't have the talent for it (and) that nobody would want it."

"If I'd asked for professional advice they'd have told me I'm 68 years old, out in the middle of nowhere on a small island, and I decide I'm going to write a Broadway musical play -- about children? Now I've got an opening night coming up. My ego should be exploding at this point, but it's not. I'm honored, I'm amazed at what I've done at this age, but when I look back I think it isn't so remarkable that I should have done this," he said.

"Santa Claus Lives in Hawaii"

Presented by Army Community Theatre
Where: Richardson Theatre, Fort Shafter
When: 7 p.m. today through Sunday and Dec. 21 to 23
Tickets: $15 and $12 adults, $8 and $6 for children under 12
Call: 438-4480

Vanita Rae Smith and Broadway veteran Jim Hutchison are helping bring Freedman's show to the ACT stage. Freedman enlisted Roslyn Catracchia, best-known for her long-time creative partnership with playwright Lisa Matsumoto, to write the melodies for his compositions after several other composers turned him down -- too busy, not interested, no market for this kind of thing, no thanks.

Freedman says he and Catracchia hit it off immediately. "I think we both approached this as something that was meant to be done, and we've done it."

A limited edition album, "Santa Claus Lives in Hawaii (The Musical)," has already been released as a production souvenir.

Freedman is now looking for composer/collaborators to work with him on two more musicals -- one country, one a "graduation day story" that he hopes will appeal to high school theater groups.

"I've already written the lyrics. Now I want to get those lyrics encased in music." Would-be collaborators can take heart from the fact that Freedman isn't limiting his search to composers with experience writing in those genres. However, he wants to work with one composer per project. That means he' looking for someone with the depth necessary to write all the music for a show.

He's pretty much a full-time writer. Whenever he's early for an appointment, or the other person is late, he'll work on a phrase or a rhyme or an idea for song lyrics. Sometimes he'll work on a specific idea. Sometimes he just plays with words or sounds.

Ideas come from everywhere. "A man is the sum of his years, and I certainly am that. Every experience that I've had eventually finds itself into my lyrics."

Indefatigable optimism has been the catalyst for many of Freedman's experiences and the key to his successes. Who but an optimist would get a degree from the University of Miami and then spend almost 10 years working his way around the world three times, running oil from the Persian Gulf into the Gulf of Eilat back when Egyptian guns still threatened the approaches, and talking his way into a job as an interpreter even though he spoke no language but English?

Freedman wrote for an English-language Scandinavian newspaper, got a job in a Danish travel agency through events that would seem far-fetched even as a plot device in a Broadway musical, and parlayed his experience in Europe into an American travel industry career. That brought him to Hawaii and a few side ventures in Australia and New Zealand. He settled permanently in Hawaii 32 years ago.

So much for some of the experiences that inspire his lyrics. Freedman's musical perspectives are almost broad. Some of his earliest memories of growing up in Detroit are watching performers at his father's nightclubs and attending local theater. The family vacationed often in New York and took in Broadway productions. Freedman kept up his interest in music and theater, visiting Broadway on his own during his college years.

For the keiki

He became interested in writing for children while raising his hanai daughter, Malie Fernandez. One rhyme or piece of poetry followed another and he soon had compiled a collection of short pieces inspired by his daughter and the family dog. He happened to mention the book to his barber and discovered that she too was working on a children's book and had recorded a cassette to go with it. She gave Freedman a copy and his daughter loved it.

Freedman took a closer look at the book and the cassette and thought the concept had commercial potential. He suggested a partnership. The Lani Goose books were the result.

Freedman met composer Ron Tish of "Just Hang Loose" fame through Lani Goose. The two men became writing partners, entered a local song contest, and took runner-up honors with a song titled "Santa Claus Lives in Hawaii." Freedman noticed that most song contest participants were amateurs trying get noticed.

Few people who already making a living as songwriters were willing to write for free just to enter a project. Tish, for one, didn't have time for spec work.

Their song was included on a local Christmas anthology, and that got Freedman thinking about writing more Christmas songs. It wasn't long until he had written enough lyrics to fill an album or mount a show.

He originally envisioned the project as an animated film. A friend who was sharing some ideas about character development suggested that the story might also work as a stage play. That's how it developed, and as the project rolled along Freedman found himself fielding a question he'd never anticipated: why was a "good Jewish boy" celebrating Christmas by writing a Christmas musical?

"I didn't analyze this until people started asking me why I'm so involved with Christmas which is celebrating the birth of Jesus. First of all, Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus was a Jew. If he were back today he would probably be regarded as either a Conservative or a Reform rabbi because he did not conform to the norm or the Orthodox Jews who were in control of the temple and so forth."

"Secondly, the religion encompasses the very things that I was brought up to believe in. I wrote a song, 'Do The 10 Commandments And Live The Golden Rule' -- the 10 Commandments come from Moses, and the story is that when Rabbi Hillel was asked if he could define how a Jew should live, and say it while standing on one foot, and he said, while standing on one foot, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'

"Jesus used the same expression, and I think that particular expression is found in a number of religions. These are things that we can all identify with. The spirit of Christmas is universal."

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