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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

The Strong Silent Type

Director Alan Muraoka saves his voice to lead Elf: The Musical

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COURTESY PIONEER THEATRE COMPANY
  • Courtesy Pioneer Theatre Company

Alan Muraoka—director of Pioneer Theatre Company's holiday production of Elf: The Musical—had to bow out of a phone interview at the last minute do to losing his voice. It's nothing serious, he assures me; it was just a "run in with some bad egg salad." As possible impediments go, after theater professionals of all kinds were rarely able to work for more than a year, it's pretty minor stuff.

Still, Muraoka had to respond to questions by email in order to let his voice recover for directing chores, and for all of the other irons he has in the fire, including more than 20 years as the proprietor of Hooper's Store on Sesame Street, where he has also directed episodes. Elf marks his second live production as a director since the loosening of COVID-era restrictions, following close on the heels of directing the local Utah Shakespeare production of Gold Mountain. And he says that the process for looking out for cast members' health is a pretty clear and effective one.

Alan Muraoka - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Alan Muraoka

"We have a very large cast for Elf, and so keeping everyone safe is one of our top priorities," Muraoka says. "We are all vaccinated, many of us with booster shots, and we do COVID tests 3X a week. We are masked for rehearsals, and the actors may remove those masks to sing or do scene work if they feel comfortable to do so. We are exceeding [Actors Equity] guidelines to try and keep our company safe."

For all theater professionals, there has been a learning curve for getting back to work, between the adjustment to new health and safety protocols and simply shaking off the rust of being away from live performance for an extended period of time. "Yes, there is a small journey for everyone coming back after a year and a half of being dormant," Muraoka says. "Regaining stamina, finding your balance and center, and rebuilding your confidence is all a part of that journey.

"I know for me there's so much gratitude to be able to do something that you love after being denied it for so long, and so everyone is jumping back in with fervor. And for the New York cast, it is also getting used to the higher elevation here in SLC, and the dryness in the air. The entire cast has humidifiers, [lip balm], and are hydrating themselves silly."

Elf: The Musical itself is a return for Pioneer Theatre Company, which brings the show back after a hugely successful run in 2013. Muraoka describes himself as "a big fan of all things Elf," from the hit film that inspired the musical to the original Broadway run of the musical itself. "Both the show and the movie are filled with such humor and heart, and these are things I always look for when I am looking for projects to direct," Muraoka says. "And the fact that it is about family and kindness and how one person can bright light and color into other people's lives feels necessary and vital at this moment in time."

Sharing important messages as always been baked into the DNA of Sesame Street, of course, which unfortunately has included controversy like the recent brouhaha over Big Bird promoting vaccines (Muraoka politely deferred comment on this particular issue). Yet Muraoka has a role in another recent sensitive subject addressed on the show, as he directed the 2021 episode "Family Day," which introduced a same-sex couple to Sesame Street for the first time.

"Sesame Street has always been a place of inclusion, acceptance, and tolerance," he says. "Sesame has never shied away from hard topics (the death of Mr. Hooper, our shows created in the aftermath of 9/11, our hurricane awareness shows that ran after Hurricane Katrina) and the past two years have brought about many things for our organization and show to discuss openly and honestly. ... Our Family Day episode introduced a same sex couple and their daughter Mia, and showed that there are many kinds of families, and all should be respected and admired."

Beyond the general challenges of getting back in the groove, there are unique dynamics at play in making something that is appealing to all ages, like Elf: The Musical. Muraoka acknowledges that his experience with Sesame Street is useful in that respect, but also quite different when it comes to a live production.

"The architecture of a family show like Elf is actually very similar to the scripts we get at Sesame Street," he says. "Humor and heart are a big part of both shows, and so it's important to try and capture as much of that as we can in performance. So I would say that they are similar. But of course, live theater is such a unique event, where nothing is ever the same from night to night. And that is what is thrilling and exciting about theater. You are witness to a singular event that cannot ever be repeated exactly the same."