SALT LAKE CITY — When even a casual how-was-your-day conversation suddenly turns into a minefield, many parents wonder how the gulf between themselves and their teenager became wider than the Mississippi.
American author, screenwriter and composer Mary Rodgers once imagined how a mother-daughter relationship might change if they could switch lives for a day with her 1972 book, “Freaky Friday.” Now Hale Centre Theatre will present a Disney-created musical adaptation of the tale June 17-Aug. 24.
'Everything should be a musical'
“This is a story about allowing ourselves to be seen and to see others for who they truly are,” said Korianne Johnson, one of the two women cast in the role of Katherine Blake, mother to daughter Ellie Blake (Scout Smith and Bailee Johnson) in the musical. “I admit to thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to be a teenager again and not have to worry about all the grown-up problems?' Having two teenagers myself, though, I realize they go through a lot.”
Her character Katherine — a widow juggling the care of her two children, a demanding work schedule and her own upcoming nuptials — moves at a frenzied pace. Ellie, Katherine’s daughter, is dealing with typical teenage angst as well as buried emotions from losing her dad.
The two are forever locking horns, with Katherine ready to do battle over her daughter’s grades, friends, moodiness, clothing and hairstyles while perpetually grumpy Ellie slams doors, talks back and generally wishes her mom would just disappear. After an explosive argument, however, they are thrust into each other’s bodies thanks to a spot of magic.
“'Freaky Friday' reminds us that it’s always tempting to imagine someone else has it easier than us, and that’s where the misunderstandings come in,” said Johnson. “It also shows us how parents don’t want to show vulnerability and children want to prove their ‘adultness,’ so both put up walls. If we could switch places with our teens, the message of this musical is that we could 'see' each other and be less fixated on trying to change them.”
Considering Disney already made two film adaptations (1976 and 2003), one might wonder if a musical version will offer up anything new. Bailee Morris, double-cast in the role of Katherine, believes that the music of the Tony Award-winning songwriters Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey ("Next to Normal") brings charming, funny and touching insight into this mother-daughter switcheroo.
“I think everything should be a musical,” Morris said with a laugh. “When there are not enough words to go around, we sing because of its amazing ability to convey our emotions and underscore our moods.”
And because mom and daughter find themselves in each other’s bodies, their songs, said Morris, capture the emotion and inner dialogue poignantly, allowing audiences to really get inside their heads.
Ellie believes her mother’s life as a wedding planner is blissful, while Katherine sees her daughter’s high school life as uncomplicated. Both get a gut-punching dose of reality when they step into each other’s shoes.
“It’s really a chance for all of us to examine ourselves and our expectations of others,” said Morris. “That’s what’s so redeeming about this show. It isn’t just about Ellie being a pain, but Katherine not really understanding her and not being willing to acknowledge her struggles.”
Katherine, Morris said, is awakened to the fact that although she thought she was asking all the right questions, perhaps she’s not been available in the way that Ellie needs.
“I think we all do that a little bit — not just with teenagers but with all types of relationships. Taking on this role made me ask myself, ‘Am I really available in the way my kids need me to be?'” Morris said. “There’s this realization that no one is trying to make someone’s life miserable, no one is trying to be difficult. Arguments usually grow out of misunderstanding.”
There’s also plenty of laughs to go around since mom has to spend the day faking her way through high school’s teen drama and daughter has to navigate a loaded day that includes an interview for a magazine, a parent-teacher conference and, lest we forget, a giddy fiancé.
“Audiences are definitely going to enjoy the funny predicaments Ellie and Katherine face all day long as they try to convince people that nothing is out of the ordinary,” said Morris.
'A beautiful message'
Johnson said playing the role of a mom-turned-teenager has been a greater challenge than she first anticipated. As a 41-year-old real-life mother of a 14- and 17-year-old, she admits to observing her own teens for inspiration.
“I have really great teenagers, but they have their moments,” she said. “It’s sort of funny how my mind has shifted as I prepare for the role. When they’re throwing tantrums, I’m secretly thinking: 'This is good material, I can use this for Katherine — err — Ellie.'”
Morris said making a body-switch believable is grounded in subtlety, despite the temptation to be overdramatic and excessive.
“I’ve realized that how adults think a teenager would act and how a teen really acts can be vastly different,” she said. “As adults we tend to over-dramatize our imitation of teens — as if all they do is huff and puff and make everything difficult. That’s simply not the case.”
According to a 2018 Pew research poll, parents are split on whether issues teens face today are similar to or different from when they were a teen. Thus, parents in the “not-that-different” camp might believe they could easily navigate their teen’s life, not just because they’ve lived through it, but also because of the life lessons they’ve acquired since.
"Freaky Friday’s" Katherine seems to be one of those parents, believing that she could handle her daughter’s day-to-day life with ease and confidence — a belief she realizes is misdirected from almost the moment they switch.
“Although the musical has ‘Freaky Friday’s’ timeless charm, it’s very up-to-the-minute in what a teenager is dealing with in 2019,” said Johnson. “Because everyone has a phone, the insecurities and friend drama doesn’t just stay within school walls, it’s blasted everywhere, all over. So Ellie is having to navigate what’s real in a not-very-genuine world.”
Johnson said the musical — while being lighthearted and funny at its core — addresses what she called “this weird epidemic of isolation, despite the fact that humans are more connected than ever before.”
She said she relied on friends and live interaction when she was a teen, but that’s not always how teens navigate loneliness today. “I couldn’t hide in a room and text a friend,” she said. “When I really stop and think about it, I don’t know how I’d handle some of today’s pressures teens face.”
So while "Freaky Friday" promises to be a family-friendly romp that tickles the funny bone, scoring a feel-good message and drawing on a well of emotion seems most certainly to be in the cards.
Johnson said that while switching bodies is “a hilarious idea,” it’s only scratching the surface of what the musical is really about. As Katherine's and Ellie's vulnerabilities — their grief, anger, insecurities and vices — rise to the surface for the other to see, their perspectives change, and, Johnson hopes, the audience’s will, too.
“In the end they say, 'I love you for you, and I’m sorry for making you feel like you needed to be somebody else or something different,'" Johnson said. “It’s a beautiful message.”
If you go …
What: Sandy Hale Centre Theatre’s “Freaky Friday”
When: June 17-Aug. 24, Monday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Saturday matinees, 12:30 p.m. and 4 p.m.
Where: Young Living Centre Stage, 9900 S. Monroe St., Sandy
How much: $36-48 for adults, $18-24 for children, no children under 5