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How Kevin Del Aguila penned Dog Man: The Musical backstage on Broadway
Kevin Del Aguila spends almost all his waking hours making kids happy through theatre. Eight shows a week he plays Oaken, the adorably goofy owner of a trading post and sauna in Disney's Frozen on Broadway. But when he's not performing, he's busy turning beloved children's books into family shows. His credits as a writer include page-to-stage adaptations of the kid-lit staples Click, Clack, Moo; The Velveteen Rabbit; Skippyjon Jones and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Now he and composer Brad Alexander are debuting their musicalization of Dav Pilkey's popular graphic novel Dog Man as TheaterWorksUSA's summer production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
Del Aguila didn't start out wanting to create theatre for young audiences -- in truth, he wasn't planning to be a writer at all. "I came to New York to be an actor," he says. "But I'm a character actor, so I'd audition for shows and they'd look at my little 20-year-old self and say, 'You're going to have a terrific career in 20 years. We need old characters actors, not young ones.' I thought, what am I supposed to do for 20 years? The answer was children's theatre. They're always looking for young character actors. TheaterWorksUSA [a national touring company for kids] cast me in a version of Around the World in 80 Days -- I played everyone they met going around the globe and it was just a blast. Then they started to say, 'Hey, can you write, too?' TheaterWorksUSA was really instrumental in being a training ground for me. I learned how to write lyrics and dialogue on the job."
Del Aguila pursued performing and writing simultaneously for a while, but eventually he decided to focus solely on the latter. Yet fate had other plans. "I remember being on stage somewhere in a regional theatre and thinking to myself, I'm not enjoying this at all," he recalls. "I realized I didn't need to be there as my writing was taking off. I honestly quit and retired from acting. That's when director Alex Timbers suddenly started calling me in for things, including Peter and the Starcatcher, which became my Broadway debut. Suddenly all the acting dreams I had put away were renewed."
Since then Del Aguila has found a way to manage his concurrent careers along with fatherhood. Having a son has actually come in handy professionally as Del Aguila readily admits his 11 year old "is my focus group." In fact, when TheaterWorksUSA commissioned Del Aguila to adapt Dog Man -- centered around two young BFFs writing a comic about the wacky, crime-fighting adventures of a half-man, half-dog cop -- he immediately went to his kid for advice. "My son would come home with these Dog Man books constantly and I would see him reading them and giggling in the corner," Del Aguila says. "So when I got the assignment, I grabbed him and said, 'Tell me everything you know about Dog Man!' He was definitely a fountain of knowledge. I didn't realize what a phenomenon it was. Everybody in his class has these books. They're not only really funny and clever and irreverent, they're a great gateway for kids who are learning to love reading."
Del Aguila says Dog Man creator Pilkey was totally hands off during the development process. So when the first workshop happened, he was anxious to see how the author would react. "It was a tremendous relief to see how much he loved it," Del Aguila says. Of course Del Aguila's Dog Man superfan son and his pals were the ones they really needed to impress. Thankfully, "they laughed in all the right places as they saw the characters come to life," Del Aguila says. "The Dog Man books are like action movies. They've got all of this crazy stuff happening: giant buildings coming alive, a robo-suit for the cat to wear, etc. We realized this was going to take a lot of theatrical ingenuity to make this happen in a satisfying way. A lot of the kids who come to TheaterWorksUSA shows have never seen professional theatre before. In the way the book introduces kids to reading, we want the theatrical version to introduce kids to theatre and have them become lifelong theatregoers."
Del Aguila says his role in Frozen has proven to be the perfect day job as he worked on Dog Man. His character has one big number at the top of Act II, "Hygge", and he spends most of the rest of the show writing backstage. "I set up the place like my office," he says. "I know when to put away my laptop and put the writer's hat aside and literally put on my actor's costume and go do it. It's hard not to be a little schizophrenic, but I've learned how to balance it."
TheaterWorksUSA has been a launching pad for many musical writers who went on to great success with grown-up shows, notably Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Jason Robert Brown, and Bobby Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez, the husband-and-wife team behind Frozen. "I originally met Bobby at TheaterWorksUSA," Del Aguila says. "I met tons of really, really talented folks there," including some people who got him into children's TV: Last year he wrapped two seasons as a writer/voice actor on PBS Kids' Emmy-winning Peg + Cat and this fall he's heading up the Clifford the Big Red Dog reboot.
But as much as he loves entertaining young audiences, Del Aguila does have some more mature aspirations. He's been working on the musical Astonishing Return of…The Protagonists!, a political satire about superheroes fighting for democracy in a world of misinformation, for years, and he has a few other grown-up projects in mind. "I am itching to write for adults," he admits with a laugh. "Maybe I'll age up and get some teen work soon."
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Dog Man: The Musical. Frozen is also frequently offered at the TKTS Booths. Go here to browse our current offers.
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Kevin Del Aguila at Frozen's one-year anniversary on Broadway. Photo by Dirty Sugar Photography.