Filichia Features: Honk If You Love Honk!

Filichia Features: Honk If You Love Honk!

One hundred and seventy years ago this month, Hans Christian Andersen wrote one of his most beloved stories.

It was so beloved, in fact, that bookwriter-lyricist Anthony Drewe and composer George Stiles thought it would make an ideal musical.

Indeed it has. Honk!, a musical greatly inspired by Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling, was a London hit that received the 2000 Olivier Award -- Britain’s version of the Tony. While winning that prize is always a lovely compliment for any show, the greater achievement of Honk! was besting that American musical about a regal beast that’s been playing on Broadway for nearly 16 years now.

And yet, wondrous and amusing as Honk! is, no production of has yet emerged on Broadway.

Perhaps yours can be the production to get there … ?

Stiles and Drewe – the experts who wrote the terrific new songs for Mary Poppins -- let their imaginations soar on this one. They envisioned a male duck named Drake and wife Ida who were waiting for her five eggs to hatch. Finally, four identical ducklings emerged, but the fifth egg yielded a tall, gawky, bespectacled one -- our Ugly Duckling.

At the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts in 2000, the costume designer put the “normal” ducks in yellow suits and orange boots (to represent webbed feet), but decked out the big guy in a gray Eton School uniform with short pants and a jacket with a crest on it: U.D., it said, pre-ordaining our newcomer’s name: Ugly Duckling.

“Honk!” he cried instead of the preferred “Quack!” that his brothers and sisters said. Drake couldn’t believe that Ida had laid such an egg. “I created a monster,” he moaned. Sad to say, Drake – like so many awful fathers -- loses interest in his son when the young ‘un doesn’t turn out to be a replica of himself. Ida, however, is unconditionally devoted to Ugly’s face (and body) that only a mother could love. (Hmmm, maybe you should schedule your Honk! as a production that plays on Mother’s Day.)

At first, Ugly didn’t think poorly of himself or his different look. “Look at you, look at me; what does it matter?” he sang. Even when others started making fun of him, he smiled away the hurt.

But one can only think that way for so long. Eventually, his being mocked and bullied got to him. As he sang in his song called “Different,” “I’m just different from the rest; but different isn’t bad, so why should being different make me sad? Life’s harder when you’re odd. I didn’t want to be unique. I’m just different, but I have a sense a pride. I hurt the same inside. Different isn’t spiteful. Different isn’t wrong. So why is it so hard to get along?”

Is there any one of us who wouldn’t be able to relate to that? Haven’t we all at one time or another felt different from the majority of the 316 million other Americans out there? That may be because of race, creed, religion, nationality or sexual orientation -- or any combination of the above -- but somewhere along the way, many of us have felt like Ugly Ducklings, too.

So North Shore attendees nodded at Ugly’s predicament when others in the village said, “It takes all sorts to make a world.” They gasped, though, when the “normal” animals added, “But we don’t want him here.”

Low self-esteem made Ugly vulnerable to the false-friendly Cat, who offered to “play with him.” What did he really mean? As he sang to us, “You Can Play with Your Food,” a jauntily black comic song. When Ugly didn’t return home for days, Ida was devastated and went out to find her beloved son.

But this was musical comedy. Ugly escaped from Cat and met Bullfrog, who empathized. He too had been judged unattractive by many. What Bullfrog had learned, however, was that “Out there, someone’s gonna love ya; someone’s gonna love ya, -- warts and all. The ugliest of creatures has a few redeeming features, so why not let your better points shine forth? Even some potatoes have nice eyes!”

Stiles and Drewe styled “Warts and All” as a Busby Berkeley showstopper. In an otherwise excellent score, it turned out to be the best song – partly because of a memorable melody and partly because it tells the truth. Some of us may not be much on looks, or we may be no heroes out of books, but we can find someone to love us.

Soon we learned that the egg Ida laid was really someone else’s. Ugly then molted into someone who belied his name. As he became a swan, even his glasses disappeared. (Was there a Lasik doctor in the house?) He also wore a shirt sporting a silver-sequined Superman-S. “I like being me,” he decided. “I like being different.”

And that Ida wasn’t Ugly’s birth mother wasn’t a problem; one of the show’s messages was that the woman who loves the child is the real mother.

Honk! wanted to be tons of fun, too, so it offered tons of puns that could have never occurred to Andersen. Ida took “pre-natal hatching classes.” She said that Drake had been “ducking his responsibilities” and that he must “Wipe your webs. I dusted the floor this morning.” Drake and Ida bought their food from QuackDonald’s, whose logo was a golden arch with a few added touches that made them look like the footprints of two webbed feet. There was a parody of TV reality shows: America’s Most Feathered, which came to investigate after Ugly’s departure. Each duck was encouraged to maintain a “stiff upper beak.”

But aside from the jokes, HONK! remains as the perfect show for this era when parents, teachers and lawmakers have declared war on bullies. It not only wants to remind us that “It gets better” but also that we could all be beautiful if we reinvented ourselves and/or found people who could see us in the best possible light.

Many a musical has provided us with optimistic messages: “The sun’ll come out tomorrow.” “Put on a happy face.” “You gotta have heart.” “Follow ev’ry rainbow till you find your dream.” “You’ve got to have a dream; if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?” To them, we must now add “Someone’s gonna love ya -- warts and all.”


You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at and each Friday at His new book, Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks – a Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award is now available at