Filichia Features: Junie B. Jones Writes and Gets It Right

Filichia Features: Junie B. Jones Writes and Gets It Right

In a way, this splendid musical could be called How to Succeed at First Grade by Really Learning.

True, Junie B. Jones, the precocious child that Barbara Park gave us in 30 books, doesn't read a book called How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, as J. Pierrepont Finch does in the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical. Instead, the tyke plans to write a book: Junie B's Essential Survival Guide. After all, now that she's almost finished first grade, she can pass on her wisdom to those who are about to start grammar school

Thanks to lyricist-librettist Marcy Heisler, composer Zina Goldrich and Marty Johnson (the director of education at iTheatrics), Junie B's Essential Guide to School recently received its first airing in New York. Here Junie is insistent on having everyone using her middle initial as Finch was in repeating his name so everyone would know it.

Junie wants to be the big cheese as much as Finch does. She too has an ego bigger than The World Wide Wickets Building. But Junie's saving grace is that she sees herself as a mentor who genuinely wants to help others.

Like so many authors, Junie has the same problem that has plagued writers since Hanuman first sat down to pen The Mahabharata. Aside from her coming up with a title -- Everything Everyone Would Have to Know about Everything -- she can think of nothing else.

However, she still brands herself as a literary superstar. Actually, she's really only super at being supercilious. "I beg to differ" is only one of her pretentious responses. You'd think she's the great-granddaughter of Eddie Haskell. Such behavior is an automatic turn-off to her schoolmates. Yes, Junie will have a lot to learn in 55 minutes.

What Barbara Park did so well is show that being a kid isn't as easy as adults assume. Kindergarten is all coloring, painting and weaving, but then comes the bait-and-switch: from then on, school is where you must learn and are held accountable if you don't.

Heisler and Goldrich have been wonderfully successful in getting all the tension and anguish that makes for a show that's equally serious and funny. Those bus rides we all took to and from school; the list of all the rules we must follow; the trip to the principal's office -- a young person's equivalent of standing before the Supreme Court -- they're all songs. So is one where the kids scream when the cafeteria lady has "No cookies!" - just as agonized a cry as the one the office workers in How to Succeed feel when they discover "No coffee!"

Best of all is the opening song in which Junie plans her book. It's joyous as Junie predicts great things - and then comes the middle section where she realizes "Nothing's coming out" of her brain. Goldrich's melody wisely segues into minor-key mournful.

Lucky for Junie that she has a level-headed mother who lets her daughter know that success and stardom isn't a sure thing. More importantly, Mom stresses that no one can expect to get everything right.

Children will listen -- but not always, as we'll see from Junie unsatisfied with her mom's advice. The lass must watch as classmate Sheldon eclipses her with his planned innovation. "Backpacks on Parade" is a stirring march that'll have you marching to get a copy however you get your music these days.

"It's a great idea -- that wasn't yours," Junie's classmates taunt with glee. That's what happens when you talk big and don't come through. Mom points out that Junie did inspire Sheldon to expand his thinking. That counts for something, doesn't it? No -- Junie isn't content to be the straw that stirs the chocolate milk.

Leave it to Junie to say that what she feels in her stomach isn't mere butterflies but a bull: "El Toro Fabuloso," she calls him, which leads to a fabulous flamenco-infused production number.

Most of the music is contemporary, bouncy pop-rock. The popular girls have a song about - what else? -- clothes. Another winner shows the excitement kids feel when they get "School Supplies." It just might inspire politicians to resume funding so schools can afford them.

The worst day of reckoning, of course, is "Report Card Day." You'll be surprised to see Junie's mother's reaction. Our heroine concludes that "The lesson I learned was how much I needed to know … There are always things to learn along the way."

And that's how you succeed at first grade by really learning.


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You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Monday at and Tuesday at . His book, The Great Parade: Broadway's Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at