This month marks a big anniversary of my musical that Sondheim saw, The Christmas Bride. It was the sixth show I got produced in my twenties, and no decade since has seen nearly as much activity. The Christmas Bride hasn’t quite gone away, as it’s been subsequently presented in venues in different Northeast states, but that first time, so long ago, was in New York, in the Theatre District. Many’s the time, over the years, when I’ve purposefully walked past 354 W. 45thto solidify my memories. But now I think I’ve forgotten a lot, so here I’ll try to set down some answers to questions you might have.
How’d you get Sondheim to come?
Our musical director, Michael Lavine, had developed a long-standing relationship with the composer, but, at that point, he’d never seen Michael musical direct anything. Luckily, the time and location of The Christmas Bride provided a golden opportunity. Sondheim had a musical playing on the same block, and a new actress was taking over the lead role. A plan emerged for him to see our first act and her second act. That way, he could congratulate her on her performance, but have a good excuse to run out of our theatre at intermission, without talking to anybody.
And that’s exactly what happened. But, all sorts of people around me encouraged me to write him a letter to get his reaction. So, that happened, and his response hung on my wall for decades afterwards. I’d joked about cleverness in my note to him and he took me seriously: “Heavy rhyming is not cleverness. Cleverness consists of thought, surprise and imagination.” Words I’ve taken to heart ever since.
A mutual friend recently referred to Michael Lavine as a famous person, and it’s true: he also musical directed my On the Brink, Our Wedding, and my evening at the Donnell Library.
Is The Christmas Bride an original musical? About Christmas?
Yes and no and yes and no. It says right on the title page and poster that The Christmas Bride is based on a book by Charles Dickens, The Battle of Life. So, one might naturally conclude that this isn’t an original musical. But when you read The Battle of Life, you’ll discover that there’s virtually no plot there. It describes a situation, and some characters; something about a boy-next-door proposing to the younger of two sisters, which, I guess, condemns the older one to spinsterhood. Enter MK Wolfe, who had a great number of bright thoughts about the situations in the story, and our contemporary conception of Dickensian Christmas. A far-more famous Dickens novella – you know the one – created the template for how we think about Christmastime. Countless twentieth century works refer to this, and our musical couldn’t ignore it in the way The Battle of Life did.
But we had an idea that, I think, everybody can relate to: those holiday times when you’re with your family but not quite feeling the spirit. So, I wrote an English carol for our characters to sing, I’m Happiest At Christmas, to contrast the emotions of our heroine, who thinks she’s chosen the wrong suitor and lost her one true love. The librettist and I were clicking particularly well on this moment, since the stakes were so high that something sort of funny – a family singing louder at a crying ingénue to make her feel better – played for full pathos.
So, yes, certain scenes are set at Yuletide, but it never strikes me as apt to called The Christmas Bride a Christmas musical. It’s a melodrama with perils and fights, but it’s also a romance, with impetuous departures, secret meetings, and twin brothers: one mild, one frightening. Does that sound like a Christmas musical to you?
How’d you get six musicals produced in your twenties?
Not to mention one in my teens. But I didn’t get to see the first one, so The Christmas Bride was the sixth I saw produced. Effective networking means a chain with many links. So, when I was 18 and a freshman in college, I got cast in the smallest possible role in a Shakespeare play. At the first read-through, I asked about the songs; there were many of them. The director hadn’t considered where the tunes would come from, so I volunteered to write them, and the director was glad to delegate the task. The thing I really wanted to do in college was to write The Varsity Show, the annual student-created revue where Rodgers had met both Hammerstein and Hart. But, the years I was at Columbia, they didn’t do Varsity Shows. Instead, I pitched the Barnard Gilbert and Sullivan Society across the street on the idea of my writing a piece specifically for them, and this played in the very theatre where The Fantasticks had its premiere some decades earlier. In the audience was Adam Belanoff, two years behind me in school, and he managed to revive the Varsity Show tradition and gave me my dream role as songwriter. This was so successful, we were asked to create an off-off-Broadway revue, On the Brink, which played at the old Gene Frankel Theatre near Lincoln Center. The newer Gene Frankel Theatre, on Bond Street, is around the corner from a non-descript N.Y.U. building where, also a round number of years ago, The Heavenly Theatre played. My collaboration on that was set up by someone who remembered my work from The Winter’s Tale. Oh, and the show that was done when I was a teen got completely rewritten due to a copyright issue. There: have I named six?
Once I turned thirty, though, the links of my chain of associations began to sever. Some people left town, some left the theatre, and eventually we ceased sending each other Christmas cards. Which reminds me: I ought to get on that.