Jesus & Johnny Appleweed's Holy Rollin' Family Christmas

When we produced Hair the second time, in 2008, it struck me quite powerfully that our current politics are all essentially a battle between the 1950s and the 1960s, between the oppressive universal conformity of the 1950s versus the cultural, political, and sexual freedom of the 1960s. Looking back, I realize that ever since Nixon, our two national parties have been aligned along this fault line as well, the Republicans wanting to return to the 1950s, and the Democrats wanting to finish the work of the 1960s.

And that may be because the American people are split on this issue as well.

Soon I realized that because our culture has been grappling with this for so long, so has our art. I realized a bunch of my other favorite musicals are also about this 50s/60s fight, shows including Grease, Rocky Horror, The Fantasticks, Hairspray, Cry-Baby, Bye Bye Birdie, Anyone Can Whistle, Cabaret, Avenue X, Caroline or Change, Love Kills, I Love My Wife, 1776, and lots of other shows. People keep writing about this cultural and political fissure, because we've never figured out how to fix it.

So I think a lot about this eternal battle between these visions of America. It seeps into every issue our country faces -- race, gender identity, sexuality, family, school, drugs, guns, war. Part of me wonders if this particular problem will fade away once Americans who remember the fifties (anyone older than me) die off. Young people are generally more liberal and more compassionate than older people.

And I've been wanting to write a show about all this, but I wasn't quite sure how to come at it. I learned a lesson (the hard way) with one of my early shows, The Line, that a successful musical can't be about an issue or an idea; it has to be about people. Musicals communicate through emotion more than most kinds of storytelling, and emotions are human. I also learned (also the hard way) with my show In the Blood that an audience is always more willing to go on the ride if they're laughing. 

So it was, that two years ago, sitting on my couch with my cats watching Law & Order and stoned out of my ever-lovin' brain, a title occurred to me -- A Reefer Madness Christmas. I had no idea what it would be about, but it delighted me. So I let it percolate in the back of my stoner brain for a while, when a second idea occurred to me -- A Reefer Madness Christmas Carol. It didn't take very long for those two ideas to merge, into a Christmas musical where Act I is a comic pro-pot response to the original 1936 Reefer Madness film, and Act II becomes a stoner Christmas Carol, in which the ultimate lesson turns out to be Smoke More Marijuana.

It became clear to me that my creative inspiration for this show would be the wild, brilliant, fearless films of the legendary John Waters (who sent New Line a really nice video for our 25th anniversary, BTW). That meant my show would be a mashup of A Christmas Carol, Reefer Madness, John Waters movies, 1950s pop music, and 1950s musical comedy. That's a fierce mashup!

Finally it struck me (I was likely stoned again, but I don't remember, which means I was likely stoned) that my evolving show was the perfect vehicle to illustrate that 50s/60s thing. I created a too-perfect American nuclear family and set the action on Christmas Eve, 1959. And then the show kind of wrote itself. It was great fun working with period musical forms. like doo-wop, blues-rock, rockabilly, even a Brubeckian jazz piece in 5/4.

The one thing I had to think about a long time was the four Christmas Carol ghosts -- who would they be in my story and what would they teach Harry? I made the mistake of first picking my ghosts largely by their comic potential, and that made the lessons even harder to work out. I also realized that Harry was only a slight exaggeration of my own father -- and I had unconsciously named him after his father!

Calling Dr. Freud! 

This will be the first show I've written in a while for which we didn't do a public reading first. We tried back in January, but it was not to be (long story). But we did rehearse many of the songs, and hearing other people sing them showed me much of what need fine-tuning. Then again, I'm not sure this is a show that would benefit from a reading as much as other shows. Plus I can make changes during rehearsals, just not so many changes that I drive the actors crazy.

Along the way, we found out we can't call the show A Reefer Madness Christmas. Long, dumb story. So we rechristened our wacky musical with a wackier name. And then the folks at the Kranzberg Arts Foundation suggested we bring our musical to the Grandel Theatre, instead of our usual home, the Marcelle. It's a much bigger house, so we'll be doing nine performances, instead of our usual twelve.

So here we are. (Sondheim reference!) We've assembled a terrific cast and rehearsals are underway. I can't wait to share this with you!

Long Live the Musical!

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