Q & A session with the multi-Emmy award winning writer of the libretto and lyrics of Nutcracker! The Musical, Nancy Holson

The NUTCRACKER is best known as a ballet. What inspired you to turn it into a musical?

The NUTCRACKER ballet is one of the most beloved and lasting cultural touchstones in the world. It has been an institution. It was first performed in Russia in 1892. The first American production was in 1944 by the San Francisco ballet and was an instant hit. Ten years later, George Balanchine choreographed the New York City Ballet’s production which became so successful that it was presented every year during the Christmas holiday season. There are now thousands of productions of the ballet worldwide.

As a young girl, my mother took me to see the NY City Ballet’s Balanchine production of the Nutcracker each December. I was not much into ballet in general, but I was entranced by the magic of the music, the fairy tale land, and the whole world which was created onstage. But I was a girl who was more interested in the tale itself than the actual environment and I did find the story lacking in plot. Years later, when I began to explore the original Nutcracker story, I discovered that the underlying material was dripping with plot which never made it into the ballet. As I thought about the incredible music and the rich story which was the source material, I realized that there was an untold story which, if set to music, could give the Nutcracker a whole new life. I could envision using the musical theatre conventions to give the Nutcracker story a new structure. Use the iconic music in a new way, in concert with a story filled with relatable characters. In my mind, this could make the Nutcracker a more accessible experience for the next generation.

How does the story differ between the ballet and the musical?

The story which is told in the ballet is a fraction of the story which Hoffmann told in his novella. In the ballet, Marie celebrates Christmas Eve with her family. Her uncle Drosselmeir gives her a nutcracker which her brother breaks. She bandages the nutcracker before falling asleep. She is awakened to a fight between the nutcracker, who has grown bigger and enlisted toy soldiers to fight a mouse army. The nutcracker wins the battle and takes Marie to the Land of the Sweets where they are entertained by dancers from foreign lands. Marie wakes up in her bed and wonders if it was all a dream.

In the musical, we utilize the entirety of Hoffmann’s story, which features Drosselmeir sharing a book with Marie entitled TALE OF THE HARD NUT. The book is about a king and queen who give birth to a beautiful baby princess. The king calls for a celebration which is ruined by the evil Mouse Queen Mouseyrinks, who, along with her seven sons, eats the bacon meant for the royal banquet. The king swears revenge on Mouseyrinks and enlists the Clockmaker Drosselmeir to rid the kingdom of mice. He almost succeeds but draws the wrath of Mouseyrinks who curses the baby princess and turns her into an Ugly Troll. Drosselmeir is dispatched to travel the world to find the antidote to the evil Mouse Queen’s curse – the world’s hardest nut. Once he finds the nut he returns to the palace with his nephew who falls in love with the Ugly Princess because he sees the good inside her. This breaks the evil Mouse Queen’s curse, but she returns to curse the young man by turning him into a Wooden Nutcracker. And that is just Act I! Act II takes place in our contemporary world where Marie is given the Nutcracker as a Christmas present from Uncle Drosselmeir and has to sort between fantasy and reality to break the spell and find love.

Why was it necessary for there to be a difference between the ballet and the musical?

All art forms have their own conventions. A ballet is really about the movement of the human body and how it coordinates with the music. Ballets do not always have stories. In the case of the Nutcracker, there is the overlay of a narrative, but it is pretty basic. The convention for a musical theatre piece is that it needs to be theatrical. It needs to tell a story. The story reveals itself through the characters, as they live the story. The characters speak in dialogue and in song. Songs are used to move the plot of the piece along. The production elements – sets, special effects, costumes, lighting – are used to enhance the visual component of the storytelling.

What is the theme of the story?

The Nutcracker is a fairy tale story with a message. E.T.A. Hoffmann, in his time, was a deeply dissatisfied bureaucrat who was frustrated by the strict code of behaviour in Prussian society. The underlying theme of his novella is his contention that imagination is required in order to live a full life. He rued the practice of disciplining pupils to the point that they were not allowed to use their creativity, spontaneity and imagination. The theme of this piece is that life must be lived with imagination, the ability to think outside the box, to see what is not there, to be willing to plunge into the darkness in order to find enlightenment. Hoffmann’s protagonist, Marie, is put in a position where she has to choose between convention and imagination. She risks the brave choice of imagination, which is a choice that Hoffmann would encourage for his audience. So the theme of the Nutcracker really is “imagination”.

What were the challenges in using Tchaikovsky’s iconic music as the music for a musical?

There are few pieces of music as well known and revered as Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Purists may deride the decision to adapt his music for a musical. But his music lent itself to the re-purposing. Tchaikovsky was really the pop star of his day. His music then was akin to what the Beatles music was when I was growing up. He was an incredible tunesmith. His melodies had “hooks” which were incredibly memorable. As I began to really scrutinize his music, I saw that the basis was there for these pieces to be “pop songs”. The challenge was how to utilize the tunes in such a way that I could fit lyrics to them with rhymes that popped. As a lyricist, it is critical to put the rhymes in the right places in order for jokes to land or for serious points to be underlined. So I spent a great deal of time on creating rhyme schemes that worked with this music.

The story of the NUTCRACKER is based on ETA Hoffmann’s novella The Nutcracker Prince and the Mouse King. How did you adapt Hoffmann’s novella for the stage?

The story was written as a story within a story. Hoffman interspersed Marie’s day to day life with the Tale of the Hard Nut, which she was reading with her Uncle. At the end of the novella, both stories came together. This would have been a sloppy convention for a stage play. I could not envision how we could go back and forth without confusing the audience and having serious production issues.

Instead, I thought about using a prologue to introduce Drosselmeir reading to Marie. And as they start to read the book, the scene dissolves into the book. And in fact, Act I, is actually the story of the Tale of the Hard Nut – the book within the book in Hoffmann’s novella. Act II then opens with the same scene we began with – only Marie has finished the book. Act II is set in contemporary times where Marie has to use her imagination to right the wrongs we saw in Act I in order for everyone to live happily ever after. It took a lot of thinking about how to construct the play effectively but I am really convinced that it works.

Hoffmann’s novella was written in 1816. Is the story relevant today?

In Hoffmann’s day, pupils were encouraged to act as little adults, to be seen and not heard, to be practical and sensible. We live today in a time where pupils are heavily programmed with activities. They feel pressure at an early age to compete. Curricula are skewing heavily toward math and science. Arts and literature are undervalued in education and under-compensated as professions. We seem to be wanting to create a society of engineers. There is an unprecedented need in the world for art, for philosophy, for imagination. So yes, this story is as relevant as can be.

What is the takeaway message for the audience?

Don’t neglect your imagination!