Holiday programming has long been the standard for theater companies that see favorable attendance spikes in response to the Ghost of Christmas Past. As tastefully and creatively as the quintessential Christmas play (Richard Hellesen and David De Berry’s locally created version is an excellent example) or any others can be done, staging the same show year after year won’t stir the creative juices.
For that reason, “A Christmas Carol” and its associated derivations aren’t in every theater company’s repertoires. Still, audiences in the midst of holidays don’t mind some acknowledgment of the season with their theater-going. Two very Sacramento theaters, B Street Theatre and Celebration Arts, have taken similar approaches this year by creating their own holiday-themed plays, both of which are musicals.
B Street presents “Spinning Into Light” by Buck Busfield and Noah Agruss, while Celebration Arts will stage James Wheatley’s “A New Song for Christmas.” Busfield’s four-person musical drama is set in the South in the 1950s, while Wheatley’s large-cast musical drama is set in a contemporary gospel church choir.
B Street Theatre tackled the holiday conundrum head-on years ago, when producing artistic director Busfield decided he would write an original play for the company each year. He has done so, for the most part, for 20 years. He reprised one play once (“And To All a Good Night”), commissioned one another year (“A Southern Christmas” by Jim McLure) and produced a play neither written nor commissioned by the company (“Many Happy Returns”) in one other year. This year Busfield has changed it up by writing “Spinning Into Light” with composer Agruss, a longtime B Street creative associate.
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Busfield has written plenty of musical numbers from the early days of B Street’s Fantasy Theater, which tours schools with original plays written by company members. He has worked with composer Ken Kligerman and also longtime company member Greg Alexander. Those songs have been short, written mostly for laughs, but Busfield gradually got more serious when he and Agruss collaborated on a musical version of “Cinderella.”
Earlier this summer while Agruss was writing music for the Busfield-directed “Conference of the Birds,” they decided to create a full-fledged musical play.
“I had just heard this song by the Red Clay Ramblers, ‘Aragon Mill,’” a bluegrass ballad written by Si Kahn, Busfield said.
“It was originally a protest song about a mill closing down South, and it’s sung by one of the workers,” he said. “I thought there might be a story there, and I started to write about a mill in the South being threatened by new technology.”
He wrote an outline without dialogue but indicated where songs might fit and sent the ideas to Agruss, who lives in Los Angeles. The composer started working on the music. Busfield knew he would use familiar actors Alexander, Tara Sissom, Melinda Parrett and Jason Kuykendall, and created characters for them.
“I wrote the parts for these guys and knew they would be right for them. Tara’s quirky, Melinda’s solid, Jason’s Jason, and Greg is idiosyncratic. I just tried to feed those personas,” Busfield said.
There are 14 songs in the show now, and Busfield is working out the subtleties.
“The real struggle for me is how do I let the songs go, and how much dialogue do I have?” Busfield said. “Because musicals are five lines and then a song, and this is like five pages and a song, so I haven’t quite got the discipline down, but I’m getting better.”
Celebration Arts’ Wheatley similarly fast-tracked his musical, “A New Song for Christmas.”
“I actually started writing it the last week in August,” Wheatley said at a rehearsal in his little theater space. The multitalented Wheatley said he writes mostly out of necessity.
“I’d been looking for a Christmas production, and I didn’t want to touch Scrooge, and I couldn’t find anything I liked, so I said, ‘OK, let me try my hand at writing.’”
Wheatley wrote the music with the help of a keyboard computer program that creates scores and orchestrations. The story of a church choir disgruntled with singing the same old songs for Christmas came out of his own experiences.
“I’ve been in choirs, and I’ve listened to choirs since I was a little kid,” Wheatley said. “The thing about wanting to sing something different, something new always comes up and I’ve asked the question myself, ‘How come we always have to sing the same stuff?’”
The play will start with traditional carols before moving into the new music Wheatley has written.
“I wanted to talk about Christmas in the present tense,” he said. “There’s a variety of styles of music in there – jazz, Latin flavors, we’ve got everything in there. Essentially the whole second half is music.”
Celebration Arts has always been a quintessential community arts group, and Wheatley doesn’t turn anyone away who wants to get involved.
“People come here and say, ‘Is this hard?’ and I say, ‘It requires a lot of work.’ But our reputation for developing folks, and working with them is good in the community,” Wheatley said.
“We have people in here who have never sung in choirs, didn’t know what harmony was, and in bringing them along in the rehearsal process, I’m teaching them about music. It’s been a very interesting process working with them.”
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120.