Gerard Alessandrini always believed The Nutcracker could be adapted as a traditional musical comedy. He wanted to transform Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece, using all that glorious music, into a book show with his own zany, satirical lyrics. For him, writing this show was a childhood dream.
When we were growing up together, Gerard introduced me to all the classic Broadway musicals. One of his favorites was Kismet, with a score by Robert Wright and George Forrest, adapted from the classical music of Alexander Borodin (a Russian composer and a contemporary of Tchaikovsky). But Wright and Forrest adapted Borodin’s musical themes into songs. Gerard’s idea may have been more ambitious: he wanted to put his words to Tchaikovsky’s music while being faithful to the original compositions. He discovered that Tchaikovsky’s music was a precursor to 20th century song form – so many of his melodies have a classic AABA structure. In other words, he establishes a musical phrase, repeats it, then there’s a “bridge” (or a “release”), then he returns to the original “A” musical phrase. Gerard spent his whole life listening to The Nutcracker score and he could hear songs in the music!
For years, Gerard kept telling me that he wanted to write The Nutcracker as a musical. But the story, as it was adapted for the ballet, was a challenge. In fact, the ballet’s story is rather slight, it’s just an excuse for classical dance and divertissements. The ballet’s source material, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s children’s novella The Nutcracker and the Mouseking (1816), is a richer story, but some of its plot complications might not be recognized by fans of The Nutcracker ballet. What to do?
It took us a while to come up with an original story that is faithful to the spirit of the ballet, but also tells the classic tale in musical comedy terms. For inspiration, we looked at other fairy tales and fantasy stories. But in the end, we came up with an original idea. It’s about a young ballerina who grew up dancing in a local production of The Nutcracker ballet. When she’s finally old enough to play the leading role of Clara, she breaks her leg! We knew we could tell a “backstage at the ballet” story in a totally modern setting. I remembered how Gerard had broken his leg in our high school production of Oklahoma! We were two suburban kids who dreamed of coming to New York and pursuing careers in theater. Suddenly we had it: a young girl, full of dreams, breaks her leg and can’t dance in her favorite ballet… but with the help of a toy nutcracker who comes to life, the girl’s dreams are magically realized. Finally, adapting The Nutcracker as a musical comedy was possible for us. We discovered all it takes is believing childhood dreams sometimes really do come true.
Peter Brash, November 2011