This holiday season the Arvada Center produced a brand-new musical work – the first in our 41-year history. Arvada Center Artistic Producer of Musicals Rod A. Lansberry and I’ll Be Home for Christmas co-creators, David Nehls and Kenn McLaughlin offer their perspective to what it takes to build a new musical from the ground up.
- Describe what it feels like to create a new musical like I’ll Be Home for Christmas from concept to completion?
Rod Lansberry (RL): The idea to have a world premiere on the Arvada Center stage is something we have worked on for many years, and we are happy to have this chance to bring something new and fresh to our audience.
Kenn McLaughlin (KM): It is a very hard thing to describe! Rod and (director) Gavin Mayer have been champions of the work from the start and have offered great direction and feedback that have helped shape where we are.
David Nehls (DN): Creating a new work for musical theatre is one of the most thrilling journeys in the arts. To be in the room to see the final result with an audience is both exciting and terrifying because you are experiencing all the elements coming together for the first time in real time. It is truly like nothing else.
- This musical draws on an old holiday tradition, but it’s also rooted in a specific time (1969). What was the inspiration for the setting of a Christmas variety show? What about this point in history?
KM: Both David and I grew up watching these shows. When we started talking together about our memories of the shows it was clear they had had a deep impact on us.
DN: The TV variety shows of the late ’60’s and early ’70’s honed my sensibility for what I liked as an artist and helped encourage me to go into the arts as a career. Plus, the idea of family is the cornerstone of I’ll Be Home For Christmas, and my family came together to watch these shows.
KM: The idea of the turmoil of the late 1960’s gave us a way to bring in more powerful social themes and put those up against the traditional ideas of an American Christmas. The collision of these ideas is what gives the show its voice. People who have read it or heard it remark how it feels very relevant to our circumstances today and that was the biggest of our goals.
- How long did the development of this musical take?
KM: The first time we even discussed it was December 2012. At that time David and I had just finished work on a holiday pantomime for my theatre in Houston, and we were looking forward to what else we might work on. He called me as I was about to board a plane and laid out the idea. I wrote the first treatment of the show on the plane
DN: When Rod reached out about the show after this past Christmas, we jumped on it completing a first, readable draft by March.
RL: The actual production has been in process for almost a year, It went from rough drafts of the script and music to table readings and a staged reading for an invited audience in June.
- What phases did the musical go through in development? How did it change?
KM: The biggest change came late in the process with a different approach to Simon’s journey through the play. He now gets more caught by surprise by several things and that sets him on his path. It is much more playable for the actors, and I think much more interesting for the audience.
DN: Dialogue shifted in places, strengthening characters here and there, but the basic structure remained.
5. The Arvada Center held a workshop with actors and a live audience in June. Was having an early audience to hear the words and music helpful?
Rod Lansberry: Actually getting live feedback led us to many insights and ideas that only helped to solidify and improve the piece.
KM: Based on the response we got that day, we knew that the characters and the core story mattered to people. We got to hear where the audience got lost and we got to hear what moved them and all in all it was a remarkable and important day for the play.
- What was the collaboration process like, particularly with one of the creators living in Houston?
DN: Working with Kenn is always a joy! He is so smart and fresh and has a great sense of how the process works.
KM: David and I spoke on the phone several times a day during creation – he’d write something he was excited about, and he’d send it, and I’d write something I was excited about and then we’d get on the phone and work it out. David and I think a lot alike about theatre so it was an easy process for us and the distance was not a problem at all.
RL: Kenn and David have a great working relationship that has served to make the entire project an enjoyable and creative process.
- What is the biggest challenge?
RL: Creating a piece that will artistically fit the reputation of the Arvada Center and enlighten while entertaining an audience – especially a piece that fits the theme of the holiday season.
KM: This is a play of extremes and getting that just right is a challenge. It’s a musical comedy with a very powerful story about a soldier and his return from Vietnam. Balancing the power of that story and making sure we honor all the voices of that story while we surround it with some joyful singing and dancing– it is a great and thrilling challenge indeed.
DN: And casting these specific roles with such specific talents is a bit of a challenge.
- What’s most exciting to you personally about presenting a world premiere at the Arvada Center?
RL: Bringing a fresh new holiday production to our audience and producing our first new work.
DN: This has been my home theatre for 14 seasons and to have my own work premiere here for the first time is a big thrill. My shows have now been produced all over the country, but we have never produced one here. So to cross this off the bucket list is great!
KM: The fact that Rod challenged us to go deeper and to find the darkness too – I can’t be more excited about that. I think it has made the play very special and in fact more joyful than I could ever have imagined. I cannot wait to share it with people – I just can’t wait!
I’ll Be Home for Christmas runs until December 23. Tickets are available online!