If it's the middle of December, it's Nutcracker time! This year, PBS has a new take on the old classic.
Let's start this post with a bit of background. Before I became a writer, I spent a decade working in theater. It was a truth universally acknowledged there that if Thanksgiving was over, and Black Friday was upon us, then it was time for the band in the pit to start tuning up the Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky intro known the world over that opens The Nutcracker, and for the next month that music would be driving us all... well, nuts.
Due to this intense overexposure on a yearly basis, I am always looking for something new when it comes to the holiday classic which it sometimes feels was codified in the late 1960s, like Grandmother's vintage Christmas decorations. Not necessarily revisionist productions like Mark Morris' or jazz infused reboots like The Harlem Nutcracker, but at least something that brings a different angle I haven't seen before.
With that in mind, you can imagine how delighted I was to discover PBS this year is running a brand new special Making a New American Nutcracker. It's a holiday special that, instead of simply show us yet another Nutcracker, instead takes us behind the scenes to show what goes into taking the best-known ballet in modern pop culture and making it new again, threading the needle between those who want exactly the same ballet they've always known with those of us who are looking for something different.
One way to keep American audiences happy is to take this very European (and very Germanic) story of the world of Pre World War upper-class gentry and reset it here in the U.S. The Joffrey Ballet's idea was to make this a story about immigrants, about poor working families who came to this country for a better life and stage it in the dreams of their children. Being a Chicago based company, they chose that to be the 1893 World Fair, so we're still working in the same pre-World War time period, but from a very different angle.
This is also the 21st Century, where stagecraft has finally begun to make leaps and bounds, following in the footsteps of their movie house counterparts. While the Ballet Company is not quite pushing the boundaries the way, say, Harry Potter and the Curse Child has, they are certainly firing on all cylinders, including video projection to complement the vividly painted sets and lighting design, and puppetry on par with The Lion King to stage the more fantastical characters, like the Mice-vs-Nutcracker battle.
Here's the official synopsis:
The Joffrey Ballet Artistic Director Ashley Wheater gathered together a stellar group of theatre artists, including Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon; Caldecott Medal-winning author Brian Selznick, writer of the book that inspired the Oscar-winning film "Hugo"; MacArthur "Genius Grant" recipient Basil Twist; renowned puppeteer and Tony Award-nominated scenic designer Julian Crouch; and Tony Award-winning lighting designer Natasha Katz to reimagine the story of Clara, the privileged daughter of a 19th-century German merchant who falls asleep on Christmas Eve and dreams of a world of sweets.
As a result of this new A-list team of collaborators, the classic story evolved into the story of Marie, the daughter of a 19th-century Polish immigrant sculptress – a single mother working on a statue for the World’s Fair – who falls asleep on Christmas Eve and dreams of a completed and wondrous fairground, transforming this European import into a magical American story.
Unfortunately, with the inaugural production still ongoing in Chicago this month, there is no filmed version of the production for PBS to air. (At least, not this year.) But with rave reviews from the press, and this Making Of-special airing across the country on PBS stations this month, we can hope that by next Christmas, we can all enjoy a brand new take on the classic with our New American Nutcracker.
Making a New American Nutcracker airs on WETA on Friday, December 22, 2017, at 9:00 pm ET. For other PBS stations, check your local listings.