Project role: Co-Writer/Co-Composer/Actor
Location: Written all over the place, performed in Kansas City
2017 is over and I am officially tired. Somehow, against all odds and reasonable medical advice, my collaborators and I managed to squeeze out a second full-length musical before the year was over. It's hard to know where to begin with this one, so bear with me as I hit ya with some background.
The whole thing started as sort of a joke during late night conversations toward the end of the run of our first musical, The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe. Brian and I had recently watched a fascinatingly awful Christmas movie in the form of an MST3K episode and we were so intrigued by it that we started musing about turning that into our next piece. Then the idea of writing a Christmas show became less of a joke. And Seth got on board. And Ryan (composer/musician extraordinaire) got on board. And the artistic director of the theatre got on board. And then our fate was sealed.
It started with a couple of brainstorming meetings. We really had no idea where we were headed other than "Christmas." We quickly scrapped the bad movie concept, though one or two elements from it made their way into the final piece. By the end of the two days, we had a core concept.
The story would take place in Christmastown. That much we knew. North Pole, Santa's village, sleigh, reindeer, the whole nine yards. In addition to the standard cast, we wanted to use figures that would be recognizable as Christmas characters, but that didn't get featured a lot. The 12 Days of Christmas turned out to be a goldmine. Lords-a-Leaping? Ladies Dancing? Who the hell were these people? We had loads of fun figuring out how to weave them in. We'd landed on one of the eight "Maids-a-Milking" as our protagonist; it felt like kind of a perfect choice. Milk Maid is an inherently low status character, a great place to start for a hero, and it seemed unexpected but not out of place. We knew that this Maid (eventually dubbed "Macey") would make a troubling discovery about Christmastown, and have to fight to save the day.
I hesitate to say more because we hope to stage the show again, and I hate to spoil my own stuff. I'll just say that we landed on the title Milking Christmas for three reasons: 1) Milk maid protagonist 2) Themes of exploitation of the holiday and 3) A wink to the fact that that's exactly what we were doing by putting up this show.
The writing process was a bizarre beast. Following the close of Lefty and Crabbe, we had to shelve this project for a bit to get other things done. By the time we refocused, we had about 3 months, in 3 different states, to put together a full script and score. Brian Huther and I worked from Chicago. Seth Macchi had recently moved to New York. And Ryan McCall and producers Rusty Sneary and Shawnna Journagan were in KC. Thank god for google docs.
Once Brian and I, and later Seth, got back to KC, it was really crunch time. We'd have full day sessions with Ryan tying up musical loose ends and finishing numbers, then we'd retire to the building's basement and work a few more hours on book revisions. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Since this was such an infant of a piece, we were still playing and writing and adjusting basically up till tech week, which I'm sure caused no shortage of headaches. Luckily, there was an amazingly talented and supportive team on this show remarkably adept at punch-rolling. All four of us writers were in the show (Ryan on keys, though often throwing in a line or an animal sound). Was this a good idea? I dunno, but it was a hell of a ride. Seth had originally planned on being in New York during the run but stepped into the cast last minute to fill a vacated spot.
I could churn out two dozen more paragraphs on this from a writing standpoint, but none of that is as important as the incredible people that really made this thing happen. Rusty and Shawnna at The Living Room, as usual, demonstrated unconditional support, absurd amounts of trust, and ingenious leadership and flexibility in bringing a really odd vision to life. Our incredible director, a Kansas City legend and self-proclaimed Director-of-All-The-Plays, Missy Koonce, pulled a sort of triple duty as set designer and choreographer, which makes me tired just writing it.
I won't gush about each artist individually because this post is already too long, but they are all listed at the close, and suffice it to say that their professionalism, drive, and willingness to go the extra mile for a yet thoroughly unproven idea was tremendously humbling, and I owe these folks a lot.
So - how did it go?
Our goal, as writers, was to have the show go off well enough that we left saying "Yes, we'd like to keep working on this." I think we certainly achieved that. It was a crazed and wonderful first stab - thanks in no small part to the commitment of the actors - and we're already brimming with notions of how to make it better. Some nights, the response was subdued chuckles and warm smiles. Some nights, it was wall-to-wall hysteria. That's fairly typical for a comedy in my experience; there's no telling what the energy's gonna be. But I don't think any crowd left feeling disappointed. And boy did they show up! About a week before it even closed, Milking Christmas officially became the highest selling show on record in the history of The Living Room.
It was well reviewed, well enjoyed, and maybe most importantly for my selfish ass, a wonderful time. A Christmas "cheers" to all of you, team. I love you, I miss you, and this is one holiday season I'll never forget.
Milking Christmas: A New Musical
Book and lyrics by Brian Huther, Ben Auxier, and Seth Macchi
Music by Ryan McCall, Brian Huther, and Ben Auxier
World premiere: The Living Room Theatre, December 2017
Director/choreographer Missy Koonce
Musical director Ryan McCall
Elise Poehling.............Macey Maid-a-Milking
Bob Linebarger..........Santa Claus
Seth Macchi................Chris Claus
Ellen Kirk......................Mrs. Claus/Masha/Carol Jolly
Mike Ott........................Jingle B. Elf/Ginger/General Sparkleshine/Lord 1
Nellie Maple.................Citizen Cane/Lt. Puddings/Mildred/Holly Hunter/Lord 3
Brian Huther.................Clyde/Mandy/Lord 2
Ben Auxier....................Krampsnickle/The Christmas Mole/Mike
Margaret Veglahn......Mildred/Toy Soldier
Andrew Stout...............Coal Miner/Toy Soldier/Mika/Lord
Cam Burns....................Coal Miner/Toy Soldier/Mary
Stage management: Lacey Pacheco
Costume designer Nancy Robinson
Lighting design Nicole Jaja
Stage carpenter Kyle Dyck
Scenic artist Regina Wellner
Properties by Shawnna Journagan
Artistic director Rusty Sneary