The most enduring Hollywood movies about Christmas reinforce the nostalgia about holiday celebrations, even when chaos threatens to upend plans for the perfect gathering. In 1945, as GIs began to return to the States after the long world war, American audiences welcomed the holiday madcap farce of Warner Bros.’ Christmas in Connecticut.
Nearly 80 years later, Pioneer Theatre Company (PTC) has secured the privilege of presenting a new musical stage adaptation of the film, which will be this year’s only U.S. production of Christmas in Connecticut. The musical, with book by Patrick Pacheco and Erik Forrest Jackson, received its world premiere last year at the Goodspeed in Hartford, Connecticut.
The exclusive PTC production run (Dec. 1-16) will give its creators the opportunity to enhance the show with fine brushstrokes. Its creators believe that Christmas in Connecticut can then become a part of the catalog for theater companies everywhere to consider licensing, when they are looking for fresh theatrical shows to offer in their holiday programming.
For the second consecutive year, PTC is providing the developmental space for a new show. In 2022, Shucked scored a strong production run in SLC before it landed on Broadway, eventually earning a Tony Award (Alex Newell for Best Featured Actor in a Musical) and a Grammy Award nomination for Best Musical Album. Shucked will close on Broadway in January and then will be revived in a North American tour next fall. In fact, the score for Christmas in Connecticut is composed by Jason Howland, who also handled music supervision, orchestrations and arrangements for Shucked. Lyrics are by Amanda Yesnowitz.
The 1945 film starred Barbara Stanwyck as Elizabeth Lane, a food columnist whose writings about her husband, child and farm in Connecticut attracted fans from across the country. Among the loyal readers was Jefferson Jones, a World War II hero who was recuperating from injuries he suffered during combat. The problem was that her writings were fictions: Elizabeth lived alone in a New York City apartment and her recipes came from Felix Bassenak (an “honorary uncle,” played by S.Z. Sakall in the film).
The scandal of the charade came to a quick boil when a nurse, who also was engaged to the war hero, wrote a letter to Elizabeth’s editor, hoping to arrange a meeting with Jefferson, who had read every word and recipe written by Elizabeth. The problem was that the publisher, who had no idea that Elizabeth’s life was a total fiction, insisted that she cook Christmas dinner at the Connecticut farm for the war hero. As The New York Times summarized in its 1945 review of the film, “Being blessedly single—a fact the publisher, a stickler for truth, doesn’t even suspect—she faces the dilemma of acquiring in the space of a few hours a home like the one she writes about, complete with antiques, a husband and an eight-month-old baby.”
Despite less than flattering reviews from critics, the film was a box-office success. It definitely performed better than the cherished Frank Capra film It’s A Wonderful Life, which was released a year later. But, Christmas in Connecticut also has not enjoyed the status that other holiday movies have mustered in the the pop culture pantheon for the holly-and-ivy season.
“I had not seen it before but I watched it after it was recommended to me,” Pacheco said in an interview with The Utah Review. “I was taken by the setup which really had a delicious potential for both nostalgia and a screwball comedy.” Jackson, his writing partner, added, “I was instantly taken in by it as well, thinking about the bones of a great musical with its zany hijinks and emotional urgency. We knew right away which moments the characters could stop talking and start singing.”
The duo compares the creation of Liz Sandor (note the change in surname) in their adaptation to what if Sex in The City’s Carrie Bradshaw met Martha Stewart. Stanwyck’s performance in the film was a clincher for the writers’ inspiration. Acknowledged as one of Hollywood’s greatest dramatic leads, Stanwyck fleshed out the lightweight comedy of Liz Lane’s character to full effect. The original screenplay was packed with dialogue dripping in double meanings and entendres. Incidentally, Christmas in Connecticut was Stanwyck’s second holiday rom-com, coming five years after Remember The Night, a considerably darker comedy story which starred Fred MacMurray as the male lead.
For Pacheco and Jackson, making the adaptation feel timeless and relevant to a 2023 audience meant they could lift out the original narrative contours and take creative liberties to translate it to a musical that puts a refreshed polish on its nostalgic roots. “We were attracted to both characters [Stanwyck’s Elizabeth Lane and the war hero Jefferson Jones, who was played by Dennis Morgan in the film],” Pacheco said.
They found many points that could resonate for contemporary audiences. Becoming a media celebrity, Liz Lane showed that the glass ceiling of sexism could be broken. Today, Liz Lane could be a social media influencer on YouTube and Instagram, garnering likes on her artificially constructed posts about domestic perfectionism where millions of followers accept the images with certitude. It then becomes easy to see how the 1945 storyline of Christmas in Connecticut is clearly sensible to current audiences.
The notes from Yesnowitz, who wrote the lyrics, echo precisely the point: “Liz Lane—immortalized by the saucy Barbara Stanwyck on film—hungers to use her words to make some serious feminist waves during a time when that was unthinkable. The idea to center on such a progressive female protagonist back in the 1940s (and also in the 21st century!) is not de rigueur in Hollywood or on Broadway. And that right there is why I am so drawn to this story. Narratives which allow, nay empower, women to push sociocultural boundaries in beautifully subversive ways are in woefully short supply.”
Of course, Pacheco and Jackson preserve the characters of the publisher Alexander Yardley (which Sydney Greenstreet played in the film), the editor Dudley Beecham (played by Robert Shayne in the film] and Bassenak, the “honorary uncle,” who played along in the charade. In the adaptation, Norah, the housekeeper (played by Una O’Connor in the film) is pitched as a scatterbrained character to boost the comedy of errors.
Likewise, they have swapped out John Sloan (who was a friend of Liz and the owner of the farm in Connecticut: a character played by Reginald Gardiner in the film) for a new character named Victor Beecham, who fills the role of playing Liz’s love interest in the charade. Victor is handsome and muscular. The editor’s brother, he is the antipathy of the consumer capitalism championed in Liz’s work. He is a socialist union organizer, who fights for the rights of farm workers. This sets up the oil-and-water relationship dynamics in the musical. Victor was inspired by Ninotchka, the 1939 comedy starring Great Garbo, who played a diehard Bolshevist that lets her political guard down when she falls in love during a trip to Paris, according to the writers.
“We looked for liberties to add even more pizzazz to the screwball comedy,” Jackson explained. “The romance between Liz and Jefferson is so straightforward and the attraction is so obvious that we thought injecting more suspense with this particular love triangle would raise the stakes for Liz to juggle and try to handle the comedic complexities.”
Another character they added to heighten the comedic tension is Gladys Higgenbottom, the publisher’s assistant who is responsible for fact checking and is hooked on detective stories.
The world premiere at the Goodspeed last year, which had a sold-out run, gave the writers the feedback they needed to streamline the structure, ensure that the jokes work and punch up the show’s heart, “not different from how an equalizer improves the sound on an old stereo system,” Jackson explained. “We made a lot of surgical adjustments.” In the version that SLC audiences will see, the cast gets to the farmhouse (and comedy of errors) quicker than in the Goodspeed premiere, Pacheco said.
Their credits and background suit the challenge for achieving the creative brief in the adaptation. Pacheco, a journalist who also has received an Emmy Award as a television commentator, wrote Waking Sleeping Beauty, a 2009 Disney documentary, as well as the stage script with Maria Cassi for My Life with Men…and other animals. Other prominent credits include a revision of the libretto for Pal Joey, directed by Peter Schneider, and his recent collaboration with Chita Rivera, on the star’s memoir that was published by HarperCollins.
Jackson’s musicals include Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, featuring the songs of Neil Sedaka (which he wrote with Ben H. Winters, and included arrangements by Tom Kitt), and Misty Makes It Better, based on his award-winning play Like a Billion Likes (with lyricist Jill Abramovitz and composer Brad Alexander). The author of the Muppets Meet the Classics humor series from Penguin Books and Disney, Jackson also penned comic adaptations on Stephen King’s Carrie and the thriller Tell-Tale, as well as the Cheers sitcom.
The creative team for the SLC production include Shelley Butler (director), Helen Gregory (musical director and conductor) and Karen Azenberg, PTC’s artistic director (choreographer).
PTC will host a giving station in the lobby to benefit the Veterans Affairs Salt Lake City Healthcare System. During the production’s run, patrons are encouraged to bring unused personal care items; new clothing, socks, and underwear; winter clothing items; books, puzzles, games, art supplies; blankets; and kitchen supplies/tools. For more information about donating money, volunteering, or items that can be accepted for donation, visit the organization’s official website.
For tickets and more information, see the PTC website.