This holiday season, the Arkansas Repertory Theatre is shaking things up. On one side of Main Street, at The Rep's main theater, is "The Gift of the Magi," a brand new musical retelling of O. Henry's classic tale.

On the other side of the street, in The Rep's Black Box Annex theater, is "The Santaland Diaries," a salty, one-man show about being an elf at Macy's during Christmastime, taken from the actual diaries of famed humorist David Sedaris.

So to compare and contrast the two shows, we decided to ask the casts and crews the exact same questions, getting vastly different results.

Both "The Gift of the Magi" and "The Santaland Diaries" run through Christmas Eve. For tickets and more information, click here.

 

The Gift of the Magi

  • Director: John Miller-Stephany
  • Lyricist: Maggie-Kate Coleman
  • Book: Jeffrey Hatcher
  • Della: Laura Sudduth
  • Jim: Jesse Carrey-Beavers

 

In a nutshell, describe the setup of this particular retelling of "The Gift of the Magi."

Jeffrey Hatcher: It follows rather specifically the original, the O. Henry. We meet a couple, Jim and Della, and they are of reduced circumstances, a kind of genteel poverty, we called it dickensian the other day. It's christmas eve and they've both vowed not to buy presents for each other.

The plot of the musical is watching them on that day as they go about their business. They've both saved a bit of money, so Della goes out trying to find Jim a present, he goes out trying to find her a present. Towards the end of the day, both Jim and Della have revisited their past year, which is about the course of their marriage, and then come across the perfect presents that cost just enough to make them give up something important each on Christmas eve. Plus music and dancing.

 

Tell me about your characters and what it is that best helps you relate to them.

Jesse Carrey-Beavers: Jim is a very generous, loving person, a bit wide-eyed and bushy-tailed in the world. He's living in New York, which is a very busy city filled with materialistic greed and consumerism, and I can relate to that because I live in New York and I've been surrounded by that. Feeling the need to have those things to represent success and status, and it's taken me a few years to realize that those people aren't necessarily happy.

What Jim really realizes throughout the show is that what counts is the love you have for the people around you, and that the generosity you give to people that makes you feel good is much more valuable than any amount of money. That's something I try to live by, but especially after embodying Jim, it's something I will bring back to New York with me, and hopefully the audience will do the same.

Laura Sudduth: I feel like Della's got a lot of spunk. Drawing from both the character in O. Henry, it's such a short story that you get just a little snippet of her. The character that Jeffrey and Maggie-Kate have created, she's really fun and kind of punny, though her jokes fail a lot and I can relate to that.

There's a real hopefulness about both of them. Living in the Lower East Side in New York in that time period, they would've been surrounded by so many immigrants and a lot of poverty. Around that 1905 timeframe, the city was just starting to realize what horrible conditions most people were in. So I think Jim and Della really do the best with what they have. They don't have much of value, but they really try to present to the world an optimistic and hopeful perspective, which I think sometimes has gotten Della in trouble. She's made some independent choices in her life that aren't characteristic of the time period, which has led her to where she is when we see them in this story. I admire that about her.

 

Tell me about the experience of bringing this show together.

John Miller-Stephany: This is the first season I've programmed at The Rep, but I've been here for a little over a year, and I know the holidays are a really important time of tradition at the theater. It was a bit unusual for me to chose a holiday show because the theater I worked for for years before this did "Christmas Carol" every year for decades. But when I set to the task of thinking of a holiday story that would be good to tell, of course I thought of O. Henry.

The amazing thing about "Gift of the Magi" is that it's been adapted countless times because it's in the public domain. There are stage versions of the play that I looked at, and even a musical version that was done off Broadway, but I thought what would be really great would be to do a brand new adaptation just for The Rep and for central Arkansas.

It's a delicate little story, just a few pages, so if you're going to tell it, it needs to be done with respect to the source material. It needs to be heartfelt and the focus needs to be on the couple, so we have a small cast with just Jim, Della and two other actors who play every other character in the story. It's not extravagant.

My husband, Andrew, is a composer, and he tends to write very lyrical, lovely material. I shared the idea with him and he was very excited about it, and the next person I thought about was Jeff, a dear friend who is highly prolific and very successful both as a playwright and a screenwriter.

In terms of a lyricist, Jeff quite rightly suggested that, with this romance, we needed a female's perspective. We needed a woman on the team, and he brought in Maggie-Kate. 

Maggie-Kate Coleman: It's been quick. The usual timeline in new musical development is much too long, but it can take anywhere from 5-10 years to get to the stage. It was really refreshing and a challenge to be presented with the concept and go right away. Another challenge was that I live in New York, Jeff is in Minneapolis, John is here. Andrew and I had never met, but we started working together shortly after Christmas last year and didn't meet until May. Luckily, we quickly found a lovely, easy working relationship. It's been a blast.

JH: It has been quickly, but it's good to have a plot in front of you. It's a nice little structure, but it is little. The way we worked was that I'd write a scene, then turn to Maggie-Kate and say, "Then here he could express this in song, don't you think?" Then she would turn to me and say, "Perhaps that could be done in a speech, don't you think?" So sometimes you cannibalize a scene and turn it into a song, but there are a few songs that were done before I wrote a word. The very last song was when Maggie-Kate and Andrew were testing how well they would work together. They took the end of the story, which is this elevated language about the magi, and wrote this lovely closing for the show.

MKC: One of my strengths as a lyricist is that I tend to be interested in the big thematic moments because those are the things that are harder to write about in a scene, but easy to sing about. I think we're a good match in that way.

JH: I say this advisedly for the joyous Christmas show, but there is pain in this musical, the pain of marriage, of romance, of choices. I think all the things that are in the text of O. Henry we're playing with.

JMS: That's really important and one of the things we're exploring in rehearsals is the cost of things and regret. Even in "Christmas Carol," it's a ghost story where you have to go to a really dark place before you earn Christmas morning. The dark side is really super important, that need to earn happiness.

JH: Jim's the kind of guy who has been getting by on a smile and a wink, and that wink is starting to get tired, and it's not getting him the kind of things it used to get him. There's a slight brown-around-the-edges quality in the characters in O. Henry, and you can feel that. Trying to find the green that's still there when things are starting to wear down, that's one of the qualities we wanted to get in at the show. But don't worry, nobody gets shot in the streets in New York.

JMS: And we love getting to develop a show around actors, their strengths. The specificity of who these actors are is really informing the work. For example, Jesse's a really great dancer. I really had no intention of having a dance break in the show, but he's a wonderful dancer and there's a moment in the play that we thought could really be elevated by that. So because of who he is, that's now part of the musical. That's really fun.

JCB: Of course, my dream as an actor is to originate a role, so this is such a gift not to have to follow another version of this character. I can bring my full self to it and such humanity to it. I was on the "Dirty Dancing" tour, and everybody knows exactly how the lines are supposed to be said, so as much as I wanted to bring nuance to that, I couldn't. It's awesome that there's no expectation of how things are supposed to be said or supposed to look. That grounded humanity is going to be really refreshing, I think, and it's refreshing for me as an actor.

  

With "Santaland" across the street and "Magi" over here, why is telling this story a balm for the soul at the holidays?

JMS: Great stories are timeless, and this is a great story. One of the marks of a great story is if it's ripped off enough. I think that money and material value, especially in the current climate, have overwhelmed other considerations. The stock market may go up, but at what cost? We cut taxes for some, but at what cost for others? The bottom line is that giving is not about the item, it's about the action, of giving of one's self. What it is is secondary, the more genuine gift is giving of yourself. If you're buying something from excess, which most of us do, that's fine, but seeing these characters give something that cost them dearly, that's a great thing to put out into the world right now.

JH: It's very easy to pick up a phone… press a few buttons and get something delivered. What did it take except for the money, right? But these people had to get on the train to go to the store, but have enough money to get on the train and to buy the thing and to make sure it won't be closed by the time they get there. That's a different world entirely from today.

MKC: I'm always trying to figure out what's similar about these two shows because we have bitter Crumpet on one side of the street and Jim and Della on the other. I think that both stories come out of the pressures that people put on themselves for the holidays, the traditions, the rituals that we feel we have to do.

What's so beautiful about this piece, it's a story that everyone knows, but no one remembers the last paragraph. They don't remember why it's called "The Gift of the Magi." The point is that three wise men brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to a child in a barn, who grew up to be a man who lived a life of poverty and giving. Gold, frankincense and myrrh were pretty useless gifts, but it's not about what they were or if they were useful to baby Jesus, it's about the fact that they had faith, they traveled all that way to see him, and to bring the best they had to give. That's what Jim and Della are doing, and that makes me feel better.

LS: Everyone's felt it around the holidays, that sense that you can't necessarily afford the nicest things for everyone, but also the pressure of getting a gift for your loved ones. You can't get them the moon, but you also can't get them anything that's empty or meaningless. It's the pressure of what this says about your relationship. They both go through this stress, but in the end we get this wonderful reminder that that's not what it's about. There's a warmth there.

 

What was your most memorable holiday gift, or one that you wanted so badly, as a kid?

JH: In 1965, it was the height of the James Bond craze. I got some sort of race track thing with a little Aston Martin that you could push a button and it would go around. Every time it got to one corner, it'd always zoom off and crash into the tree. My father took it back to Sears and they just said, "Yeah, they all do that." It was just this broken thing everyone was selling, even though they knew it was broken, because every kid wanted it.

JCB: This is really the one that sticks with me so much. It was Hanukkah, and my brother gave me a book and I was upset about it. I was about 6 or 7, but I was really mean about it, so my mother reprimanded me and told me it wasn't okay. I felt so much remorse and started crying. So I guess that was the moment I learned that it wasn't about what I wanted, but that he gave me something. There's beauty in that, and it's so interesting to look back on now.

LS: My main memory abut Christmas gift-giving was that we had a couple of traditions in my family, and one was the actual list-making. As a kid you'd just open up the Toys "R" Us catalogue and write down model numbers until your list was three pages long. Eventually the rules changed so you had to have some normal things that you like, a few dream things and some intangibles. I'm pretty sure a 1965 Fender Stratocaster has been on my dad's list for 20 years, and my mom always asks for a Jaguar or something because it's almost funny. One year for me it was even wishing for good luck on my college auditions. That practice was a good reminder for all of us.

However, one of the best gifts I ever got in recent memory was when I had just moved to New York, didn't have a lot saved up, got an apartment, got a job and by the time the holidays rolled around, I couldn't take days off or afford to leave, so my boyfriend at the time got me a plane ticket home. It was great.

MKC: I have some tube socks that I got last year. My boyfriend always wants suggestions, and one that I threw out was a pair of white Converse, but I called them Chucks. He somehow got it in his head that it was tube socks, and I've asked for odd things in the past, so it wasn't too far out of the realm of possibility.

He gave me a few other little things, but saved this present for last. It was clear that this was the meaningful present, and I opened it and there were the white tube socks. I said, "Thank you," and he just looked so expectant. But now I love them because they kind of symbolize to me his acceptance of me asking for odd things, and he gave them with such love that I'm very happy and wear them a lot around the house now.

JMS: I'm the youngest of six, and my brother is a couple of years older than I am. I remember a Christmas where we came downstairs and there was a medieval castle thing that I think had been bought for my brother, but I really loved it, so my brother went to my parents and said to give it to me. I only found out about that years later.

 

The Santaland Diaries

  • Director: Benjamin McGovern
  • Crumpet: Grant Fletcher Prewitt

 

In a nutshell, describe the setup of "The Santaland Diaries."

Benjamin McGovern: It's a story of a 33-year-old man who's moved to New York, doesn't have a job, he's running out of money, so he takes a job as an elf at Macy's Santaland. Over the course of it, he witnesses all sorts of absurd things and has a kind of slow transformation to someone who, at the end of the play, can still somehow experience a tiny little bit of a Christmas miracle. It's the story of absurd holiday festivities in this overly-commercial fantasy land that's overly-busy with tourists and shoppers.

You could also say the story is just an excuse to tell a series of hilarious little incidents and observations. That's the spine of the story, but who we're really following is David Sedaris, it all comes from his diaries. I think at this point we all know it's been exaggerated to the hilt, but it really is about this guy with this — and we have to use this word when we talk about David Sedaris — with this acerbic wit who somehow manages to struggle through this experience.

 

Tell me about your character and what it is that best helps you relate to him.

Grant Fletcher Prewitt: Crumpet has a journey, but I relate to him because he has a cynical point of view when it comes to the acting world and artistic liscence and the holidays. I love the holidays for the reason that you do get these humanitarian moments where everyone comes together and loves each other. But at the same time, it's all phony. In that sense, I relate to him, but he is over the top, there's no sensor, he's politically incorrect, and yet, in the end, you do find this love for him. We all have those thoughts, we just don't say them. That's why I love the character and the journey I go with him to have this nice little Christmas explosion at the end, then back into the gutter.

BM: One thing that's really appealing about this character is that he can't not tell it like he sees it. It's funny and he's often sort of saying it for effect, but it really feels authentic.

 

Tell me about the experience of bringing this show together.

BM: I've worked in a lot of black box spaces and done a number of solo shows. There's this amazing thing about a solo play, because it's really quite difficult to rehearse. The audience becomes so so crucial. We're not pulling anybody out of their chairs to join Crumpet, but the speaker really has to play directly to the audience. Part of what give the show life is what the audience brings to the equation. To rehearse without that element, you're sort of guessing.

Plus, being new to the city, we'll soon learn this area and it's audience, and that's great because it's this whole discovery for us. That is really where the most exciting things can happen.

 

With "Santaland" across the street and "Magi" over here, why is telling this story a balm for the soul at the holidays?

BM: One of the things that's so exhausting about the holidays is that we constantly have to keep that holiday cheer up, otherwise we might be accused of being a humbug. The holidays are a really hard time for a lot of people, and sometimes it's really relaxing to hear someone say, "Don't worry, if you're feeling those cynical feelings, we're right there with you." This show is delivered in such a generous way because it's funny and leads to something satisfying.

I don't like calling it cynical, because I don't think that's what it s. It's acerbic and biting and unflinching, but it's not cynical in the sense that it's negative about the holidays or about humanity, it's just unvarnished. I suppose that's one of the things that's so exhausting about the holidays is that you're constantly meeting with friends or relatives you never see and you have to keep up appearances. This is, if you will, sort of the cigarette break you get in the middle of the holiday meal where you talk with your cousins out back.

GFP: I agree. It's not necessarily a holiday balm in the sense that I'm telling you it all sucks, but I'm reminding you what a holiday should be and pointing out the flaws: the mother taking photos of her screaming baby, the elves hitting on each other. I'm just shedding light on things so you remember to be thankful for what you have when you go home.

BM: I hope audiences leave with a tired jaw from laughing. This is a fun show. We're treating it with a real degree of seriousness because if it's too fluffy, it's not anchored, but the point is to laugh. In that sense, it is a balm, a relief, a chance to laugh at all the holiday things we try to crop out of the picture and pretend don't affect our holidays.

GFP: I want everyone to leave with a little bit less weight on their shoulders.

 

What was your most memorable holiday gift, or one that you wanted so badly, as a kid?

BM: I was lucky and had some really great Christmases with my family. But. One Christmas, I was just becoming a teenager and I wanted a black leather jacket because I thought it was going to make me so cool. My mom heard that and got me this sort of trendy, brown leather jacket that I hated. But she'd spent so much money on it, and so much had been made of this leather jacket, that I ended up wearing it all through my high school years, even though I never liked it.

GFP: I had an obsession with Batman when I was little. There was this whole theme one year and I got Batman everything. There was one Batman toy I got for the bathtub, and I don't know what the material was was made out of, but it smelled awful. The whole thing's recorded on tape, but I'm screaming because it's Batman and I'm four years old, but I start opening it up and you see my face start to get weird. I keep going on and on about how it stinks, and I went around the room and made everyone in my family smell it. My mom's just cracking up. I hated that thing. It went on the top shelf and I refused to play with it.