FORT KENT, Maine — It goes without saying neither E. T. A. Hoffman nor Tchaikovsky envisioned a mosh pit when penning and choreographing The Nutcracker children’s tale and ballet, respectively.
Not so for modern day playwrights and composers Doug Clapp and Scott Brickman, who next week raise the curtain on a thoroughly modern and original version of what has become a holiday classic.
This is not your Rockefeller Center “Nutcracker Suite.”
“Nutcracker the Musical” looks to Hoffman’s 1816 work and its plot surrounding the coming to life of a young girl’s Christmas toys — including her beloved nutcracker — and subsequent battles of good-versus-evil between the toys and the rodent soldiers of the Mouse King.
In the Clapp-Brickman collaboration, the toys and mice are replaced by rival gangs Steam Punks and Goths on the streets of present day Manhattan on Christmas Eve.
The central heroine Marie is no longer a young school girl, but is now a 17-year-old fresh from Dover-Foxcroft and getting her first taste of big city life and romantic entanglement.
“Two years ago I heard a jazz version of a short piece from ‘The Nutcracker’ and after I heard that I thought it would be interesting to redo the whole thing,” Clapp, SAD 27 drama instructor, said during a break in a recent rehearsal in the University of Maine at Fort Kent Fox Auditorium. “I talked to Scott [Brickman] about doing it down the road at some point and down the road turned out to be last spring.”
With Clapp penning the two-act script and working on song lyrics, it was up to Brickman to compose the music for 15 songs.
“This was real collaboration,” Brickman, UMFK professor of music and education, said. “Sometimes I would get an idea and fixate on it and then show it to Doug and then sometimes Doug would give me an audio recording of an idea he had to work with.”
The two worked over this past summer and fall trading music, melodies and lyrics back and forth until the final script and score was hammered out just weeks ago.
“We had tryouts in August so we knew we needed the major characters’ songs ready for that,” Brickman said.
“There are 15 songs and 50 minutes of music,” Brickman said. “I would say conservatively an hour was spent [composing] each minute of music.”
For his part, Clapp penned a 100-page script and the lyrics for Brickman’s compositions.
Casting for the production represents actors from elementary, middle and high schools, the university and from the community.
Snagging the lead role of Marie is Melanie Saucier, a 17-year-old Fort Kent high school senior who has been singing around New England and Maritime Canada pretty much since the day she learned how to talk.
“I love what they have done with this play,” Saucier said. “There are some elements similar to the ballet that have translated to this modern performance, but it’s also very unique.”
In filling the role of Marie’s father, Clapp ended up with a bit of typecasting when he assigned it to Gary Saucier, Melanie Saucier’s father.
“It’s great working with Melanie,” Gary Saucier said. “This the first time I’ve done this [and] I was surprised when Doug asked me to play the part of the father [but] I do feel it’s an honor to be in a play next to my daughter.”
An honor and a bit of a learning experience for the elder Saucier.
“She does tell me how to act and how to talk, sometimes,” Gary Saucier said. “I do have to remind her that it’s my first time doing this and not to be too hard on me.”
Emi Jerkins, a high school student from Madawaska, grew up hearing her parents’ stories about performing in Clapp’s productions.
“I wanted to see for myself,” the 16-year-old who plays gang member Trish-Trash, said. “And being in an original production is a real confidence booster since there is nothing to compare us to.”
During the rehearsals Brickman stays at his keyboard, pages of sheet music in front of him while Clapp seems to be everywhere at once directing, blocking scenes and offering costume advice.
“Technical difficulties?” Clapp said as members of the crew worked to iron out lighting and sound cues. “Difficulties? What do you think this is, a theatrical show?”
Bounding up to the stage, Clapp works to block a song and dance routine new to some of the actors, and notes due to conflicting work, school and family schedules roles during rehearsals are often filled by understudies.
“I never really felt The Nutcracker was a sacred cow not to be touched,” Clapp said. “It is a story with so much potential and can live up to the treatment we have given it.”
This summer Brickman said he had the opportunity to see Snow White and the Huntsman, a retelling of the classic Snow White children’s tale.
“I had to pinch myself a few times to remind myself I was watching a version of Snow White,” he said. “I think that people who know The Nutcracker story or the ballet will have to pinch themselves at times as they are watching our musical.”
Plot adaptations and modifications notwithstanding, Clapp said he did some serious research into the original book and productions before taking pen in hand for his version.
“It really is an age old theme of innocence, youth and a cursed hero who can only be saved by the love of an innocent girl,” he said.
The hero saved by that love is Christian, played by Jared Michaud, 16.
“This is a really cool retelling of a classic story,” the Fort Kent high school sophomore said. “It’s really less kid-like and less like a fairy tale than the original.”
“In a way it’s kind of like an opera,” Brickman said. “Only in an opera everyone dies [and] in our play the heroes live.”
Nutcracker the Musical opens at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 29, at Fox Auditorium. Performances are also 7 p.m. Friday; 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Sunday.