This Christmas, the Long Wharf Theatre will celebrate the holidays with the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel’s first musical, “Civil War Christmas.”
“Civil War Christmas,” directed by Tina Landau, is the first play Vogel, — who came to the Yale School of Drama to be the adjunct Eugene O’Neill professor and the chair of the Department of Playwriting this fall — has completed in four years.
The show, set in Washington, D.C., in 1864, centers around Abraham Lincoln and his family during Christmas, while a Confederate rebel and Union blacksmith clash on the Potomac and a runaway slave has to leave her daughter before finding freedom. Vogel weaves together three disparate stories to create what she calls “A Christmas Carol” set in American history during the Civil War.
“I wrote [the musical] under a deep concern that we’ve never resolved the Civil War, nor continued a necessary conversation on race in this country,” Vogel wrote in an e-mail. “I also wrote it as the only play that children of my family can come and see before they reach the age of thirty.”
Vogel is well-known for the racy content of the play “How I Learned to Drive,” for which she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998.
Vogel said that “Civil War Christmas” is the most complicated and ambitious play she has written. Because of her busy teaching schedule and desire to work in depth on the subject of the play, she spent four years crafting the piece.
“I didn’t want to work on the piece until I found a home for myself where I could function as a teacher as well as a writer, and a theatre company that embraced me as a playwright,” Vogel wrote.
New Haven was that home.
In order to accommodate the scope of this musical, the Long Wharf Theatre has had to raise the bar in terms of using all their resources for production. This musical, which will involve the entire company, is broader in effort and plot than any other production with Vogel, said Steven Scarpa, the Public Relations Manager of the Long Wharf Theatre. Although just 15 actors are in the cast, they play over 90 roles.
Both matinees planned for local schools are sold out, Scarpa said, and he hopes all 436 seats in the theatre will be occupied for opening night. There has been a warm anticipation in the community for the musical, he added, noting that the theatre will be hosting a community sing with the New Haven Folk, the parent organization of the New Haven Folk Festival that promotes musical heritage, featuring period music from the show.
This music is historically accurate and characteristic of the Civil War era, Joan Channick, managing director of the Long Wharf Theatre, said.
“As part of the show, many actors need to be able to play musical instruments,” she said. “They will be playing and singing at the same time. One of the actors will be playing a concertina [a free-reed instrument, like an accordion or a harmonica.]”
Channick said this show could become an American perennial favorite, one day replacing classics such as “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. The show, which interweaves racial relations and its consequences in the plot, can be related to the present day, Channick said.
“[This show] comes at a critical moment in history, with parallels to present day,” she said. “It is at the heel of the election and just before the inauguration.”
“Civil War Christmas” will be premiering at the Long Wharf Theatre on Nov. 26 on the Mainstage, and the official opening night is on Dec. 3.