BWW Interviews: Shannon Guggenheim on MESHUGANUTCRACKER

BWW Interviews: Shannon Guggenheim on MESHUGANUTCRACKER
We spoke with Shannon Guggenheim on the return engagement of her unconvential holiday show MeshugaNutcracker. The production just opened in San Francisco and plays through December 14, but you can also catch it in San Jose December 25-28 before it travels to NYC next year. For tickets and information, visit http://themeshuganutcracker.com/.

Hi Shannon. Thanks for taking the time to talk with BroadwayWorld San Francisco. It's good to see that you are still active after the sad loss of the Retro Dome.
Thanks, Harmony! Yes, it is quite depressing to drive by and see the frame for a Vitamin Shoppe going in. But onward and upward, right?

With that in mind, The MeshugaNutcracker has a bit of a local history, as well. Can you tell me about its creation process leading up to its current run in the Bay Area?

We have had this little gem of a show in our library since 2003. Since we can only roll it out for the holidays, that means it has taken years to develop, but we are so pleased to present this new version of the show in anticipation of a New York opening in 2015. What started as a small play to answer the "December Dilemma" for local Jewish agencies (meaning, giving their members a show to call their own) has grown into a full-fledged Broadway bound musical complete with beautiful sets and the most lovingly created, hand-made costumes you've ever seen. Throw in eight of the most talented and well-cast artists and you have the perfect recipe for a fantastic family outing.

I'm no fan of replacing "Christmas" with "Happy Holidays," but I do greatly appreciate other cultures and traditions. MeshugaNutcracker really seems to embrace that same idea by combining one of the Christmas classics with a different belief. How much of the original Nutcracker is maintained? And how do these two mesh together?

First of all, we always try to make sure our audience knows, we didn't write this show to bash Christmas. We wrote it as an inside joke for Jews who truly have nothing to do on Christmas day but go to the movies and go out for Chinese food. As the show evolved, though, it has become an experience that Jews and Gentiles can enjoy together: the Jewish grandma can bring her children and grandkids and delight in seeing their culture represented in a holiday musical, while the non-Jewish son-in-law will be tickled to the very familiar Nutcracker tunes with witty and whimsical lyrics. And the overall themes are entirely universal: Chanukah is a holiday about good triumphing over evil and remembering that together, our light shines more brightly...that light can always overcome the darkness. That's a message everyone can relate to.

To create something like this, you must have a personal connection to the theme. Can you tell me about that?

I'm a Jew by choice who's married to a Jew, so we definitely have two very different personal connections to the themes of the show: for Scott, writing The MeshugaNutcracker was a chance to bring something exciting and wondrous to Jewish kids during the holiday season. I grew up dancing in The Nutcracker and had a deep fondness for the score, not to mention a love for dance and great storytelling. I'm also somewhat irreveren,t so the idea of marrying Christmas and Chanukah in a fun and accessible way was very appealing. That's what I love most about this show: it's a Chanukah show but it's not just for Jews. You don't have to be Jewish to love it.

And you, yourself, are performing in the production. Tell me about the rest of the cast and their characters.

Even though we have written a rather traditional piece of American musical theatre as far as plot and style are concerned, we are dealing with a very intense vocal score. Remember, every note in the show comes from the instrumentation of the Tchaikovsky Nutcracker suite, so we had to find ridiculously talented performers to sing this score, which frequently breaks into eight part harmony. Then, after they learned those 20 songs, we told them they'd be dancing in dreidel costumes, wearing pots and pans on their heads, integrating classic clowning character techniques, tap dancing, singing in a foreign language at times, and performing in nearly every scene and song of the full length, two-act musical! All eight of the artists are the epitome of triple-threats and I can't imagine anyone else in the roles now that they have made them their own.

The characters are loosely based on those found in short stories by the likes of Sholem Aleichem, known for writing Tevye and His Daughters, on which Fiddler on the Roof is based. In our show, we incorporate the Mayor and his wife, Gronam and Esther Schmegegi (Stephen Guggenheim and Susan Gundunas); Rabbi Motke and Rivka the Dairywoman (Benjamin Pither and Hilary Little); Yacob, the Farmer, and Yetta, the Bakeshop Owner (Jackson Davis and Krista Wigle); and two precocious children, Velvel and Treitel (Jeremy Kreamer and Shannon Guggenheim).
The show is billed as a musical rather than ballet. Here again there seems to be a mixture of the classic with the new. Can you further describe the concept and format of the show?

The MeshugaNutcracker is a traditional book musical using the music from the ballet reimagined in a kitschy Klezmer/Broadway fusion. We definitely have fun with the choreography throwing in bits of ballet to go along with the Nutcracker themes, but then we throw on tap shoes for the Dance of the Dreidels and have tongue in cheek Broadway homages throughout. Then, we take a 180 with some very sentimental scenes in which we present how Jews were able to honor the Festival of Lights even while facing the fear of a Holocaust concentration camp. There is a perfect balance between the poignance and importance of Jews' ability to repeatedly overcome oppression and the sweet silliness of the characters and their mishaps.

So it's not your traditional Nutcracker, but it is a lot of fun. Your press release states that you do not have to be Jewish to enjoy the show, probably similar to how we can appreciate and enjoy other traditions and cultures. What makes this show enjoyable and worth adding to our Christmas, holiday experience?

Jews have been going to see non-Jewish holiday shows for years! We love White Christmas and Elf as much as the next Goy...er, I mean, as much as the next guy, so why shouldn't a non-Jew enjoy seeing a show about another culture during this time of year, especially a show that has such universal messages and music? We invite people of all faiths and cultures to have a taste, or as my Jewish mother-in-law would say, "Try it! You'll like it!"

It seems Bay Area audiences are in for a treat before the show runs off to New York next year. What are your hopes for the show's future? And what are you most excited about as you take this next step?

The plan is to open the show in New York in 2015 for a limited run during the holiday season. It's the next natural step for the show, which has already delighted audiences in Seattle, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, Berkeley, San Jose and Palo Alto. Pending a successful New York run, the show would return as a perennial favorite and be licensed to companies in cities around the world to produce their own productions.

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Photo Credit: Tchaikovsky's Waltz of the Flowers gets a zany makeover with Shannon Guggenheim, Jackson Davis, Krista Wigle, Stephen Guggenheim, Susan Gundunas, Benjamin Pither, Hilary Little and Jeremy Kreamer in "The MeshugaNutcracker"; photo by Betsy Kershner Photography




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