Soft Candy Christmas: Larry Grossman and Carol Hall Turn Truman Capote's Yuletide "Memory" Into a Musical

By Harry Haun
October 25, 2011

Dramatist Duane Poole, composer Larry Grossman and lyricist Carol Hall conjure Truman Capote's delicate "A Christmas Memory" for the musical stage. The colloborators share their theatrical gingerbread recipe.



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"Oh, my, it's fruitcake weather," announces the fruitcake-in-residence in Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory" one frosty morn about this time of year some 80 autumns ago. She is Sook, a lovely loon of an old lady, signaling the start-up of much holiday hustle-and-bustle for herself and her best bud and distant cousin, seven-year-old Buddy (i.e., the boy Capote), in rural Alabama of The Depression.

Capote's tender recall of this special friendship first appeared as a short story in Mademoiselle magazine in December 1956 and subsequently enjoyed a variety of multi-media lives. In 1967, a 50-minute TV edition, adapted and narrated by Capote himself, won cheers, tears and two Emmys (for its teleplay and for Geraldine Page's exquisite performance). Thirty years later, it returned to television as a two-hour Hallmark special starring Patty Duke, adapted and expanded by Duane Poole, who has now authored a new libretto for its latest reincarnation — as a musical, with lyrics by Carol Hall and music by Larry Grossman.

Penny Fuller starred as Sook when this musicalized memoir world-premiered a year ago at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, CA. This year a whole new production will play the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery, Nov. 25-Dec. 24. Karen Azenberg will direct. Human Race Theatre in Dayton, OH, gave the show an earlier reading and is considering the title for a future full production. "It remains on my short list of 'shows I want to produce,' whether it is Christmas in December or June," said Human Race producing artistic director Kevin Moore.

Those bookings could jump sharply after a 45-minute industry sampling of the show is presented Oct. 26 in Manhattan to regional-theatre delegates who will be attending the National Alliance for Musical Theatre's 23rd Annual Festival of New Musicals which occurs Oct. 27-28 at New World Stages.

A Christmas Memory is not part of the NAMT festival, per se — just a side benefit for the early arrivals. "We decided to coincide our presentation with the festival so the regional artistic directors coming in for the whole event could have a chance to catch it," said the show's producer, Jayson Raitt, who is shepherding the work with fellow producer Brannon Wiles. "Because we designed this show specifically for the regional market, these are the people we want to be playing to. There are theatres in towns all across the country that are sick of doing A Christmas Carol so we've put another option out there for them to consider."

Larry Grossman

Glenn Casale, resident director at Sacramento Music Circus, got the ball rolling when he expressed just such a sentiment to book-writer Poole. "Glenn loved the TV movie I did and suggested musicalizing it," Poole recalled, "so I called up Alan Schwartz with the Capote estate and said, 'Can I take you out to a very expensive lunch?' He really wasn't disposed to it at all. He'd had some bad experiences with Breakfast at Tiffany's [the musical] — twice, actually — and he wasn't crazy about House of Flowers — basically, he just thought Capote wouldn't musicalize very well, but, at the end of the lunch, he said 'Go out and explore it.'"

Poole felt the weight of that command. "A Christmas Memory was always one of my favorite pieces of American literature. I think it is my favorite. I first encountered it when my seventh-grade teacher read it in class. I grew up with it. Every year we would read it. I just loved the poetry of this man's words."

Preserving that poetry was the primary concern for him and for lyricist Hall, who's equally smitten with the material. "It's a story I've loved since I first read it," she admitted. "I actually remember where I was when I read it. I was in college, Sweet Briar College."

Consequently, you hear Capote coming and going in their writing.

Hall has an easy rustic way with a line anyway, as witnessed by her score for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, but that failing, she has strong backup: "I have a gorgeous big fat old book that's called 'The Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English.' That's one step removed in that it's Appalachia and another step removed the other way from Texas where I'm from, but it managed to serve me well for this project."

Grossman, a Chicago boy known for the musicals Snoopy!!!, Minnie's Boys, Goodtime Charlie and A Doll's Life, comes by his bucolic sounds from summering in Michigan as a youth. He, too, was instantly turned on to the idea of turning "A Christmas Memory" into a musical. "When I got the call, I said, 'Omigod! What a great idea!'"

After reading the first draft, he sat down at the piano and musically translated the emotions he felt. "I wanted to see if I could find a voice, a musical style, that would be atmospheric and still let the audience know what to expect. I played the theme for Jayson and Duane, and they said, 'That's exactly what it should be,' so I knew, musically at least, I was getting on the right track. It's the first piece of music in the show, and its used throughout to underscore various parts in the play."

"The first line in the book and the first lyric in the musical is 'Imagine a morning in late November,'" Poole notes, "and then it goes into Carol's own lyric, which I think Capote would have written: 'Imagine a morning in late November / Clouds hanging white as a sheet on a line.' I finish the piece with that exact quote: A coming of winter morning more than 20 years ago. A woman's hands at the kitchen window. 'Oh my,' she exclaims, her breath smoking the window pane, 'it's fruitcake weather.' That's a bit of a condensation of his opening paragraph, but it's all Capote."

Penny Fuller in the TheatreWorks production
photo by Tracy Martin

Basically, the "plot" chronicles the various adventures of Sook and Buddy in preparing their annual holiday activities — corralling and cooking the exotic ingredients of a seasonal dessert ("Alabama Fruitcake") which they make 30 strong to send off to "friends" ranging from FDR to Borneo missionaries to a friendly mailman.

There's also a number for chopping down and trimming their Christmas tree: "Paper and Cotton," which will probably be remembered by its refrain, "They Don't Make Christmas Like That Anymore." "It's the one Christmas song in the show," Grossman pointed out. "I won't say it wrote itself, but we knew what it should be and what it could be. It was just a question of choosing the images for it. I love the part, which talks about Christmas today — 'catalogs all stacked up, and traffic all backed up.' It's good writing on Carol's part. It comes at the end of Act One. People like it. It has commercial possibilities. If there's a song that'd step out and be recorded, that's it."

Grossman said, "Of all the shows I've done, this was the easiest to write. It was written with love and, I think, understanding and appreciation for the delicacy of the writing — and the universality of it because over the years it has become a Christmastime staple."

Hall could even have thrown in her Whorehouse hit, "Hard Candy Christmas," for added flavor. "I did begin to think I should do an album of Christmas songs," she confessed. "I wrote for 'Sesame Street' for ten years, and I did a song for a Christmas special."

An album would be great: Call it "A Christmas Carol Hall."

Harry Haun is a longtime staff writer for Playbill magazine. He writes Playbill.com's Playbill On Opening Night column.