Say “Pa rum pum pum pum” and for many the earworm of the Christmas song “The Little Drummer Boy” comes immediately to mind. Written by the American composer and teacher Katherine Kennicott Davis in the 1940s, the tune was first recorded in 1951 by the Trapp Family Singers, but became a ubiquitous holiday staple thanks to a 1958 recording by the Harry Simeone Chorale.
The title character of the song joins the grouping of very short plays that make up Christmas on the Rocks, now in its sixth year at Hartford’s TheaterWorks. The popular parody collective takes children in famous holiday stories and envisions what their lives would be like as adults. Writers such as Jonathan Tolins, Jacques Lamarre and John Cariani project difficult times for Ralphie from A Christmas Story, Hermie from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Clara from The Nutcracker and that bald-headed kid from A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Producing artistic director Rob Ruggiero — who came up with the original concept as a potential holiday perennial — asked Theresa Rebeck this year to imagine what conflict the Little Drummer Boy would have as an adult. “It’s a very simple story from the song,” Ruggiero says. “But when I started thinking of the character through the weird lens of Christmas on the Rocks, I started thinking that he may be a drummer from a rock band and perhaps a stoner.
“But I don’t know exactly yet what Theresa is going to do. I pitch the character and a few ideas and then the playwrights are off and running to do whatever they like.”
The prolific Rebeck took on the assignment, despite two New York openings this fall: Bernhardt/Hamlet starring Janet McTeer and Downstairs starring sister and brother Tyne and Tim Daly.
There have been a few additions to the lineup of short plays over the six years, including an adult take on Karen from Frosty the Snowman, Zuzu from It’s a Wonderful Life and now The Little Drummer Boy. “I think having a new piece now and then makes it especially fun for the people who return year after year to see the show,” he says. Matthew Wilkas, Jenn Harris and Tom Bloom are back for another holiday season.
Are there any more kid-to-adult characters that fit the show’s concept still to be tapped for future productions? Ruggiero laughs and says, “l’m on the hunt. Any ideas?”
Stephen Tyrone Williams believes that playwright Dominique Morisseau is following in the footsteps of August Wilson.
But instead of chronicling the African-American experience in the 20th century in Pittsburgh, as Wilson did with most of his 10-play cycle, Morisseau (who is a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient), is zeroing in on her native Detroit. “She writes with such specificity and poetry,” says Williams, who plays trumpeter Blue in Morisseau’s Paradise Blue at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre through Dec. 16.
Morisseau is an in-demand playwright in Connecticut. Last year, Hartford’s TheatreWorks presented her play Sunset Baby. In February, Hartford Stage will present Detroit ’67 (in association with the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey); and in June, Westport Country Playhouse puts on Skeletal Crew.
“In Paradise Blue she has created this great snapshot of a moment in time in Detroit,” Williams says. “This play is not just about change but it’s also about new rebirth. She is also giving us such strong, complex women characters.”
P.S. Remember Me
It began in 2012 as an exchange of letters between Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo, a student in Ruhl’s undergrad playwriting class at Yale who was in remission from pediatric cancer. Over the next four years the cancer returned and Ritko’s health declined, but the friendship deepened as his artistry as a poet blossomed.
The special relationship between two extraordinary writers is reflected in Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship, a new book on which Ruhl collaborated with Ritko before his death in 2016. Meditative, funny, sweet, joyous and sad, it’s a book you’ll want to permanently keep by your bedside table to reflect on the tenderness of life.
Though the relationship began as teacher-student, it soon developed into a profound friendship, one in which Ruhl found herself exchanging writing samples — including some personal unpublished poetry — with Ritko. “There was this quick recognition among many of Max’s teachers where you looked at Max and you looked at his writing and you kind of went, ‘Oh, hello colleague. Let’s swap writing.’ ”
But Ruhl and Ritko also swapped the most intimate musings of life, death, theater, school and Mel Brooks movies. “With most of our friends, we wait and wait and wait for this intimate conversation to happen,” Ruhl says. “Max had this sense of abundance and he wasn’t going to wait to have these conversations. As his teacher I sort of felt that Max was one of those students who becomes a friend, and with any luck, those friendships go on for 20 or 30 years. But I knew I had to pack all those conversations with Max into a four-year period.”
Could this little book — perfect for holiday gift-giving by the way — morph into another work of art, say a play or a film?
“Max was a poet to his core, so a book made the most sense, and because of the personal material I felt safer as a book. You could open it and you could shut it, the way you can’t with a play. But I could imagine it as a play, too.”
Have you heard…?
… Jessica Hecht, who grew up in Bloomfield and has been seen in TV’s Friends and Breaking Bad, as well as numerous films, stars in off-Broadway’s About Alice, a two-character play inspired by Calvin Trillin’s best-selling memoir about his wife, who died in 2001 at 63 while awaiting a heart transplant. Previews begin at Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center on Jan. 8.
… In an update from last month, Haddam’s Bill Berloni trained the dog Bowdie, who is prominently featured in the new Julia Roberts film Ben Is Back, which hits theaters in December. The pooch will also star in About Winn Dixie, the new musical that will play East Haddam’s Goodspeed Opera House next summer.
… There are exploratory plans to make the movie musical The Greatest Showman, which celebrates the life of Bridgeport’s P.T. Barnum, into a stage musical, keeping the hit score from the Hugh Jackman film.
… One of the puppeteers operating the title character of the big Broadway musical King Kong is Khadija Tariyan, a dancer and alumna of Connecticut College in New London, where she was a dance-theater major.