St. Petersburg Times: Weekend

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Author mystery spices up holiday classic

[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Ronald J. Aulgur as entrepreneur Hugh Campizi tries to be patient as children, played by Danny Tuegel, left, and Alex Love, act up around him in American Stage’s ’Twas the Night Before Christmas.

© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 13, 2001

Who wrote 'Twas the Night Before Christmas? A real-life controversy is at the center of American Stage's production of the Christmas poem.

Santa Claus is one of the great icons. There are commercial Santas, such as Coca-Cola's jolly old gent with a twinkle in his eye, and there are religious Santas dating back to St. Nicholas.

But for many people, the real Santa Claus is the one memorialized in Clement Moore's poem 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, first published in a New York newspaper in 1822.

"We started with the idea that Clement Moore is responsible for the icon of Santa Claus," said Victoria Holloway, describing the approach she and composer Lee Ahlin took in developing a 55-minute musical based on the poem.

But apparently not even Moore's famous poem is above controversy. As Holloway got into her research, she discovered the poem's authorship was in question.

[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Brian Shea as Dalton Borders woos Holly Campizi, played by Emilia Sargent, in ’Twas the Night Before Christmas.
On the one hand, Moore's case for writing it is commonly accepted. "He was a professor and a writer," Holloway said. "He had six children, and perhaps he wrote it for them. The interesting thing is he delivered this poem from the pulpit every Christmas for decades."

But Holloway found another claimant to the poem. "When I did my research, I found there really is an interesting riff on whether Moore wrote this or not, or was it written by another author, a poet named Henry Livingston Jr. who fought in the Revolutionary War," she said.

That was all Holloway and Ahlin needed to develop what they hope is a new twist on familiar material.

"We wanted some dramatic departure in which to spin a tale," she said. "So we started with a guy who is a CEO of a bookstore, and his Christmas marketing campaign is in jeopardy because he has just got a letter from the Livingston estate telling him that, stop the presses, Clement Moore did not write this poem."

'Twas the Night Before Christmas, with a cast of three actors and children's chorus, premieres Friday at American Stage, which commissioned Holloway and Ahlin to write it. Their previous collaborations have included Shakespeare in the Park musical adaptations of The Tempest and The Comedy of Errors, among others. They have co-written children's theater musicals such as Cinderella: The True Story and A Cricket in Times Square.

Holloway was artistic director at the St. Petersburg theater for 15 years until she left to teach directing at Arizona State University. The director for this production is Ellen Graham, the new head of Eckerd College's theater department.

[Times photo: James Borchuck]
American Stage’s production of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas has music by Lee Ahlin, left, and was written by Victoria Holloway, right.
"I absolutely refused to direct it," said Holloway. "In the past, I often directed because we didn't have the resources for another director. This time, I so wanted to write it and have somebody else bring it to life so that I can take a look at it, strictly from the book's perspective."

Holloway is directing another play this month, Donald Margulies' The Dinner Party, which opens next week at Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota. Winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for drama, it follows the friendship of two married couples through the years until one of them breaks up.

"For those of us in marriages -- and my marriage is now 21 years old -- it's a play that hits a lot of nerves," Holloway said. "The writing is very keen, right on. Hardly a holiday show, but still it has been a terrific experience for the cast and me to work on it."


'Twas the Night Before Christmas, a new musical by Lee Ahlin (music and lyrics) and Victoria Holloway (book), opens Friday and runs through Dec. 30 as part of the American Stage Theatre for Families series. Tickets: $15 for adults, $7 for children 12 and under. (727) 823-PLAY.

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