Thursday, December 18, 2008


Playwright Jennifer Kirkeby and Composer Shirley Mier at GREAT Theatre
Photo by Mick Kirkeby

Madeline's Christmas at Stages Theatre Company, 2007
Photos by Bruce Challgren

In an old house in Paris
That was covered with vines
Lived twelve little girls
In two straight lines.
They left the house at half-past nine
In two straight lines, in rain or shine.
The smallest one was MADELINE.

Madeline’s Christmas by Ludwig Bemelmans, was originally written as a special book insert in the 1956 Christmas edition of McCall’s. The book was published in 1985. In 2003, composer Shirley Mier and I were fortunate enough to be asked to adapt this classic tale of the beloved and ever spunky Madeline for the Stages Theatre Company.

Since that time, Madeline’s Christmas has been published by Dramatic Publishing Company. It has been produced in over fifty theatres in the U.S. This year it is being performed in the following theatres:

Dallas Children’s Theatre, Dallas, TX
Milpitas Rainbow Theatre, Milpitas, CA
Roanoke Children’s Theatre, Roanoke, VA
Berkshire Children’s Theater, Pittsfield, MA
Horizon Theatre Company, Atlanta, GA
Harwich Junior Theatre, West Harwich, MA
Premier Arts, Elkhart, IN
Project DayDream, Birmingham, MI
Theatre of Youth Company, Inc., Buffalo, NY
Cretin-Derham Hall H.S., St. Paul, MN
California Theatre Center, Sunnyvale, CA
A Magical Journey Through Stage, Rochester, NY
Town Hall Theatre, Dayton, OH
Great River Educational Arts, St. Cloud, MN
Germantown Community Theatre, Germantown, TN
Stebens Children’s Theatre, Mason City, IA
Spokane Children’s Theatre, Spokane, WA
Oakcrest School, McLean, VA
BroadHollow Theatre Company, East Islip, NY

Here is the description of the musical which can be found on Dramatic Publishing’s website:

"In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines lived twelve little girls in two straight lines." So begins this delightful story of Madeline's Christmas! The day begins like any other day. Miss Clavel takes the twelve little girls on their morning walk. They go to the zoo and then back to school for their French history lesson. Suddenly disaster strikes when everyone gets the flu! Everyone that is, except for the ever-resilient Madeline. Saddened that they may not be able to go home for Christmas, the girls and Miss Clavel take to their beds. But on Christmas Eve, the adventure begins when there is a knock at the front door. Expecting to see Santa, Madeline meets the Rug Merchant who has brought twelve very special rugs. He reminds Madeline that Christmas is the time of miracles, and that these are not ordinary rugs! Soon everyone wakes up feeling healthy. The Rug Merchant shows them that they each have a magic carpet and that they can fly home to be with their families for Christmas! After saying goodbye to the girls, Miss Clavel finds a present that the girls left for her, befriends a little mouse, and counts her many blessings singing: "Everything Is Right Tonight." Before you know it, the girls fly back to the Old House and are together again on New Year's Eve. They thank Madeline for taking care of them and making their Christmas so special!"

I have told a lot of people that adapting this story into a musical was a labor of love. It really was. Like many young girls, I grew up reading the Madeline books, and I read them to my own daughters as well. Creating the world in which Madeline, the twelve little girls, Miss Clavel, Mrs. Murphy, and the rug merchant (I named him Harsha), live was magical.

Part of the agreement for me to be able to adapt Ludwig Bemelmans’ book was to stay true to his original story. Also, the play had to be approved by Barbara Bemelmans, Ludwig’s daughter. And this approval happened after I had put countless hours into the script and lyrics. Luckily, Barbara gave it the thumbs up, and she even gave me some feedback as to what she felt her father would and wouldn’t have written in certain scenes. She told me that it was very important that the “twelve little girls” always show respect, especially to Miss Clavel. She even gave me some suggestions for names of the girls. I will always be grateful to her for helping me to forward the script in that way.

As with any adaptation, there were questions that I needed to answer for the audience. Why did everyone but Madeline get sick? There isn’t any explanation in the book. I decided that Madeline was the only one who remembered to wear her scarf when they go on their morning walk. Being a mom and raising my girls in a cold climate, I thought this might help a few parents while trying to encourage their children to dress warmly.

I also wanted the twelve little girls to be different from one another. On the page they are somewhat like a Greek chorus with their collective “boo hoo’s” and precise straight lines. To give them individuality, I gave them all names and different traits. The more challenging parts of the story occur when the magician makes the dishes move by themselves, and when all of the girls fly on magic carpets to go home for Christmas. One of the great things about being a playwright is that you can write things like: “Plates magically move on cupboard.” “Girls fly on magic carpets by the Eiffel tower.” Then the director and tech crew have meetings and decide how that is going to work!

The first production at Stages Theatre Company of Madeline’s Christmas in 2004 is still the top selling show in the theatre’s history. Last year I was asked to play Miss Clavel for the second production at Stages. It was a delight, and being on the other side of the stage performing 51 shows during the holidays gave me a whole new perspective!

This year I was fortunate enough to be able to see a few of the productions of Madeline’s Christmas. The first one was at the Dallas Children’s Theater. Robyn Flatt, the Artistic Director, the staff, cast and crew were gracious and inviting. My husband, Mick and I were welcomed warmly the minute we entered the lobby. Robyn Flatt gave us a tour of their impressive theatre space. This year is DCT’s 25th anniversary, so prior to the opening show, Robyn gave a speech and then introduced me to the audience. I told them how excited I was to have the opportunity to see the production, and what a great time my husband and I were having in Dallas.

The production was beautiful. Everything from the rich and whimsical set designed by Randel Wright and direction and choreography by Nancy Schaeffer, to the wonderful cast was absolutely delightful. Madeline and the twelve girls were double cast, and fortunately we were able to see both. The flying scene was amazing! I wish that I could thank everyone by name, but I don’t have enough room. Thank you, DCT!

Composer Shirley Mier and I went to see Madeline’s Christmas in St. Cloud, Minnesota at the GREAT Theatre. (Great River Educational Arts Theatre.) They perform in the gorgeous Historic Paramount Theatre. We were welcomed at once by Artistic Director, Dennis Whipple. The theatre was full, and we enjoyed watching the lovely production. GREAT Theatre also double cast the show, which is a challenge during the rehearsal process, but ultimately gave more people the chance to perform. (And a double cast is always very helpful if someone should forget to wear their scarf and get sick!)

After the show, Shirley and I spoke to the cast, crew, and season ticket members, and answered some questions.

“How long did it take to write Madeline’s Christmas?”
I keep telling myself that I need to keep track the next time I write a play. Madeline’s Christmas was at least a year in the making, but that includes outlines, rewrites, waiting for approval, etc.

“How many other theatres have performed Madeline’s Christmas?” Over fifty.

“How did you write the songs?”
I wrote the lyrics and then Shirley Mier wrote the music.

“Who is your favorite character?”
All of them, of course!

Merci to all of the theatres who are performing Madeline’s Christmas! It is such an amazing feeling to listen to the words that you have written being performed onstage with such enthusiasm, excitement and truth. I am indeed fortunate to have had this opportunity, and I am truly grateful.

I wish you all the Happiest of Holidays, a very Merry Christmas, and a joyful and healthy New Year!

Friday, November 28, 2008


This is a picture of our late dog, Foxy. We were blessed to have her in our lives for thirteen years. We got her from a dog shelter in Chicago, Illinois, and she was the best dog anyone could ever hope for. We know that she was part collie. We were never sure what the other part was, nor did we care. We loved her exactly as she was.

She could sneeze on cue, and she loved to chase the light from a flashlight. But her favorite activity was to chase the water from sprinklers. When she would see those blasting streams of liquid, she was gone. Nothing could hold her back. It was as if she was a race horse and the gate had opened. She would chase the rotating sprinkler around and around. She would put her face right up to the nozzle and try to attack the water with quick successive bites. It was impossible to stop this ritual. I would run after her, but inevitably I would end up dizzy and soaking wet.

Foxy was a wonderful pet for our girls as they grew up. When my daughters were very young, Foxy would pull them through the snow while they sat on their bright plastic sled. We would shout: "Mush! Mush!" while pretending that we were on an Antarctic expedition. She was always gentle and kind, and even ended up in many of the plays that our girls performed in our basement. Foxy was generally cast as the horse, the cow, or some other four-legged animal. However, towards the end of her life when it was hard for her to walk around, Foxy played the coveted role of a princess. She lay on a silk covered pillow wearing a tiara while the play was presented. She didn't want to be left out.

The day that we had to have Foxy put to sleep was one of the hardest days of my life. My husband and I wept after the vet left the room. I stayed after my husband left the room, hugged her, and sang her a song that I have not been able to sing since.

I lasted three days. It felt more like three months being without her. We were all in mourning. There was a hole in our family. We could no longer hear the clicking of her nails as she came to greet us, pet her fur that was as soft as silk, or look into those sweet brown eyes. Clearly something had to be done.

My husband left on his annual golf trip. This seemed like a good time for me to see what kind of dogs were for sale in the paper. Oh, I know, I know. You're supposed to wait a while before you buy a new pet after one has died. But I have never been known for my patience. Besides, I wanted to make my girls feel better!

There are so many different breeds these days, it was hard to know where to begin. But I knew that the only way we could get a new dog was to follow my husband's criteria:

1. It had to be small.
2. It couldn't shed.
3. It would be a plus if I wasn't allergic to it like I am to a lot of animals.

I searched the Internet and there was the perfect breed for us! Schnoodles! A Schnoodle is a cross between a Schnauzer and a Poodle. Some of them are small. Check. They don't shed. Check. They are hypo-allergenic. Check!

My husband agreed that the girls and I could go and "look" at some puppies while he was gone. You can write the rest. Well, there is a twist. See, we have two daughters, so I kind of ended up getting two Schnoodles. Their names are Snickerdoodle (we call her Snickers for short) and Sadie. They are adorable, frisky and funny. They don't sneeze on cue, they don't chase the light from a flashlight, and they don't try to bite the water from sprinklers. But they do snuggle. And they love to swim. They can catch frisbees. And we can always hear the clicking sounds as they run to greet us. Their fur isn't as soft as Foxy's was, but it's still nice. And I can see the love when I look into their sweet brown eyes.

What did my husband say about this new development? Well, I kind of left a message on his phone. I didn't want to interrupt his golf game after all. Yes, he was surprised. Quite surprised, actually. But once he meet Snickers and Sadie, he fell in love with them too.

As for me, I would do it all over again. I love the little rascals. We have had them for four years, and I hope that they are with us for many, many more. But we will always, always love Foxy. She's the princess of them all.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Playwrighting Class

Tonight I finished an 8-week Playwrighting class. There were about ten of us, and we came from all walks of life. One lady had always wanted to write a one-woman show. Another woman owned her own catering business, and had been taking writing classes for several years. There was a man who worked all night at the post office, and an older man who had been in theatre his whole life. There were several actors who wanted to try their hand at the art of Playwrighting. And there were people who have had plays published and just needed a jump start. That would be me.

I'm not sure what motivates a person to want to write a play. I mean, why not a novel? Or a short story? What is it about creating a world that people may some day come and watch that is so thrilling? And news flash: there aren't big bucks for most Playwrights. I know, I know. I was shocked too.

It was fascinating to listen to the plays that each person was working on. Every week we would listen to about twenty pages of someone's script. There was a very intense man who was writing a play in which a man was being interrogated by a Priest. It was riveting and violent. He created a world that there was no escaping, and that any of us might find ourselves in if we made the wrong choice.

A women who is a professional opera singer wrote a play that was about the most disfunctional family I have ever heard of trying to have a nice, family Christmas. It was hysterical. And we could all relate.

Another play was about an old man dying in a nursing home for Vets. He was tortured by the visions he had seen during World War II. We all felt the pain and agony that he was experiencing, wanted to help him, but knew there was only one way for him to find peace.

My play was about a reunion of girlfriends. The premise is that they get together for a film that is being made about what happens over time to women who were once best friends. A lot of things go wrong: food is burnt, a busy-body neighbor keeps bothering them, secrets are revealed, but ultimately they all make discoveries about each other, themselves, and what is really important in life. I'm hoping it will be brilliant someday.

There was a quiet, handsome guy with a twinkle in his eye that wrote a murder mystery. His characters romped, gossiped, flirted, had affairs, and then BAM! Someone was killed. But by whom? Unfortunately we ran out of time to finish our plays, but we have all promised each other that we are going to get together in a few months and hear them.

In the meantime, I will continue to work on my play. A play that may never be seen, but that lives in my imagination, that is real to me, with characters whom I care about, laugh with, and enjoy. I can think of worse ways to spend one's time.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Facebook Fiasco

When I decided to join Facebook, my daughters didn't seem too delighted. As a matter of fact, they had been discouraging me from entering into this unknown-to-me-world, primarily because: "It's for young people, mom!" I resisted for some time. I told my daughters that if I did join Facebook, it was o.k. if they didn't want to be my “friend”. I wanted them to continue to feel perfectly free to share their innermost feelings with their “friends” without their mom looking on. I mean, seriously! However, when my girlfriend moved across the country and told me that Facebook was the best way for her to stay in touch, I took the plunge.

Unfortunately, both of my daughters were away at college, so I couldn't ask them to help me set it up. I was determined, however. I forged ahead. I put on my reading glasses. That helped right away. Amazingly, I actually figured it out by myself. I have yet to understand how one adds photos and all of the necessary accoutrements, but I decided that there is time for all of that later. After all, I was now a member! Part of the elite club. I watched and waited. The anticipation built. How many friends would I make, anyway? Ten? Twenty? Or ...dare I even dream? Fifty?!? Wait. Did I even have any friends besides my girlfriend who moved to Arizona? It's not as if I've been a great correspondent over the years.

And then it happened. I made a friend. And then another. And before I knew it, I made more. And more. Facebook is kind of like a fungus. It just grows and grows. I began to enter names from my past. A few of them emerged. Most of them allowed me into their Facebook world. The ones who didn’t probably knew I wasn’t ready. I made more friends in a week than I had made in the last ten years.

I should have been suspicious right then and there. I should have seen it coming. But I was too excited counting my new friends! Twenty five, twenty six… eighty! And then, there it was. A message from …my dad. OMG! He is eighty years old, and I love him to death. He still rides a bike almost everyday. And he doesn’t just ride around the block, kids. Oh no. He rides fifty to sixty miles each time he goes out. He puts most of us to shame. But being the amazing father that he is, he didn’t just open a Facebook account which I apparently invited him to do. He posted pictures. OF HIS KIDS!!!

Suddenly, there I am in front of all of my new friends in a bathing suit, wearing no make-up, my hair slicked back, scowling at my precious nephew as I was trying to teach him to dive into a pool last summer. Apparently I hadn’t had Botox in a while, either. I texted my daughters for advice. They told me that now I knew how they felt. Oh what a tangled web we weave! I knew the ball was in my court.

I emailed my dad. “Hi Dad! How are you? I see that you are on Facebook. Cool! Would you please remove the picture of me by the pool in my bathing suit with no make-up, my hair slicked back, scowling at John as I was trying to teach him to dive? Love, Jennifer.” He removed the picture.

I haven’t actually talked to him since then. Oh, we’ve emailed. But we didn’t mention “the photo.” So, I wonder. Is Facebook a good thing for me? For my dad? Or would we have been better off just leaving it to whom it was first intended: The cool young people that my daughters are, that I once was, that my father perhaps still thinks I am. I suppose time will tell. In the meantime, I now have ninety nine friends, and if you think I’m stopping now honey, you just don’t know me at all!


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