With their upcoming production of CAROL OF THE BIRDS, Bay City Players has decided to go completely original this holiday season with this debut of a new musical play with a script written by veteran Players’ alumni Leeds Bird and music composed by internationally respected pianist Kevin Cole. Despite the coincidental title, the narrative in this musical is not autobiographical but rather an original adaptation from a novella written by Kate Douglas Wiggin that was published in order to help fund the Silver Street Free Kindergarten, which she founded in 1878.
“This play has been on the back burner of projects for Kevin and me for a long time,” explains Leeds. “Working on Players’ Play-reading Committee and becoming aware of the shortage of Christmas plays that project the spirit of Christmas in simple and direct terms, we decided to develop a musical play that could be performed by community theatres, churches, and civic organizations without great expense and complicated staging: thus, A Carol of the Birds.”
According to Leeds, the original novella by Wiggin (who is best known for writing Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm) appealed strongly to both him and Cole, who have been working on projects together since Kevin was 14-years old. “Kevin and I loved the Victorian sentiment of the story, but wanted to move it away in title and time from the ever-popular Dickens classic “Carol,” while painting a solidly American picture of more recent times. Inspired by the Wiggin book, Kevin and I have created our own look at love of family, of friends and neighbors. We have created our own look at the effect one loving child can have on the lives of those who are lucky enough to be touched by this particular Christmas Carol.”
“The Great Depression of the United States began in 1929 and drew to an end about 1939,” continues Leeds. “During this time, families struggled for food, clothing, and meager comforts. Husbands left home to work hundreds of miles away at a “real” job that provided money to be sent home to support the family. Children wore whatever clothes they had and didn’t know the luxury of toys and treats. For these children, the pleasure of each other’s company was the ultimate gift. Beyond the love of their families, many never knew what tomorrow would hold. Yet, some families managed to survive the Depression with fewer hardships and more comforts. And these families could be found living next to each other; or as in our play, across the alley from each other.”
“The story of the Bird and Ruggles Family is really a tale of two families,” emphasizes Leeds. “Essentially, a well-to-do family lives across the street from a relatively poor family. While Mr. Ruggles is working on Boulder Dam and is miles away from his family, the Bird Family has a child born on Christmas Day, which is not an easy birth, but difficult for both mother and child. The baby is uncommonly quiet and struggling and some Christmas carolers in the neighborhood get in the way of Mr. Bird’s distress and he asks, ‘Why are they singing?’ Out of nowhere the carolers burst into Joy to the World outside their bedroom window, which scares the baby.”
“But because she cries hard she starts to breathe better, which relieves things for the family greatly. At that point the grandmother says, ‘She was born on Christmas day so we have our own Christmas carol right here; and Carol will be her name, which sets the stage for everything else that transpires throughout the play. The core idea we are seeking to convey is reflected in the notion of how the good you do in the world lives after you,” concludes Leeds.”
According to Kevin Cole, his involvement with A Carol of the Birds began when he and Leeds once talked about doing what George & Ira Gershwin did: “Ira would sit in a chair with a pad and George would be at the keyboard,” notes Kevin. “But then after getting diagnosed with a brain tumor and undergoing subsequent surgery, that put a little crimp into things, so I told Leeds to start working on lyrics while I was recuperating. Knowing we’d be pressured for time, Leeds wrote the lyrics before the music and I would fit the music to the lyrics, which is the way Oscar & Hammerstein did it all the time; and I must say, Leeds was on a roll when it came to writing lyrics. In one week alone he wrote three songs, so I didn’t want to interrupt that because he was giving me terrific stuff to work with.”
Additionally, one particular challenge Kevin has been dealing with since his brain surgery is hearing loss. “I don’t hear music the way that I used to,” he notes. “I still feel it, but when your whole life has been based upon what you hear and produce and suddenly you don’t hear it the same way, it shakes you up. Working on this music inspired me to forget about that and accept that it’s now a part of me and I’m adjusting. I realize now everything is going to be fine, but to be able to dive into this with somebody I know so well has brought so much joy for me.”
Kevin and Leeds have written five entirely new and original production numbers, which they also weave traditional carols around throughout the musical. “Each song has its own tempo and seriousness; plus we had a chance to write a new Christmas carol called Our Christmas Carol, which I think we can get published for choirs to perform outside of the show,” adds Kevin. “It’s funny, because nowadays all the Broadway writers are using computers to compose their scores, but I’m not a computer guy so I’ve been writing all the music by hand with pencil and manuscript paper, which I’ve been giving to the cast to work through.”
“It’s exciting to have another premier with Leeds here, plus it’s Christmas and I’m in town so everything makes sense,” concludes Kevin. “We’ve known each other for almost 45 years now, but this is the first time we’ve written an original show with our own original songs and lyrics, so even though we’ve collaborated before, this is our first really original collaboration.”
Featuring 16 actors and 14 carolers, A Carol of the Birds is definitely an ensemble production, with a cast that consists of Kathryn Pawloski, Eric A. Stone, Michele Green, Cameron Pichan, Tina Beauvais, Aidan Montgomery, Cameron Plarske, Brady Warsaw, Jessica Goik, Tyra Kahn, Betsy Miller, Kyler Rytlewski, Grace Madziar, Gabe Thompson, Alexandria Bressette and Cooper L Jacobs. Carolers are Smith Ed Borus, Stephanie Borus, Madeline Brown, Susan Fisher, Kelly Jacobs, Larry Jacobs, Paul Jacobs, Kate Mason, Zach Mason, Stephen Moelter, Emma Pichan, Rebecca, Kurt Miller and Tezra Tromba. Choreographer is Kaitlin Brunette.
When asked what he hopes audiences will carry away with them from this special holiday world premiere, Leeds offers a reflective summary: “I feel A Carol of the Birds is simple, charming, and touching. Carol is born on Christmas day, dies before her time, and leaves behind a legacy of love and generosity. One of the songs we do is titled Ruffle Your Feathers, which is a humorous number that has the refrain, ‘No one can ruffle up a feather when you’re part of a flock and stick together’. And ultimately, you never really lose the people you loved.”
‘A Carol of the Birds’ by Leeds Bird & Kevin Cole runs from November 29 - December 2; and December 6-9 at Bay City Players. Curtain time is 7:30 pm, except for Sundays at 3:00 pm. Tickets are $20 adults and $10 for students and available by phoning 989.893.5555 or visiting baycityplayers.com
16th November, 2023