Jim Christian, director of musical theater studies at Weber State University, was surprised to discover the author of one of his favorite children’s books grew up in Ogden.
Christian has become a popular local playwright, penning hits such as “Pirated Penzance,” a hilarious adaptation of “The Pirates of Penzance,” chosen to debut at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival; and, “Sleepy Hollow,” a new version of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” that won the National Musical Theatre Playwriting Award, with music written by Tom Clark, of Kaysville.
About a year ago, Clark and Christian decided to begin a new project. Christian’s mind immediately turned to a beloved story from his youth, “The Plain Princess” — a fairy tale emphasizing the importance of inner beauty.
The story was part of a collection he owned, but, even when he was young, the tale always stood out to him. “At various times in my life, I have thought this would make a good play,” he said.
He began working to obtain the rights and was shocked to uncover an unexpected connection to the author, Phyllis McGinley. He learned that she graduated from Ogden High School, just down the street from where Christian works at Weber State University.
The author is also a graduate of the University of Utah, Christian and Clark’s alma mater. “We are three alumni from three very different eras, the ’20s, ’70s and ’90s, working together,” Christian joked.
Phyllis McGinley (1905-1978) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 for her children’s books and poetry. She was featured on the cover of Time Magazine in 1965. She often wrote light poetry, a form of humorous verse, for The New Yorker.
Christian had no idea about the Utah connection or that McGinley had enjoyed such an illustrious career when he decided to make a play out of her book.
Christian was intrigued by his research, but soon hit a brick wall when it came to obtaining the rights to produce the play. The book is out of print, and every lead he got turned out to be a dead end.
Until he had a chance meeting with a department donor who asked him what he was working on.
When Christian explained his plans and the dilemma he was facing, the donor revealed that he works as a legal librarian for the Library of Congress. In two days, he was able to get the information Christian had spent months trying to track down.
Soon after, Christian was able to make contact with McGinley’s surviving daughter, Patsy Hayden Blake, who lives in California. “She was delighted to help and happy that her mother’s sweet story is still touching people,” Christian said.
Once the rights were obtained, Christian and Clark got to work creating a comedy-filled musical for audiences of all ages. The show premieres at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 4 at WSU’s Browning Center. Elementary schools are encouraged to buy tickets for students to attend the special 10:30 a.m. engagement on Oct. 9. The 7:30 p.m. performance on Oct. 5 includes an American Sign Language interpreter.
The curse of plainness
The story is a lighthearted fairy tale with a princess, a king, a queen, a prince and a type of magic of which anyone is capable.
Esmeralda is a princess and only child who is given everything she desires, from toys to clothes to fancy foods and even her very own pony. Her life is a dream, except for one thing — her plainness.
Everyone in the kingdom notices it, including her mother and father. But, no one can really explain it. Her hair is golden and silky, her complexion is clear with roses in her cheeks, and her posture and teeth are perfectly straight. Yet, everyone notices a plain quality about her.
The king and queen seek the advice of physicians and magicians, but no one can cure her until they send out a decree that anyone in the kingdom who can solve the puzzle will be rewarded with gold. But, the price for failure is to lose one’s head.
Dame Goodwit, a widow, volunteers for the task. She is not wealthy, but she has five daughters who are splendidly beautiful to prove that she is qualified to work with Esmeralda.
Dame Goodwit’s ‘cure’
Princess Esmeralda is played by Lindsay Blackman, a senior majoring in musical theater. “I am so excited to originate a role,” she said, adding that she loves the music and the story of this show.
Her character is stuck-up and spoiled in the beginning. “She has lost sight of what is important, and her parents don’t know what to do with her anymore,” Blackman said.
Dame Goodwit is played by Shawnee Johnson, a junior majoring in musical theater. She compares her character to Nanny McPhee, Mary Poppins or Cinderella’s fairy godmother.
“Her five daughters are all lovely, charming and help out around the house. She is stern, but doesn’t get mad. She knows exactly how to get the results she needs,” Johnson said.
Esmeralda experiences a difficult transition to life with Dame Goodwit and her daughters, after being used to the staff at home waiting on her hand and foot.
But, slowly, she transforms as she learns to work hard and to be kind and generous. When her inner beauty begins to blossom, her outer beauty shines in a way that the entire kingdom notices.
The moral to the story is that when a person becomes beautiful on the inside, they become beautiful to the people around them on the outside, Christian said.
Creating the music
Clark had not heard the story before Christian approached him about creating the musical, but quickly became a fan.
“It appealed to me right off the bat,” he said. He used simple tunes that are easy to reproduce. “My hope is that as you leave the theater, you will be humming one of the tunes,” he said.
“It is everything you could want from a musical, and kids will like it because it has children’s book qualities,” Blackman said.
“It is so family-friendly. I am excited that my entire family can come; and it is great to have a new fairy tale,” said Johnson.
Christian and Clark, who each have a daughter of their own, hope the tale will entertain and affect audiences positively.
- WHAT: ‘The Plain Princess’
- WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 4-5, 8-12; 2 p.m. Oct. 5 and 12; 10:30 a.m. Oct. 9. The 7:30 p.m. performance on Oct. 5 includes an American Sign Language interpreter.
- WHERE: Weber State University Browning Center’s Allred Theatre, 3848 Harrison Blvd., Ogden
- TICKETS: $12, $9/students, $5/matinee. Order at weberstatetickets.com or by calling 801-626-8500.