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Paula Vogel Revisits the Civil War

Christmas musical, set in 1864, is expansive and diverse


In the slide show above, Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Paula Vogel discusses A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration.

Playwright Paula Vogel never shies away from controversy. Her Pulitzer Prize–winning How I Learned to Drive is about a Southern teenager who is molested by her uncle, and The Baltimore Waltz is about AIDS.

But A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration is a departure. The current production of the Huntington Theatre Company is a sweeping historical epic, a holiday gift to the children in Vogel’s family.

“My nieces and nephews have asked me, ‘Aunt Paula, when do we get to see one of your plays?’” she says. “And I tell them, ‘When you’re 30, and you can talk to a therapist.’ It’s always been kind of a family joke.”

But they don’t have to wait to see A Civil War Christmas, which Vogel describes as “a healing tribute to family and community values.” Drawing inspiration from Charles Dickens and E. L. Doctorow, the play takes place on Christmas Eve 1864 and interweaves multiple storylines. The enormous cast includes President Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, and Clara Barton, as well as dozens of fictional and composite characters, such as a fugitive slave, a Union Army African-American blacksmith, and a rebel Jewish soldier.

“I’m as interested in the merchants, soldiers, and homemakers as I am in the president,” says Vogel. “At our holiday table, there are African-Americans, Native Americans, Jews, Unitarian Universalists, and agnostics. I wanted this play to reflect the diversity, not only of my own family, but of our country.”

An equally important component is the music. Growing up, Vogel took countless school trips to Civil War battlefields, and the marches, hymns, and spirituals of that era remain close to her heart: A Civil War Christmas is laden with period-appropriate holiday songs — “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “The Holly and the Ivy,” and “O Christmas Tree” — as well as lesser-known ballads.

Daryl Waters, known for his Tony- and Grammy-nominated Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk, supervised, arranged, and orchestrated the music, which is performed by a six-member youth choir.

Although the inspiration for A Civil War Christmas came to Vogel “in a blink” more than 10 years ago, she didn’t write it until after Hurricane Katrina. “It seemed that, as a nation, we were becoming more polarized and partisan,” she says. “I think we’re still fighting the Civil War, because when people say, ‘We want our country back,’ what does that mean? How far back do they want to take it? How many people do we want to dispossess, and who is the ‘our’? I want to look at the tapestry of the ‘our.’ It’s my hope that A Civil War Christmas does just that.”

A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration runs at the BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., through Sunday, December 13. Tickets range from $20 to $82.50 and may be purchased online, by phone at 617-266-0800, or in person at the BU Theatre box office or at the Boston Center for the Arts Calderwood Pavilion box office, 527 Tremont St., Boston. Patrons 35 and younger may purchase $25 tickets (ID required), and there is a $5 discount for seniors and military personnel. Student rush tickets are available for $15 at the box office two hours before each performance, and members of the BU community get $10 off (ID required). Members of the BU community are eligible for a special subscription rate. Call 617-266-0800 for more information.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.


5 Comments on Paula Vogel Revisits the Civil War

  • Gram on 11.19.2009 at 4:13 pm

    A Civil War Christmas

    I had goosebumps just reading this article. I can’t wait to go see it. Finally, something new that sounds like it will become a must see for years to come. Great job Vicky Waltz.

  • Kathy Maguire on 11.20.2009 at 1:35 pm

    A Civil War Christmas

    Wow. Wish I lived closer so I’d have the opportunity to see this play. Maybe someday…

  • Anonymous on 11.20.2009 at 3:52 pm

    false advertising

    So, I watched this video, read the story, then went to the play expecting it to be awesome. It wasn’t. What they should do, is tell people to watch your video and read your story, instead of going to the play… I give this piece 5 stars.

  • query on 11.29.2009 at 6:48 pm

    any details?

    to “false advertising”….can you be more specifc as to what is disappointing about the play? You seem to think it is lacking, but then give it “five stars”….in the “star ratings” I’ve seen, that is usually very high praise…are you talking “5 stars out of 10″…or more specificlaly, just what you thought was lacking.

  • clavier arabe on 03.17.2010 at 4:13 pm

    So, I watched this video, read the story, then went to the play expecting it to be awesome. It wasn’t. What they should do, is tell people to watch your video and read your story, instead of going to the play… I give this piece 5 stars.

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