- James Conlee
For more than a decade, Christmas carols were a huge part of the story of James Conlee's career. Now, after a decade of development, he's turning many of those Christmas carols into a jukebox musical.
Star of Wonder, a world-premiere created by Conlee, weaves several Christmas songs into a narrative, pivoting around a real-life historical event. Jack Lewis, a fictionalized veteran of World War I, has returned home to his family, which has a tradition of putting on a Christmas festival. But Jack resists fully committing to participate as a result of his wartime experience—specifically, because he wasn't part of the "Christmas truce" of 1914, when troops on both sides of the Western Front took a break from fighting to sing carols and honor the day together.
Conlee's own relationship with Christmas—at least professionally—has been considerably more positive. A veteran actor who has worked in local theater and television productions and in a Broadway tour of Miss Saigon, Conlee became a regular participant in Kurt Bestor's popular annual holiday concerts in the late 1990s. "[Bestor] gave me this really great song to sing that ended with this giant crescendo," Conlee recalls of the 1999 show. "The owners of R.C. Willey were in the audience, and asked me to record it as an exclusive for them."
The overwhelming success of the subsequent CD led the company to invite him to produce a holiday album the following year, called Wasatch Christmas. Featuring other local music stalwarts like Peter Breinholt and Ryan Shupe, Wasatch Christmas became a Utah tradition, continuing for 12 years. "After about 10 years of Christmas CDs with these artists, I'd recorded 100 different Christmas carols," Conlee says. "With my theatrical background, I started to see how some carols could be dramatized. They were character-driven."
As he considered developing a show around this idea, Conlee approached a long-time friend, Broadway producer Jeff Whiting. "I was telling him about this idea, that I think was something that could really work in Utah," Conlee says. "Jeff said, 'Don't just think about Utah; every theater wants a Christmas show, and there's rarely any new ones. If we could really figure this out, it could be something that a lot of theaters around the country could want to put in their repertoire.' He really encouraged me to take it quite seriously."
The tricky part, then, became finding a through-line that could connect these various Christmas songs. Initially, Conlee considered a story centered around one of his other passions: author C.S. Lewis. The creator of a popular Twitter feed called C.S. Lewis Daily, Conlee thought about the friendship between Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and their fondness for various competitive pub games. "We had the inkling of an idea of how we could string these stories together, based on Lewis' own spiritual journey converting to Christianity—using Christmas music to convert this character," Conlee says. "But eventually we realized it was too much of a turn in the midst of a 90-minute musical. But the story that stuck with us, and Whiting helped shepherd this idea, is if there is a character having some reluctance about Christmas, and these carols could help move him along."
That was where the notion of using the "Christmas truce" as the centerpiece came about. "The real hook for that character wasn't there until I stumbled on this idea of, what if this solider was there for the truce, but didn't cross the field that night," Conlee says. "In reading all these accounts about that truce, there were many soldiers who didn't, and later regretted it. So maybe Christmas is hard for him, reminding him of this missed opportunity."
It further occurred to Conlee that this idea could be part of a broader theme recognizing that the Christmas spirit doesn't come to everyone easily, for a variety of reasons. "It's not always a happy season for some people," he says, "and I wanted to give them allowance for having Christmas not be non-stop cheeriness. [In the play], they assume Jack's going to be cool with being part of this renewed festival."
Once that story was in place, the past 10 years have been spent refining it—picking just the right songs, going through the BYU playwright program six years ago, and a workshop at Utah Valley University two years ago. Now, Star of Wonder is finally getting a full premiere production, with a score that includes some original music in addition to beloved carols like "Good King Wenceslas" and "What Child Is This." Conlee describes this production as "almost a loss leader" to have a proof-of-concept video to show to other potential companies to stage the show in the future. "We feel we now have a version that really works, that's worth putting on in front of the world," Conlee says. "We feel like we have a shot at creating a new Utah Christmas tradition."