Fittingly, considering the songs of alternative icon Sufjan Stevens have been a massive inspiration, Marcus Youssef originally wasn’t sure what to make of the new play It’s a Wonderful Christmas-ish Holiday Miracle.
“The reason why Sufjan’s music has been so central to the writing of this play is that his music encapsulates all of the difficulties and drama of Christmas, but also the hilarity and the absurdity,” the decorated Vancouver playwright says, reached on his cell between rehearsals. “The question was ‘Is this a drama or is this a comedy?’ It’s a comedy, actually—a serious comedy, but a comedy.”
In some ways, the seed of It’s a Wonderful Christmas-ish Holiday Miracle was planted a half-decade ago, when Youssef’s partner, Amanda Fritzlan, came home from a night of rehearsing with her community choir, the Kingsgate Chorus.
“She was like, ‘We’re playing this amazing song,’ ” he recalls. “And then she played it for me—it was called ‘Christmas Unicorn’ by Sufjan Stevens, who I had never heard of in my life, I’m embarrassed to say. I went, ‘Holy fuck, that is such a great song.’ It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s ironic, it’s sincere, and it captures my experience of the holidays in a way that no other seasonal ritual or tradition or song ever has.”
Youssef has a complicated relationship with Christmas, which is something many of us can relate to. The official party line is that the holiday season is the most wonderful time of the year, and it can be if you’ve got an endless appetite for candy canes, Bing Crosby, and nightly screenings of Home Alone and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Youssef confesses that he loves the traditions of the holidays, which became even more magical once he and his partner had children. But he notes that the season can also be a source of tension, especially in families for whom Christmas hasn’t exactly been a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. Get folks with complex family issues in close quarters, and it doesn’t take much for old wounds to reopen.
Bringing back characters that Youssef introduced in his 2014 play Chloe’s Choice, It’s a Wonderful Christmas-ish Holiday Miracle has an elderly family matriarch, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, returning from heaven to deal with unfinished family business. She finds herself navigating dynamics where a divorce, an estranged family member, rebellious teens, and other life-disrupting forces are at play.
“I started to explore the idea of this family going through what I went through as a kid, as my partner did too, which is divorce and the first holidays after the divorce,” Youssef says. “And what happens when all the rituals and traditions change by necessity. The storytelling structure gives the chance to look at what happens between generations and how the stuff that’s going on in families really does emerge during the holidays, because that’s when we’re really together in a concentrated form.”
Heavy as that sounds, It’s a Wonderful Christmas-ish Holiday Miracle is also deeply inspired by the lighter side of the holidays.
“I thought about the many traditions that often have to do with things like watching It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story,” Youssef says. “All those stories that we consume during the holidays in a ritualized way.”
Those moments can provide invaluable touchstones when things get complicated later in life.
“I was raised as an only child and my parents were unhappy,” the playwright remembers. “Christmas was, certainly for me and I think for many of us, a time when the burden of expectations of how we’re going to behave and how things are going to go is pretty high. But I also remember my dad reading ‘ ’Twas the Night Before Christmas’, and me curling up into his lap. He wasn’t a super affectionate guy. But there I was, much later than I would have ever curled up into him for any other reason, because that was our tradition.”
Helping him balance the two sides of things were Stevens’s eclectically beautiful holiday collections Silver & Gold and Songs for Christmas. Essential listening for anyone who wants to make the most of the season, the compilations serve up everything from poignant classics (“Silent Night”, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) to rollicking celebrations (“Lumberjack Christmas”) to thoughtful meditations (“Christmas Unicorn”).
“What’s kind of anchored me the whole way through has been the tone established by Sufjan’s music, which is both complex and deep and sad, but also joyful and funny and absurd,” Youssef says. “That was the note that I wanted to hit.”
The best sign that he succeeded? That It’s a Wonderful Christmas-ish Holiday Miracle, which contains six of Stevens’s songs, has been blessed by no less than the singer’s team.
“At some point I was like, ‘I think these songs are going to be in the show,’ ” Youssef says. “So my agent got on the phone with Sufjan’s people, who asked to see a script. And then they got onboard, saying, ‘Great, we’re really into you guys doing this.’ That was a pretty amazing honour.”
It’s a Wonderful Christmas-ish Holiday Miracle plays the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre from November 21 to December 22.