Maurice Sendak’s “Nutcracker” (& Some Recollections)

With the Pacific Northwest Ballet, Sendak reimagined this holiday classic (from the Los Angeles Times Book Review). Some memories of him are appended.

The Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffmann, translated by Ralph Manheim, pictures by Maurice Sendak. Crown Publishing, hardcover

“The Nutcracker Suite” is a holiday workhorse, the bread and butter of dance companies across the nation. Several years ago, I took my daughter (then at the age when many a girl has a tutu in her closet) to see a performance of the Tchaikovsky ballet in a large Eastern city. She was delighted by the spectacle and by the lemonade served at intermission. I was bored to irritation: The adult professionals moved with a wooden perfunctoriness that announced, “I’m embarrassed to be dancing this cliché, but it pays the bills.”

It is easy to imagine, then, why Maurice Sendak first declined the invitation of Kent Stowell to design sets and costumes for the Pacific Northwest Ballet Company’s production of “The Nutcracker.” To be sure, Sendak had already made the transition from children’s books (as the author of such celebrated works as “Where the Wild things Are”) to opera (creating designs in Brussels, New York and, notably, in Houston where his “The Magic Flute” received considerable attention). Still, “Who needed another ‘Nutcracker’?” Sendak honestly asked. But Stowell explained his desire to do something new, to go beyond the Sugar Plum additions of recent years to resuscitate the original “Nutcracker” tale of E.T.A. Hoffman. Intrigued, Sendak consented.

The result was Pacific Northwest Ballet’s much praised 1983 Christmas production of the “The Nutcracker” in Seattle. I picked up Newsweek, and there was an admiring report of the performance, praising especially the extravagant sets and costumes. I took a trip, and the airline’s magazine gave me every reason to continue on to Seattle with its account of the marvels of the production, including a 150-foot-long panorama that revolved in the background. And since I had grown up in Seattle, I was barraged with clippings from local newspapers by friends whose “thought you might be interested in this” scarcely concealed their civic pride.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “The Nutcracker,” sets by Maurice Sendak. Photo credit: Angela Sterling, New York Times.

This book is the result of that production. Here is Hoffmann’s original tale in a finally readable translation by Ralph Manheim. Here are Sendak’s sets laid down on pages (with new pictures as well), intercalated with the story, opening or closing a scene, providing a backdrop or under-scoring a theme.

To those who know the ballet and read the tale, it will seem as if the outline of the story has finally been fleshed out in ample and interesting detail. Much will now seem understandable: the dilemmas and uncertainties of Clara (called Marie in the book) as the toy theater comes to life under that supervising genie, her mysterious godfather Drosselmeyer, the reason the princely Nutcracker must lead the dolls and soldiers against the mice army; how the passage through the land of sweets (brought to a conclusion by a ticking clock and the transformation of the Nutcracker into an attractive boy) marks a girl’s entrance into adolescence.

Certainly, this is a book for children. It reminds us how ancient is the childhood desire for miniature re-enactments. While some authors have shared this desire, they have also felt a kind of grown-up shame and raised boundaries between children and their tiny actors (Johnny Gruelle’s dolls in “Raggedy Ann,” for example, or Beatrix Potter’s creatures in “The Tale of Two Bad Mice” only sport when humans aren’t about). But the truth is that children have an unashamed desire to be inside their re-enactments — something any parent know today, as a son plays with “action figures” from Star Wars” while carrying his own sword and shield, or when a daughter fancies herself a Cabbage Patch kid. Hoffmann’s genius was to understand this; his child enters into the toy theater.

There is, then, plenty in this book to satisfy the inquiring adult. Any who have invented bedtime stories will be fascinated by an improvisational writer such as Hoffmann as he extemporizes, paints himself into a corner, then extricates himself with enviable ingenuity and humor. And by the end of this deep and sophisticated story, some readers may feel as I do: that it may be worthwhile to search out more fairy tales by this now largely forgotten writer of 19th-Century Germany.

Other readers will need no encouragement to purchase a book illustrated by Maurice Sendak, already recognized as one of the leading artists our time. One-third of Sendak’s sales, I’m told, are to childless people in their 20s and 30s — a fact now recognized by publisher who place his books on both children and adult lists.

In this volume, the coordination between picture and text does not achieve that kind of incredible syncopation found in Sendak’s children’s books; a volume created from settings of a ballet has to be a form of a different color. Still Sendak enthusiasts will find here many visual echoes of his other works — among them a monster from “Where the Wild Things Are,” the owl from “Fly by Night,” the baby’s hat from “Outside Over There” — appearing when “Nutcracker” shares themes with them.

“Nutcracker” is a book, to curl up with on an evening when you want to luxuriate; it is a beautifully produced object with the heft of fine quality paper and typography, with an abundance of detailed pictures that invite musing. “Nutcracker” certainly is a Christmas book; even as I write this review (in warm Autumn, before the stores have begun their premature holiday decorating), the night air seems aromatic with the smells of hot chocolate and fir trees.

This essay was originally published in the Los Angeles Times Book Review (November 11, 1984) along with the following contributor note:

Let me add that I always miss Maurice Sendak at Christmas time. We were friends. When he died in 2012, I would have said I was among his 200 closest acquaintances but when the remembrances began to pour in, I realized I was more like one of 20,000. Still, to his credit, that’s how he made you feel.

I met him several times while I was a graduate student studying at the University of Connecticut under the Children’s Literature scholar Francelia Butler. Young and unthinking, I didn’t know the riches I was then being offered.

We met several times afterwards, and he helped me with the dissertation I was then writing on Randall Jarrell’s children’s books; he had illustrated three of them. Our condensed conversation about his work on those books appears in my study The Children’s Books of Randall Jarrell (University of Georgia Press, 1988). My interview with him appears in Conversations with Maurice Sendak, edited by Peter C. Kunze (University of Mississippi, 2016).

We met other times in San Diego. One time he was out for a week with his pal, the illustrator James Marshall. Another time, in 1982, the San Diego Museum of Art staged an exhibit of his art and had him speak at public event with Ted Geissel (Dr. Seuss).

At a reception for this last event, Sendak told me he was then working on his “Nutcracker” with the Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB); and I mentioned in passing that, when I was young I had sung for the Seattle Opera Company, in a production of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” — another Christmas classic. Keen to the uncanny, Sendak was taken aback, “That sends chills up my spine.”

The PNB staged Sendak’s “Nutcracker” for thirty years, before retiring the sets and costumes he created in 2014. Mark Zappone, a family friend and the head of costume design at PNB, shared with me how much Sendak was missed: It had been PNB’s custom to call him every year on opening night. Now that was no longer possible.

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11. December 2015 by
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