The Nutcracker Relocates to Harlem

"The Nutcracker in Harlem" by T.E. McMorrow.
“The Nutcracker in Harlem” by T.E. McMorrow.

By Stephen J. Kotz

“The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” the children’s story written by E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1816 and transformed by Tchaikovsky’s ballet into a Christmas classic, gets a decidedly American reworking in “The Nutcracker in Harlem” (Harper Collins), by T.E. McMorrow with illustrations by James Ransome.

East Enders may recognize McMorrow’s name from his coverage of the police and courts for The East Hampton Star; but years ago, he worked as a stagehand for the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Later, when his wife, Carole Davis, was working with an African-American choreographer, she suggested he rewrite her favorite Christmas story for the stage.

That project eventually morphed into a contemporary retelling of “The Nutcracker” set in Harlem, which was sold to Harper Collins but never published. McMorrow said he drew his inspiration from the dance troupe he worked for, which was based in the Sugar Hill neighborhood.

“When I wrote it, I set it in a certain place,” said McMorrow. “I didn’t necessarily see it as all black or African-American. It’s just where I set it.”

In 2014, seemingly out of the blue, “I got a call from my agent. There was a new editor at Harper Collins’s children’s division who was working with an African-American illustrator who had always wanted to do a ‘Nutcracker,’” McMorrow said, “and mine worked.”

McMorrow was teamed with Ransome and the pair decided to rework the story, setting it during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s when black jazz musicians, artists, and writers were thriving. McMorrow revisited Hoffmann’s original story for his inspiration, so his heroine is named Marie, not Clara, as in the ballet, although he said with a target audience of 4-to-8-year-olds, he steered clear of the darkness in Hoffmann’s tale.

Like the original, the story unfolds on Christmas Eve when Marie’s family is holding its annual Christmas party. Uncle Cab, named after the great American singer and band leader Cab Calloway, plays the piano, and Miss Addie, fashioned after Adelaide Hall, who sang with Duke Ellington’s orchestra, tries to entice Marie to join in. Marie, though, is painfully shy, and remains silent.

Like Godfather Drosselmeyer in the ballet, Uncle Cab presents Marie with a nutcracker for Christmas. She falls asleep next to the tree with her gift only to be awoken by a party in which dolls and toy soldiers dance around the Christmas tree to the beat of the nutcracker’s drum.

The party is interrupted when the Mouse General and his army invade. The nutcracker leads the toy soldiers in battle and they are winning the day until he is knocked over by the general and loses his drum. Without his cadence to lead them. The toy soldiers stop marching.

In the key moment in the story, Marie picks up the drum and begins to play, leading the toy soldiers in a rout of the mouse army. Marie and the nutcracker then dance and she begins to sing, only to awaken in her own bed, much like Dorothy at the end of “The Wizard of Oz.”

McMorrow noted that the screenwriters of the famous film borrowed the ending from Hofmann’s story.

“The part I’m really happiest with is when you get to the end, she is the one who helps defeat the mouse army,” said McMorrow. “That’s important to me.”

Ransome’s colorful watercolor illustrations help bring the book to life. “When you are working in picture books, you are collaborating with the artist,” said McMorrow. “You shouldn’t need a lot of words because it will be in the art.”

“The Nutcracker in Harlem” is available in hardcover at both Harbor Books in Sag Harbor and BookHampotn in East Hampton. It costs $17.95.

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