The Headless Horseman.
Perhaps when you read those words, the first thing that comes to mind is an animated picture of a lanky man with a big nose, face to neck-hole with the headless man — dark purple cape, burning pumpkin held aloft and a fierce black horse with fire in his eyes.
That was Disney's rendering of the Washington Irving short story, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," and a new musical adaptation of the classic tale opens this week at Weber State University, written by Jim Christian, the university's director of musical-theater studies.
"Ever since I was little and saw the animated film, I became fascinated with it, because it scared the daylights out of me and also delighted me," Christian said.
Christian's last foray into playwriting, "Pirated!" based on Gilbert and Sullivan's "Pirates of Penzance," met great success, received rave reviews and was performed at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., as part of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.
"The story's combination of thrills, chills, laughter is just a great combination," he said when asked why he chose "Sleepy Hollow." "That was the main reason. And we realized there aren't that many really great Halloween shows out there."
When Christian says "we," he's referring to his writing partner, composer Tom Edward Clark. "Tom and I met when I hired his wife as a performer and we found out he was a gifted accompanist and piano player," Christian said. "Over the years, we thought, 'It'd be really great to collaborate on something,' so this has been an event 10 years in the making."
During the day, Clark works as an executive for Zions Bank. "He's a bit of a vampire," Christian said. "He can work late into the night. There would be times he'd call me first thing and say, 'I've got five new songs.'
"He's amazing," Christian added. "His music is very hummable but not predictable."
The two men expanded Irving's story from five characters to 19. "We've taken the characters way beyond the simple story," adding the music and 18 songs. "It ranges from solos, duets, trios, sextets," Christian said, "and Tom writes really yummy harmonies."
"We began heavily working on this in January," Christian said. "In August, we did a retreat and went up to my condo in Park City for a few days and just holed up and hammered things out."
"One of the things about collaboration is learning each other's rhythms and finding a working pace that is functional for both of you," he added.
Through the summer, the two had their material in workshops. "We gathered friends together, called them 'Sleepies,' and we'd read and sing, and that was invaluable for us. This has been a genuinely collaborative process."
"And the cast is bringing so much to the table," Christian said of his students. "I've loved working with them and what they've brought creatively and artistically. They have broadened the relevance of the story."
The musical also has some special effects, and Christian has brought in alumni and professional magician Paul Draper to help. "He has an incredible resume," Christian said. "We also have a designer who came in just to make horse heads. And they are works of art."
Christian and his cast have three different adjudicators coming to see the show, hoping to take it to the regional competition, or further, in the Kennedy Center festival.
For Halloween chills, Christian recommends audience members be 10 or older. "It's the stuff nightmares are made of."
If you go …
What: "Sleepy Hollow"
Where: Val A. Browning Center, Weber State University, Ogden
When: Oct. 30-Nov. 7, times vary
How much: $7-$10
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