On Christmas Day one year, David Nehls's father left his mother.
Right after Christmas another year, Kenn McLaughlin's 17-year-old brother was killed. The holiday became "tinged with this shadow of sadness," McLaughlin says.
So why in the world would these two men collaborate — for the second time, no less — in writing the book, music and lyrics for a Christmas musical?
"We both love Christmas very much," says McLaughlin, the artistic director of Stages Repertory Theatre. "For us it brought us through this darkness; there was always something hopeful and wonderful for us." And that's what, he says, they are trying to get across in A Midnight Clear: A Musical Story of Christmas, making its world premiere at Stages.
It’s 1964, on the eve of Vatican II and the three sisters of the Poor Sacred Heart are supposed to be getting ready to host a concert. Change is in the wind, and not only in the Roman Catholic Church: The local weather patterns are predicting a sizable snowstorm.
Two strangers arrive at the chapel independently of each other; they and the nuns wind up trapped together in rural Ohio. McLaughlin wrote the book for this musical and is directing, while Nehls has written the American folk music and lyrics.
In 2016, the pair teemed up with musical I’ll Be Home For Christmas, which opened at the Arvada Center in Denver. Stages board members wanted it here in Houston, but it was just too big a production for the Stages stage, McLaughlin says, even after he and Nehls tried paring it down. So, adds McLaughlin, they decided to write another one.
Christmas and the holiday season, as anyone knows, can be a mixed blessing, and this work doesn’t shy away from that, McLaughlin says. “We have this kind of almost legend that Christmas is this happy time. It’s not always. Not everyone celebrates.”
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Still, he says, the musical emphasizes the amazing joys and hopes that Christmas can bring to people.
"At the end of the day, this is about the true power of hope. Not in some grand supernatural way but people really dealing with each other as a community. "
There’s another cast member as well, but that’s a surprise you’ll have to come to the theater to find out about.
Performances are scheduled for November 8 through December 24 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at Stages Repertory Theatre. 3201 Allen Parkway. For information, call 713-527-0123 or visit stagestheatre.com. $25 to $63.