A. Alyce Claerbaut Talks ‘Sugar Hill: The Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker’

Get ready for a musical journey like never before as Tony Award winning producers David Garfinkle and Ron Simons unveil the World Premiere of “SUGAR HILL: The Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker.” 

This extraordinary production, a jazz-steeped reimagining of The Nutcracker, pays homage to the genre-defying collaboration of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. The enchanting melodies of Ellington and Strayhorn set the stage for a mesmerizing performance, and it’s all happening at Chicago’s historic Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells, from Dec. 20 through Dec. 30.

Step into the world of “SUGAR HILL,” where the timeless music of Ellington and Strayhorn forms the backdrop of a magical experience. With a captivating libretto and concept crafted by Jessica Swan, this production promises an unforgettable blend of storytelling and musical brilliance.

Sugar Hill The EllingtonStrayhorn Nutcracker Poster

Eager to be part of this musical extravaganza? Secure your tickets for the Chicago engagement now! Prices range from $44 to $165, and tickets are available for purchase at auditoriumtheatre.org.  

And now, join us for an exclusive interview with A. Alyce Claerbaut, executive producer and niece of Billy Strayhorn, as we delve deeper into the making of this groundbreaking production.

Christa Carter-Williams: What inspired the creation of Sugar Hill, the Ellington Strayhorn Nutcracker? And how did the collaboration between Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn influence the reimagining of the Nutcracker?

A. Alyce Claerbaut: Well, that’s an intriguing question. The influence on us led to the establishment of our own corporation. In 2000, we were granted publishing rights to Billy Strayhorn’s catalog through the Sonny Bono Amendment. This provision allowed us to terminate agreements with previous publishers, including Tempo Music, which was Duke Ellington’s company. Despite many of these publishers no longer being active, we couldn’t acquire Ellington’s catalog directly, making us the copyright owner.

As we delved into the musical rights, we brought in entertainment executives and publishers to guide us and brainstorm ideas. Once we secured the music rights, the question arose: what do we do next? We engaged various members of the entertainment community to explore publishing strategies. This collaborative effort paved the way for our dreams.

Deciding to focus on preserving Billy Strayhorn’s catalog, we embarked on a journey to capture, manage, preserve and perpetuate it. The stage production we’re discussing now is essentially the fourth step in this process—how to perpetuate the catalog. 

My encounter with David Garfinkle and Jessica Swan, who wrote a compelling libretto based on Harlem, Sugar Hill, and the Ellington-Strayhorn catalog, played a pivotal role. We met at a dance show by choreographer David Roussève, featuring ‘The Story of Billy Strayhorn in Dance’ at the Brooklyn Academy of Music around 2015, coinciding with Billy’s centennial.

Inspired by the original Nutcracker Suite and Billy Strayhorn’s story, Jessica envisioned expanding the concept into a story, which led to a dialogue between us. The libretto incorporates the historic 1960 recording of the Nutcracker Suite, captured by the legendary Gordon Parks for the album cover.

The core of the story revolves around the magic of jazz and finding one’s youth. – A. Alyce Claerbaut

Since 1960, orchestras have embraced the idea of presenting both the classical and jazz versions side by side. The popularity grew, with symphony orchestras, including the Chicago Symphony, adopting this musical program annually. Jessica Swan saw the potential to turn this into a narrative and crafted an exceptional libretto exploring the theme of ‘Go find what makes you different to find your magic.’

The story unfolds against the backdrop of Sugar Hill in Harlem, showcasing diversity with representation from every major ethnic group. This reimagining breathes new life into a classic piece by Tchaikovsky, thanks to Jessica Swan’s imaginative vision and the collaboration that evolved from our shared passion and ideas.”

Christa Carter-Williams: Beautiful. Well, speaking of Harlem, can you elaborate on the significance of studying Sugar Hill in the 1930s, specifically in the Sugar Hill neighborhood of Harlem?

A. Alyce Claerbaut: Sugar Hill, the epicenter of the Harlem Renaissance, held great importance. It was the community designated for the cultural renaissance, where figures like Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn lived. The song “Take the ‘A’ Train” symbolizes this connection. The libretto of Sugar Hill, written by Jessica Swan, delves into the essence of Harlem, celebrating diversity, individuality and the exploration of one’s identity.

Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington

Christa Carter-Williams: You and other producers mentioned that the show sends a message that champions individuality. How is this theme portrayed in the story, and what impact will it have?

A. Alyce Claerbaut: The core of the story revolves around the magic of jazz and finding one’s youth. Lena’s character embarks on a magical journey, symbolizing the exploration of individuality. The libretto emphasizes finding one’s bliss and the importance of imagination. The production, with its diverse cast and creative team, aims to inspire audiences by showcasing the beauty of individualism.

Christa Carter-Williams: With the entire creative team, including choreographers, directors and the cast, what challenges and opportunities did you face in bringing this unique production to life?

A. Alyce Claerbaut: The three-year journey, starting just before the pandemic, posed significant challenges. The shutdown impacted planning, but the team persevered through Zoom meetings and strategic planning. Despite the hurdles, the team, with expertise from various backgrounds, worked cohesively to bring Sugar Hill to fruition. The excitement is palpable, and the production is set to premiere in Chicago.

You know, Chicago has an extensive jazz history and a remarkable reputation in the music scene. It’s immense, and I mean, really huge. Being a longtime resident and actively involved in the Chicago community, I’ve witnessed the city’s evolution. Chicago is now gearing up for increased tourism and stands as a major player in stage production. It’s a fantastic theatrical hub, and showcasing Sugar Hill here is not about bias; it just feels like the perfect place for a premiere.

Now, when we look at the dynamics, New York has Broadway, undoubtedly the epicenter of U.S. theater. But interestingly, many productions, including some of the most notable ones, originate outside New York. 

Chicago, with its regional theaters like the Goodman, has been a key player in birthing plays that later made their mark on Broadway.

Take the August Wilson plays, for instance—they all began in Chicago before hitting Broadway. The city’s theaters, big and small, contribute significantly to the theatrical landscape. The Auditorium Theater, for instance, stands as one of the most exceptional venues in the country, with top-notch features for presenting major shows. It’s truly something to be proud of, and having Sugar Hill premiere in Chicago is an exciting prospect.

Christa Carter-Williams: The creative team transformed the Nutcracker into a jazz tale, honoring the European classic while infusing it with the essence of American ideals. How does the production balance these elements?

A. Alyce Claerbaut: Ellington and Strayhorn’s arrangement of the Nutcracker showcased the kinship between European and American music. The symbiosis of classical and jazz influences expanded audiences’ understanding of both genres. The production pays homage to the European classic while infusing it with jazz, reflecting the evolution of music and its global impact.

Christa Carter-Williams: How does the production aim to visually represent the freedom of individualism through the performance?

A. Alyce Claerbaut: While I haven’t seen the final performance, early feedback emphasizes the visually stunning aspects of the production. From costume sketches to choreography, the team aims to provide a visually immersive experience that represents the freedom of individualism. The show promises to be a feast for the eyes, celebrating diversity and the unique stories of the characters.

Christa Carter-Williams: That sounds amazing. It must be exciting to witness the transformation from sketches to a vibrant performance. Thank you for sharing these insights into the creation of Sugar Hill, the Ellington Strayhorn Nutcracker.

A. Alyce Claerbaut: It’s been my pleasure. I’m excited for everyone to experience this unique and inspiring production.

For More Information

What: Sugar Hill: The Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker

Where: The Auditorium Theatre, 50 E Ida B Wells Dr. in Chicago

When: Wednesday, Dec. 20 – Saturday, Dec. 30

What else: For ticket and program information, please visit auditoriumtheatre.org.

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