The Night Before The Nutcracker: Capturing the Backstage Magic of Ballet, Books, and Broadway with Author John Allman
There are plenty of charming books about The Nutcracker that you could add to your holiday shelves, but if you’re like me, there will be a nagging sensation that one important volume is missing. Where’s the book about the stagecraft of the production and the energy of being backstage? The book capturing the nervous thrill of a young dancer about to step into the snow sprinkled spotlight for the first time? That’s where John Allman’s The Night Before The Nutcracker comes in.
In this book created in collaboration with Random House Children’s Books and American Ballet Theater, brought to vibrant life with delightful illustrations by Julianna Swaney, you’re able to get a front-row seat and experience the excitement of opening night as young dancers prepare for a performance of The Nutcracker.
I was honored enough to be able to sit down with John as we traipsed through topics such as the process of taking a book from concept to publication and the pure magic of what The Nutcracker means to us and the next generation of dancers.
’Twas the night before The Nutcracker and, sleepless in their beds,
these budding ballet dancers are rehearsing in their heads.
Hello John – it’s so lovely talking with you today! Can you tell us a little bit about your writing background and your artistic journey? You currently work in marketing at HBO, but you’re also a children’s book author who focuses on theater and ballet. We would just love to learn about that story arc.
It’s so great talking with you too. I grew up loving theater, dance, basically every aspect of the arts, along with writing, poetry, and all of that. But professionally I have always been on a marketing track.
A while back when I was thinking about what ultimately became, A is for Audra, which was the first book about theater divas, I was working at a live entertainment, Broadway-focused boutique ad agency. A coworker of mine didn’t really know her Broadway divas very well, which I thought was so funny because we worked in theater and everyone around there knew their way around that world. She didn’t even know who Betty Buckley was! I just thought that was hilarious, and something sort of clicked in my brain about making a book.
Whether it would be a gag gift for adults or a real thing to introduce young budding theatergoers to my favorite divas, maybe there’s something there. It was fun playing with the idea of making famous Broadway actresses accessible in a very digestible way. I kept thinking that I wished I could give this type of thing to my friends’ kids, so I decided that I might as well just write it.
So I first made an A is for Audra, B is for Bernadette, and C is for Cheetah, as a set of posters, and put them on my coworkers desk as a joke. Everyone loved them! They started saying I should try to get this published. So I spent a couple of hours one Saturday researching the publishing process and what agents would be interested in representing something like that. Then I blindly submitted it to a handful of them, a couple of them bit, and I met with them.
One of the agents offered to represent it, and then he sold it to my now-editor at Random House Children’s Books. It happened so fast that it was really unexpected, thrilling. I would’ve never in a million years thought it would all fall into place that quickly.
Then it was the long process from a manuscript to actually having the book finished and out there in the world. That took two years, from getting A is for Audra sold, to actually having it published. And once it was out there, it sort of opened up this unexpected and untapped little niche in the children’s non-fiction space. Musical theater people are uniquely passionate about the art form and the people that make it and all that goes into it, and this niche has been historically underserved in terms of being able to share it in such a compact way. So A is for Audra was much more successful than anyone was expecting. So naturally we did a follow-up book called B is for Broadway.
That book broadens out into the art of making theater. Around the same time, and very coincidentally, Random House had just finalized a bigger overall deal with American Ballet Theater to collaborate on a whole series of children’s books that would be co-branded between the two of them.
Because my editor liked working with me, knew that I could do it quickly, and knew that I also had some personal experience in the dance and theater space, she basically said, “We are doing a slate of books with ABT, would you be interested in writing one? Here are some ideas that I think you could springboard off of.” I quickly decided that I wanted to write B is for Ballet as a sort of follow-up to A is for Audra and B is for Broadway, except centered in the ballet space.
I was often the only boy in my dance classes when growing up, so the idea to do Boys Dance! started bubbling up because of how personal it felt to me. I wanted to continue this alphabet series, but I couldn’t not take up this opportunity with Boys Dance!. So my editor said I could do both books. It was just serendipitous all the way around.
The books came out towards the beginning of the pandemic. It was very strange. We weren’t able to do any events, any fun things in person like signing copies during intermission at the ballet like we had hoped we’d be able to do.
About then I started thinking about what I wanted to write next, and, well, I’ve always just loved The Nutcracker. It’s such a gateway ballet for young people. Oftentimes it’s the first ballet they’re taken to and it unlocks a passion for dance and ballet that then leads them to see more, learn more, take class, and, who knows, maybe even be in The Nutcracker one day.
So how can we do something that’s a little bit different that people haven’t already done in the intersection of children’s books and The Nutcracker? That is actually a pretty crowded corner of the bookstore. And in thinking I was brought back to my love of theater.
What if it wasn’t just about ballet or even The Nutcracker specifically, but also about all the things I felt as a kid while growing up and doing shows – centering on what it is like being backstage? It was really serendipitous, that after having already locked down what the whole series would be with ABT, that I came up with this idea. They didn’t have anything else lined up that was about The Nutcracker or holiday-centric, nothing that was as back-stagey as this ended up being, and so I think they just went for it.
So I was able to write The Night Before The Nutcracker. I wrote it right over the holidays two years ago. Then it took that long to edit, illustrate, send off to be printed, and then bring back, market, all of that. And it’s finally here.
I love your emphasis on the backstage aspect of the ballet. That is actually what drew me to your book. It’s a unique perspective on The Nutcracker experience because that is what’s really magical to the children who participate in the production. It’s the lighting, the sets, the prepping and hoping that maybe you finally can be on stage yourself. In the book you’re able to capture that energy, not just of the story of The Nutcracker, but of the experience of all those little dancers who are finally having their dance dreams come true.
You mentioned that you danced yourself while growing up. Tell us more!
I really came to dance through musical theater. I was always doing musicals as a kid, and we had an amazing choreographer at the school that I went to that unlocked a love of dance in me.
I started picking up choreography and learning different styles such as jazz, tap, and a little ballet here or there. I realized that if I want to get better at this theater thing, I should also start taking classes in other dance forms, building up a foundation across genres.
I ended up coming to dance kind of late, so I wasn’t really taking a full-on dance class till high school, but I would keep going to these studios that did open classes where I lived in Houston. I kept doing that on the side through college where I also choreographed a bunch of musicals and was able to combine the love of dance and the love of theater, being at the helm and putting it all together into a complete production.
Now I live in New York and luckily get to write about dance and then go as an audience member to see all of the amazing dance that we have here in the City.
You mentioned that Houston Ballet was your first Nutcracker. Can you share a little bit about your earliest Nutcracker memories?
Houston Ballet is an amazing regional ballet company. Theirs was the first Nutcracker I ever saw as a kid. I also was able to see Atlanta Ballet where I had lived for a little while – also an amazing ballet company. So between those two cities I was very lucky to have amazing Nutcrackers to see. I remember just being blown away by the magic of it.
Even seeing the sets, the costumes, the color of it and the stagecraft was so mesmerizing to me. Those experiences definitely informed the sense of wonder that I wanted to infuse into this book in terms of the kids being backstage and seeing it all come together and just how monumental and amazing it all is.
That is absolutely fantastic. This book focuses strongly on ABT’s rendition of The Nutcracker. How did you approach research to ensure accuracy in all of the costuming details and their unique backstage experience?
Luckily, ABT has been an amazing part of this process. They were able to share videos, photos, and then call out important pieces that make their Nutcracker unique. However we also purposefully wanted to infuse the book with certain elements so that, whether you’re familiar with ABT’s Nutcracker or you are a kid who’s danced in another Nutcracker, it feels like their production while at the same time kind of being broad enough to encompass everyone’s experiences.
It’s not as if you’re going to be unable to follow the plot or understand what’s going on if you don’t know the ABT production super well. So it was really just a collaboration with them in that way. I read a ton of reviews from different papers that had covered their production over the years, and I made sure that we were highlighting some of the fun stuff that makes it unique.
There’s a section in the middle of the book that goes through the story of the ballet, just to ensure you could follow along even if you’ve never seen the Nutcracker before.
I would love to talk a little bit about capturing those visuals in the illustration process. How did you get to know your illustrator, Julianna Swaney? What is it like co-creating a piece like this?
At least in the case of this book, it was sort of segmented. I’ve actually never met Julianna – we didn’t collaborate super directly. The basic process for this was that I first wrote the text with my editor. We then paginated it together, sort of deciding which couplets warranted their own double spread scene versus which ones could be combined, which ones could be broken up onto like multiple spread pages on one spread… all of that.
We basically decided what the canvas was going to be for her, and then we wrote a bunch of art notes within the manuscript – pie in the sky, thought starter type art ideas for her to use as a springboard or take or leave.
So that all got handed over to Julianna, and she just ran with it and illustrated the whole thing. Then it came back to me, my editor, the people at ABT, and we all collaborated on making little tweaks here and there as needed to make sure it all felt the way that we wanted it to.
Minor notes were made, but on the whole, she just nailed it from the jump! She gave it this really warm, festive, whimsical, and utterly charming look and feel. It was exactly how I had imagined it without us ever really collaborating or talking about it together.
Wow, that’s amazing that you were able to be paired with that person who got the vision so well.
Yeah, she also works on paper and she’s the first illustrator I’ve worked with for any of my books that doesn’t do their initial work digitally. I have one of her original watercolors from the book on my wall here, which is such a treasure.
What page is the original from?
It’s from the audition section. It’s right there on the wall behind me. I love it.
How lovely to see an artist still working in a non-digital medium from time to time! How delightful to see that still being represented in new publications.
She puts pieces of it on different pages and then scans it, puts it together, and then finesses it while putting the finishing touches on it digitally. So it’s a combo of mediums, but the baseline stuff is absolutely done by hand.
I’m curious about what response you’ve gotten from your readership in this theater, ballet niche. What type of comments or reviews have you received? I can imagine that since it is an underrepresented space in many ways, that people feel heard and really enjoy being able to share their own passion for the arts with their children.
Yeah, totally. It’s funny you know, when I first started doing these books, the jumping off point was quite literally that I wished these things existed so I could give it to my friends’ kids and pass on something I love to them in a very sort of concrete way.
With the theater books, the response has often been from parents who say, “We read the book and my kid is now obsessed with X, Y, or Z actors or X, Y, and Z pages, so now we go on YouTube every night and we watch a different video from the Tony Awards for each performance of them, or in the car, we listen to a different show tune.”
It’s really sweet. And for the dance books, Boys Dance!, has been the one that has been the most special in that way. Tons of people saying things such as, “My son loves dancing but has been hesitant to do it for whatever reasons, and this book has helped us overcome those things and has gotten him dancing.”
It’s empowering being able to see all these boys of different shapes and sizes with different backgrounds and other interests portrayed in the pages. Being able to celebrate dance and feel the joy that it can bring has been really special and personal to me too, because there certainly wasn’t a book like this when I was growing up, and I would’ve loved it if there had been.
That is beautiful because there’s not enough representation of boys in ballet. And especially when you’re young, it’s so difficult to be in that classroom where you don’t see anyone like you and keep on coming back. Now you’ve created a piece of inspiration and magic to remind them that you can do it. Dance is also for you.
What are some other things that you think would be fun to share about your books and your journey? What’s it like being both in marketing as well as being an author?
I feel like I just lucked into this. I always loved writing and poetry. A while ago I actually took a two year lyric writing program. It applies directly to the art of writing a rhyming picture book, which can be tough.
To do it well, you have to be economical with your words. I’m a huge stickler for every phrase saying what it actually needs to say without filler, without having to rhyme in a cheesy way just for the rhyme. Perfect rhymes only!
Working in marketing, too, there’s some creative work that goes into that. Copywriting is a big part of it, obviously. So being able to say exactly what you wanna say, in as few words as possible, can come from the marketing side of my brain,. I think it is also a muscle that applies to rhyming children’s books. It’s funny, people are always saying what a crazy kind of side gig to have on top of working in marketing all day – I’m sort of like yes and no.
That relationship between marketing and storytelling makes perfect sense to me. My own background includes marketing for a ballet company, but now I get to write about ballet as well. At its best, marketing is merely a different type of storytelling. I love that you’re able to embody that storytelling so well in both sides of your work.
Thank you. They definitely weave together. It’s fun to like scratch the creative itch in different ways depending on what hat I’m wearing all day.
Absolutely! So, you know, I just have to ask, do you have any other exciting creative projects or books on the horizon that you could tell us about?
Oh there is one more book that’s in the pipeline, but it hasn’t been announced yet, so I don’t think we can talk about it. I think it’ll show up on Amazon six months or so before it publishes, so not for a while. And we haven’t even gotten that far yet.
Well, I am so excited for whatever that piece is, I’m sure it’s gonna be amazing. And thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me and for writing such a lovely piece as well as the other works that you have done. It really is a contribution to the arts community and to the next generation of creators.
Alanna Love is a writer based out of Boise, Idaho. She revels in tracing the thread of beauty woven throughout daily life, especially when it is found in ballet, literature, or historical wardrobing.
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