In 1897 The Sun (New York) published an editorial that featured the famous words, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” The story goes that an Upper West Side doctor was asked by his 8-year-old daughter, Virginia, about the existence of Ol’ St. Nick. He advised her to send her inquiry in to the paper. What followed has become an iconic aspect of American Christmas. Francis Pharcellus Church’s reply transcended the innocent question of a young girl and took it to a philosophical level, expounding on faith and hope.
“He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy,” Church professed in the editorial.
Ever since the editorial has taken on a life of its own. After Virginia’s death in 1971, a collection of friends upstarted Elizabeth Press, and subsequently published a children’s book titled “Yes, Virginia,” which was based on the editorial. Eventually, it was taken to Warner Brothers where it was made into an Emmy Award-winning animated television special in 1974. The story has found its way into the hearts of many through decades worth of productions and musical incarnations.
This week Macy’s “Yes Virginia the Musical” will be performed by TACT (Thalian Association Children’s Theatre) at the 2nd Street Stage in the Hannah Block Historic USO/Community Arts Center. “I think Virginia’s story has touched each of us, if we realize it or not, and not just during the holidays,” Thalian Association’s artistic director, David T. Loudermilk, says. “I am a person who is constantly weighed down by self-doubt or fear, as I am sure many other people might be at times. I think this story gives you hope. I was actually speaking with a friend today and said that everything happens for a reason, and she asked me if I truly believed that, to which I replied, ‘You have to.’”
In 2008 Macy’s department store launched their Believe campaign, in conjunction with a performance of “Yes Virginia” to raise funds for the Make-A-Wish foundation. The campaign collected 1.1 million letters to Santa, and Macy’s matched each letter with a monetary contribution, resulting in $1 million for Make-A-Wish.
Thalian Association has partnered with the Believe campaign. Letters will be collected and Thalian Association will make a $1 donation to Make-A-Wish for every letter received. The letters are being accepted through December 7 at Hannah Block Historic USO/Community Arts Center. As well, every child who submits a letter will be entered in a chance to receive either two tickets to see Thalian Association’s “A Christmas Carol” on Thalian Hall’s Main Stage, which runs from December 11 through 21, or two tickets to see “Schoolhouse Rock Live” (February 20 through March 1). A drawing will be held after each performance, with the winners being announced via Facebook on December 8.
Under the direction of Michelle Reiff, a children’s theatre veteran, the production will be based on the animated special and storybook by Chris Plehal, with music by Wesley Whatley and the book and lyrics by William Schermerhorn. Reiff, who was born in the ‘50s, excites over the timeless nature of “Yes Virginia the Musical.” Despite there being no movie or children’s book about the story at the time, she recalls always knowing the editorial’s lore. “As a child it was something that was eternal,” she says.
“Yes Virginia the Musical” tells the story of Virginia (Issabelle Stoneback) as she wrestles with the existence of Santa. Over the course of the show, she and her friend, Hollie (Abby Talbot), are met with ridicule from non-believing children like Charlotte (Miranda Creech), who performs the musical number “Baby Stuff.”
“[‘Yes, Virginia]’ all about faith, and one of the lines in the final song is, ‘Seeing is believing,’” Reiff describes. “But that’s not true; it’s true if you believe. And that’s the whole story of Santa.”
The cast will comprise 49 youth performers. “I’ve been working with the children’s theatre for over 20 years,” Reiff says “and I think the biggest thing you have to overcome is how easily distracted they are. One minute they’re with you, and within seconds, they’re gone. Fortunately, they’re also like a sponge. They just absorb everything so quickly, and they’re much smarter than we ever give them credit for.”
Reiff, who also is undertaking musical direction, sings her praises for Stoneback, who she promises will captivate audiences from the very first number. “She’s enchanting, absolutely enchanting,” Reiff declares. “What sells this show more than anything is its youth.”
Another favorite will be Talbot’s performance of “Hollie’s Observation.” The number beseeches people to be kind to one another, as Hollie ponders why children can be so mean to one another. She wonders why the other children can’t believe in reindeer and questions why they have such a problem with those who do.
“Each of the songs has a different feel which is what makes the show so entertaining and enjoyable,” Loudermilk comments. “It has some fun and energetic numbers mixed with some very lovely and honest ballads. The show is guaranteed to put anyone in the holiday spirit.”
Reiff previews that the real showstopper will come from the song “Spending Christmas Time with You.” The song will feature a street Santa (Logan Manns), singing alongside a host of New York City pigeons. When the cast saw the performance for the first time, they cheered and leapt to their feet.
“They were just tickled,” Reiff says. “It’s amazing how supportive they can be of each other. That’s what children’s theatre is all about: They’re all different ages, and they’re just so positive and thrilled about everything.”
The stage was designed by Lance Howell, who created an 1800s street setting. There will be a multitude of technical aspects that Loudermilk teases will have to be seen in person.
Ultimately, “Yes Virginia the Musical” will take audiences, young and old, to an enchanted world. With all happenings in today’s society, which can prompt nothing but cynicism, this production will restore a bit of faith in humanity.
“How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus!” Church asked in his editorial. “It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”
Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus
HBHUSO Community Arts Center
120 South 2nd Street
Fri.-Sun., Dec. 4 – Dec.7, 7 p.m.; Sat. and Sun. matinee: 3 p.m.