Margaret Price's daughter Katie Swim wrote a letter to Santa Claus.
"It said, 'Dear Santa, Do you have a wife?' and 'P.S. Do you have a dog?' and 'P.S. I'll always believe in you,'" the Lexington writer recalls.
That was the first of a series of sparks that inspired Looking for Mrs. Santa Claus, Price's new musical about the search for a bride for St. Nick; it opens this weekend at Studio Players. The show, with songs by Lisa Palas and Nancy Peacock, takes the audience on a search for Santa's ideal wife via cell phones and a lonely-hearts radio show.
In addition to her daughter's letter, Price found inspiration in a couple of women she knew who embodied the loving, selfless spirits she thought would be ideal for Mrs. Claus.
Price says. "At that time in my life, I happened to know a number of women who were wonderful spirits. They were older, and each in their own way reminded me of the kind of women that make magic happen at Christmas. They were the Mrs. Clauses."
There was a cleaning woman who always made people feel good, a woman who takes care of homeless people and an older woman devoted to caring for her extended family.
"The idea just came to me: What if this wise elf — this isn't really a children's piece — this really wise elf, once Christmas is over, once Christmas Day is done, decided to bring a little bit of that feminine spirit to the North Pole?" Price says.
So one elf, Jingles, places a personal ad on a radio show called Lookin', Lovin' or Leavin', and another elf, Caperton, visits Florida to check out the women who answer the ad.
The story itself has taken on several forms including a book, a screenplay, a play and now a musical. After some early, positive response to the screenplay, Price was disappointed that it did not find a buyer while other stories about Santa's wife were produced.
But she found champions, including Palas and Peacock, who signed on to write songs for the show, and director Alberta Labrillazo, a teacher at Lexington's School for Creative and Performing Arts.
"It's a fun show," says Labrillazo, who has also directed for organizations such as Paragon Music Theatre. "It's funny, there are parts that are very poignant, there are a lot of parts that I can connect with, just me, personally.
"It's also very sentimental, and I like that."
As a director, Labrillazo also liked the challenge of helming a new show with no precedents.
With that came other challenges with Mrs. Santa Claus: multiple locations for the action, dealing with new music, and the script's 22 characters, all squished into the backstage area of Studio Players' tiny Carriage House Theatre.
For that, Labrillazo says, new technology has been essential.
"We'd be in rehearsal and realize we needed to pick up the tempo on a song," Labrillazo says. "I'd call Lisa and tell her, and the next morning I had a WAV file with the corrected tempo."
Palas, who was born in Cynthiana, raised in Richmond and now lives in Florida, says she and Peacock immediately saw the musical possibilities in the story, "because of the characters and because it's a holiday theme."
Palas says some characters were particularly easy to write songs for, such as self-absorbed TV host Sugar St. Clair, whose songs include Gorgeous in Red.
Palas and Peacock have been working on the show for two years, including a staged reading of it at Natasha's Bistro and Bar last year.
For Price, Mrs. Santa Claus brings a big year to a close. Actors Guild of Lexington pre sented her play Belle Brezing, about the notorious Lexington madam, in the spring.
Price acknowledges the amusing juxtaposition of those scripts but says, "They really are similar. At heart, they're the same story: ... about asking the audience to suspend belief and look at this character, whether we're looking at Belle on her deathbed looking back at her life or a lonely little boy and Caperton Elf, we're saying let's try to see people with the eyes of God, without judgment."