Nobody thought that The Nutcracker was going to be legendary. The director of the Russian Imperial Ballet, who had read Alexandre Dumas’ version of E.T.A. Hoffman’s original story, had the idea to produce it as a dance piece. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was hired to write the score as part of a business agreement: he took the job on the condition that he could produce a piece that he actually cared about—an opera called Iolanta--to debut the same night. Legend has it, he wrote the music for the “Grand Pas de Deux” on some sort of composer's bet. His friend claimed that he couldn’t write a melody "based on the notes of the octave in sequence." I have no idea what that means, but apparently Tchaikovsky won the bet.
Sometimes the most beloved pieces of entertainment come about after endless hype and anticipation—take Gone With the Wind or The Beatles. Other times, they come nearly out of the blue, generating a following more passionate than their creators would have anticipated in their wildest dreams. This was the case with The Nutcracker. Also—and these days it’s easy to forget—this was the case with Star Wars.
Both properties arose from more of a pragmatic business perspective than some nagging, passionate artistic impulse. Both were originally made to appeal to children. Critics during The Nutcracker’s initial release complained that it was too childish and sloppy. But the Tsar loved it so it lived on, moving westward after the revolution, gradually becoming embraced by Europe, the States and, crucially, Walt Disney. Star Wars, of course, was a surprise smash right out of the gate, but one that few insiders would have bet on before its release. During its production, it was famously seen as a joke. And this holiday season, four decades and over a century later respectively, Star Wars and The Nutcracker are still the hottest tickets in town.
The Nutcracker is essentially the first family blockbuster. The story is about children and appeals to children, but the presentation and the gorgeous music make it pleasing to people of all ages. It’s easy to understand how audiences in the late 19th century were a little baffled by it. When you step back and think about it, the story is absolutely nuts: living dolls, menacing godfathers, gingerbread soldiers, candylands, fairies, princes and a Mouse King. It’s a child’s dream come to life, with all of the random digressions and illogic that implies. Child logic wasn’t exactly in high demand within the Russian critical intelligentsia 120 years ago, but appealing to youthful imagination has become vastly more bankable in the world of entertainment in the intervening years.
Much of that has to do with Star Wars, which is considered the first modern film blockbuster (along with Jaws). It changed the way that people marketed and distributed tent-pole films. It changed the way studios thought about what audiences wanted to see. (As you might imagine, many film historians view this as something of a mixed blessing.) George Lucas had intended for it to make money, of course, but until the mania began, he had only thought of it as a hopefully lucrative, “gee-whiz, high adventure film for children.” It was all very calculated. His business savvy in securing a percentage of the profits from toys and merchandizing is legendary. He went into the whole thing very clearheaded, with the bottom line in mind. Studios didn’t think science fiction was bankable, but Lucas “calculated that there are something like $8 million worth of science fiction freaks in the USA, and they will go to see absolutely anything with a title like Star Wars.”
There was no anticipation that it would become the most successful franchise in film history, a multi-billion dollar property and an almost universally beloved cultural touchstone. (Who would ever anticipate that, other than possibly James Cameron.) Much like The Nutcracker, there was a popular alchemy that happened entirely independent of the producers. Children responded to the “gee whiz,” imagery and the brisk hero's journey story. Adults responded to it because they had once been children, and the need for broad, boundless imagination never really departs us. Much like The Nutcracker, it was wildly successful in pinpointing an unbreakable conduit between adult and childhood sensibilities. Not all entertainment aimed at children is tolerable to grown-ups (see: The Annoying Orange, or better yet, DO NOT). There’s a trick to getting the entire family on board. The Nutcracker might have done it first. Star Wars did it the biggest. And the prospect of a parent and a child attending a show with equal levels of anticipation is something that the entertainment industry has been desperately trying to replicate ever since. Sometimes, though, you clearly just have to get lucky.
The Nutcracker and Star Wars have bonded with the culture. They are unstoppable. You can level all kinds of critiques against Star Wars: It has clunky dialogue, occasionally spotty acting, it’s a simplistic and derivative story, it’s a slick collage of a bunch of far better ideas (Of course, I wouldn’t say that! I’m just offering a counterpoint here! Sit down, please.) The Nutcracker isn't critic-proof either; it features some creepy undertones (by today’s standards) and formless characterizations. None of that matters. The “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” and the “Imperial March” are now permanently woven into the Western imagination. Both products started as commerce and have now become a part of our heritage and our collective mythology.
This holiday season, it will be very difficult to find tickets to either one of them.