NPR - Maurice Sendak's 'Nutcracker'

Maurice Sendak's 'Nutcracker'
The Artist's Darker Vision of Holiday Classic Is Back in Print

listen Listen to Bob Edwards' interview with Maurice Sendak.

View a photo gallery of Sendak's <I>Nutcracker</i> illustrations. View a gallery of Nutcracker illustrations and excerpts.

Nutcracker Cover

The cover illustration of Sendak's Nutcracker. *Published by arrangement with Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.

Dec. 17, 2001 -- Maurice Sendak is best known for his book Where the Wild Things Are -- the work, he says, that made him controversial. In 1984, Sendak took the same qualities of darkness and strangeness that made Wild Things a hit to breathe new life into the seasonal favorite, Nutcracker.

Morning Edition host Bob Edwards talks with the famed children's author and illustrator about the controversies concerning his work, Sept. 11, and the re-release of his darker version of Nutcracker.

Sendak's first professional encounter with Nutcracker came when he was approached by the Pacific Northwest Ballet to re-create the original E.T.A. Hoffmann story for their 1983 stage production.

At first Sendak balked, wanting to avoid what he considered a predictable project. Through conversations with Northwest Pacific Ballet Artistic Director Kent Stowell, Sendak became inspired to overcome his initial perceptions of the work as the "most bland and banal of ballets" and take a "leap into the unknown."

During his research, he discovered that the verision familiar to most modern audiences, "is smoothed out, bland, and utterly devoid not only of difficulties but of the weird, dark qualities that make it something of a masterpiece," Sendak writes in the introduction to Nutcracker.

maurice sendak

Maurice Sendak
Photo courtesy of the Barclay Agency

So the pair agreed to abandon the "predictable Nutcracker" and set out to find a fresh version that would do honor to Hoffmann and the ballet's composer, Tchaikovsky.

That meant bringing Hoffmann's original story back to audiences, especially by having the main character, a girl named Clara, brought back into the story.

"The whole ballet is about her and for the most part you get her in act one, and then she discreetly disappears for the rest of the work. My feeling is this has to be disturbing to children."

The project was a natural for Sendak in the sense that Clara, like many of the children in his work, is struggling with the strange and conflicting emotions that come with growing up.

She goes "where the wild things are," Sendak admits. In her case, the wild things are hormones. "She is overwhelmed with growing up and has no knowledge of what this means. I think the ballet is all about a strong emotional sense of something happening to her, which is bewildering," says Sendak.

Sendak later enhanced his original set drawings for the book version of the story, which was published in 1984. Out of print for many years, Sendak's Nutcracker has been re-issued.

More about Sendak and 'Nutcracker'

listen Listen to a Fresh Air interview with Sendak, originally recorded Sept. 22, 1993.

• Sendak won the National Medal of Arts in 1996. Read about it on the National Endowment for the Arts Web site.

• Read an autobiographical sketch of Sendak at the Educational Paperback Association's Web site.

• Read about the Pacific Northwest Ballet's Nutcracker production at its Web site.

*All illustrations from the book: NUTCRACKER by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Pictures by Maurice Sendak. © 1984 by Maurice Sendak. Published by arrangement with Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.