With Bells On! The Musical: A Conversation with the Writers

Dec 10, 2023

Dev: When I first saw the Theatre Network production of Darrin Hagen’s With Bells On way back
in 2011, I was blown away by the charm, the whimsy, and the heart of his delightful play. Even then,
it felt like it was primed to burst into song! Here was an entirely original story with characters who spoke to a diverse audience and still managed to capture the spirit of community and friendship that Christmas has come to mean for so many people. I immediately knew that it was perfect for musical adaptation, so I reached out to a new musical theatre writer I was working with at the time, Tommy Newman.

Tommy: Dev approached me in the summer of 2012 as we were working together on another project that was playing Off- Broadway. He shared Darrin’s play with me, and I instantly fell in love with these characters. It was mythic. It was contemporary. It was utterly charming. It took the trope of elevator play, and it lifted it to the thirteenth floor. I was sold.

Dev: We had a few false starts before we could really get our adaptation rolling. We were both so busy, and it was hard to find time to begin the process of writing until we were both forced to stop and take stock of where we were.

Tommy: During the pandemic, Dev and I reconnected about this piece. We were both ready for something new, and we felt like there was an urgency in the moment for this particular kind of story.

Dev: The world would see a great deal of political scrutiny on the topic of drag and the queer community. Laws were being written to take away our rights— to outlaw the very essence of our self-expression.

Tommy: People were in pain, and communities were divided. It felt like we were regressing. It was and honestly still is a confusing time.

Dev: So we set out to find some semblance of peace in all of that through this show— to bring people together— to give them hope— to explore a story with conventional themes that was accessible to everyone, no matter their beliefs or their backgrounds.

Tommy: The play felt a little Dickensian. It was a world that seemed to be governed by unseen forces. These two people find themselves at a sort of purgatorial crossroads on Christmas Eve where they have to break their own personal curses before they can move on.

Dev: We expanded the character of Ted, explored Natasha’s backstory, and we leaned into the fun, campy elements that made Darrin’s play so buoyant and exciting.

Tommy: I was thrilled at the prospect of creating a musical world that felt like it was both familiar and completely original… one that could conjure the spirit of the season, but that felt contemporary and made sense to the heart of the play. The sound of bells inspired an entire musical throughline within the score. We were drawn to their pancultural significance as a symbol of new beginnings, which seemed to go along with both character’s desires to ring out the old and ring in the new.”

Dev: I was honored to have the opportunity to work on this iconic, queer character— a character who spoke deeply to me in my middle age. She is a work in progress. Like all of us. We are always changing, and life will always present new opportunities to reinvent ourselves.

Tommy: It’s the same with Ted. We all have to recognize that we are little works in progress, and that the best thing we can do for each other is to see— to listen— to try to understand— and to become something new… together.”

Dev: We are thrilled to be working with this team of incredible Canadian artists and are so overcome with gratitude at the chance to come back to the theatre where this play began its journey— and to my hometown— to bring this story to a new audience and an old one. At its core, With Bells On is about what we need most right now in the world— connection, love, and understanding, and we hope you fall in love with these characters and this story as much as we have.