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The Making Of Rosemary And Thyme – Chapter 3

Chapter 3 : Writing The Play

I didn’t grow up to be a playwright. I didn’t grow up to be a director either. I grew up to be a composer — and a lyricist. It’s what I built my career on — the production of music. The playwright and director part came by happenstance when I sometimes simply needed someone to help the work of the composer survive. All four jobs have become jobs I am now experienced in, but ultimately, if, for some cosmic reason I became limited to just one, music would always win out.

In my early days, as composer-in-residence at the NY Shakespeare Theater’s Public Theater, working for producer, Joseph Papp, I learned that all of drama begins with the ancient Greeks, the Aristophanes and Euripides of it all. It was they who built the foundations of drama — the plots, the story lines, the character development and the denouement. 


When Ragan, my writing partner, during our writing and development process, was taken out of the mix for a time because of a serious life challenge, a heart attack, I had to pedal on, often alone in the work. In any normal situation, I probably would have postponed the project or even given it up, but not with Rosemary And Thyme.

The reason?

The reason was that the story was already laid out for us in one of the greatest stories ever told. The plot, the characters, the rises and falls and the heart of the work beat on relentlessly. As the sometimes-lone writer, I just needed to live in the dream and fill in the blanks with music, lyrics and dialogue.

This I did with great joy and little trepidation. I simply had the time of my life as a writer with wondrous guidance from the original story, my writing partner, Ragan, and Ron Stetson, our dramaturg. Though I did the majority of the writing, I share the success of the work very evenly with the other three entities. Without any single one of them, we would not have found the success of the work.

Ragan and I started with The Premise.

At first it wasn’t clear, and we wandered about a bit with our Josiah/Joseph character until we finally decided to recreate the entire Christmas story in modern times. 

And so …

The Premise

“God takes a look at today’s world.
and really does not like what he sees.
So, He decides to send his ol’ trusty Angel, Gabriel, on a mission.”

"Ol' trusty Angel, Gabriel"

It was easy to come up with the first line of the premise, for both Ragan and I totally agree with God — we took a look at the world, and we did not like what we saw. Personally speaking, I fear for our little speck in the universe every day and continually work to try to find a solution to the myriad of problems now even too numerous to mention. But beside the word, “Love”, for the life of me, I don’t see an obvious human solution on the horizon. Ragan and I were in agreement. “It’s gonna take a miracle.!

And so, the work had to be a work of miracle proportions. Hence the wondrous possibilities of a miracle tale.

Is it a fantasy? Yes, but all who worked on Rosemary And Thyme were also in agreement. It is a fantasy that can come true. It’s not a hopeful wish. It is a must. Someone, some thing, must somehow appear on the horizon and lead us out of the mess that we, the people, have made of our world. If you think I am being a bit negative here, you may be right. The future is certainly uncertain. However, I am not here to proselytize, but rather to help bring a realistic hope to my fellow man.

The real truth is that short of saving the world, the two year experience of the writing of Rosemary And Thyme, which came right smack in the toughest times of Covid, was one of the happiest times of my life. The creative flow on top of the  firm foundation of structure woke me each morning with the thrill and anticipation of the solutions of the day. Each day I would spend my time with these fascinating characters whose lives spilled out before me in music and dialogue and drama.

I remember it as simply a time of joyous creativity. When it was over, when the final word of the final draft was written and the last episode was released to the world, I suffered for a solid month so missing the joys and intrigues of my newfound friends — the characters of our play.

To then watch them come alive is the subject of a future chapter, so I’ll stop waxing rhapsodic now and leave the future to the future — and tie up one of our experience’s favorite stories.

Ragan Courtney, my deaf partner in crime, who had never heard the result of all our work having lost his hearing in both ears has now regained the hearing of one ear through the wonders of medical science and a new and improved hearing aid. Consequently, the sad tale of Ragan’s misfortune, told in Chapter Two, has a most happy ending. Here, let our poet, Ragan, tell a few things about his happy ending.


The story came without surprise.

It was known by both of us all of our lives

The story was profound

And the sound of it to me went up and down

And in the briefest time it went down and down

And down past a whisper to no sound for me.

It was clear that my job was over.

I. Could. Not. Hear.

But he never stopped calling even when I only heard buzzing in my ear.

The characters grew

And the audience did, too,

Until we included the whole earth.

But let me make it clear,

I. Could. Not. Hear!

In the silence I kept searching

And a doctor and prayer

Came to my rescue.

I could hear again!

And when I heard

I laughed and wept


The story ended with surprise!

~Ragan, the poet

The Characters of The Plot

The plot, oddly enough, revolves around a central character, Thyme (our equivalent to Mother Mary) an innocent, who plays against the normal dramatic device of a central character with a quest.
The central character with a quest is one of the most foundational elements of all plots. Also, the most used. Think of every thriller you’ve ever seen or read. In our story, at first, Thyme has no quest whatsoever. She is completely happy with where she is in life — perfectly content.


We envisioned Mother Mary in the Bible as probably in the same space. Who was Mary before she became pregnant? A nobody. A nobody unknowingly about to become a somebody. In fact, a somebody for all time. In fact, for many, a God. Think of all the people who even today still pray to Mother Mary.

Our other central character, Josiah/Joseph is a “normal” central character. He has a quest, albeit, not a particularly noble one. A TV evangelist? This, in our way of thinking, gave our character, Josiah, great room for growth. We also gave him a great obstacle, a stutter, an impediment that would surely put his quest in great jeopardy. The creation of Josiah’s character was an open field, for our Joseph, found in the Bible, has basically no character at all. He has to be one of literature’s most vague characters throughout history.

We turned to the traditions of the musical for the equivalent of the Bible’s Elizabeth. Rodgers and Hammerstein seem to have often created henchmen, or in this case, henchwomen, to the female lead, Think: Carrie Pipperidge to Carousel’s Julie Jordan or Ado Annie to Oklahoma’s Laurie. These important characters often supply comic relief to the work. In our case our Elizabeth of Bible fame is Thyme’s best friend Lizzy — Lizzie Cranbottom.

Josiah’s best pal and henchman became a drunkard friend of a minister in Gabe, the night watchman of the town dump. Opposites attract and much humor comes from opposing forces. According to Christian apocryphal and Islamic tradition, Saint Anne was the mother of Mary, but she’s never mentioned in the Bible, so the mother of Mary becomes Mama, Maybelle Quinn — a woman of no voice. King Herod, a villain who wants to kill the Christ Child becomes Bishop Emanuel Goodspeed, our pompous leader of the church and eventual murderer. And even John the Baptist has an equivalent in Alejandro, the child of Jose and Maria, our wandering immigrants who in a previous life were sheep farmers or shepherds who watched their flock.

“What’s left to cover”, we imagined. Ah, yes! The three wise men who traversed to the birth from afar! The brilliant physicist, Dikke Matumbeh, the ecologist leader of Bolivia’s war against its beloved but declining jungles, Dr. Alfredo Encarnacion, and why not a woman? Our Chinese jet fighter pilot, possible first woman on the moon, Major Zwei Xiang. How those three would fit into our plot provided both Ragan and me with much consternation, but, in the end, we figured it out how to get them in. The puzzle was complete!

The Setting

And so, the Oklahoma Dust Bowl became our stage and the great Southwest desert, our flight path. I researched many little towns on the Okie plains and fell head over heels in love with the name of a town called “Skedee.” My apologies to the actual remaining 50 or so who inhabit the town. I’m sure they are all lovely folk who share none of the unfortunate manners of our own imagined “Skedeeites.

Skedee and The Road

Once again in this adventure we chose to borrow from the format of musical theater. That was always the joy of working in this new podcast format. We could break down previous formats and not be tied to strict foundations. Television has to break every 23 minutes for commercial. Movies can’t go 4 hours. Musicals are only in 2 acts. 

Alan Lerner, lyricist, and book writer of My Fair Lady (among many others) and one of my mentors, once told me, with a twinkle in his eye, that in the musical, the first act should be an hour and 27 minutes and the second act 47 minutes. Of course, he was being facetious, but he was basically right. The second act must be shorter than the first.

In our case with a new form, the musical podcast, we were able to make it up as we went along. Mixing the formats of the television mini-series and theater, we decided to think of our idea as a number of episodes in two acts. We were never constricted by length. Some episodes are less than 30 minutes, and one is even 40. No need for an intermission, but it made sense to do the first act in Skedee and the second on the road to California.

Southern Accents

Often, when in the process of hiring an actor, we were asked if it were necessary to have an Oklahoma southern accent. When writing, Ragan, who has a strong southern accent, would sometimes correct me with a word or phrase that would sound more southern. As we got more and more particular, we finally came around to the idea that in this day and age, since it’s not a period piece, the strict Oklahoma accent just was not that important because in today’s world, everybody watches TV, everybody watches movies, and so everybody is influenced by the outside world which, in turn, waters down the strictness of the pure Okie accent. To the three of us, Ron, Ragan and me, the really important voice was the voice of a deeply found characterization, not the sound of a locality. Good actors understand this, and, for everyone, the sense of accent came very naturally.

Additional Characters

There is little in the Bible about the journey Joseph and Mary took to pay their taxes. About all we do know is that they probably walked or at least traveled with perhaps a burro. Staying true to our original story, we knew that the journey had to be a hard road to travel. So, the equivalent character to the burro became the purple Studebaker. I always thought of that old beast of a car to be one of the central characters of the second act. That “ol’ purple chariot” became almost a living breathing entity for us who laughed at every cough and engine sputter as the journey continued. When, finally, it dies, there is a touching sadness for all involved.

Morgan Abernathy, Ramon Rodriguez, Elvira the waitress, Jose and Maria, are all purely figments of our imagination. But this was the fun of it. These new additions to the tale gave us a continuing plethora of fantasy, comedy and drama throughout the second act journey. The same goes with the Trucker, and in the first act, Abigail, Dorothy, Martha & Rufus — our Town Gossips, all obstacles for our heroes to overcome. Morgan, a delightful comic character, Ramon, a delicious and much needed second act villain, Jose and Maria, character additions to bring out the beneficent goodness of both Thyme and Josiah, Slick Presley, a comic savior in the time of greatest need, and finally, Elvira, the mystical waitress, who sadly had to be left behind, all served as much needed obstacles and saviors on the journey west.

Why did the three wise men of the Bible travel across the world to be present at the birth of the Christ child? We imagined that back in the day, they had the wisdom to be able to discern the signs of the times. In a world of little cross communication between countries, towns and people, they probably had to tune into other forces besides TV, newspapers and the internet, so their wisdom was found on a whole different level of consciousness.

Our wise men and woman of today needed to be technologists, but, we decided, they also needed to be driven by unseen forces to all gather at the same time unknowingly, and then be able to forsake their original plans for an event of a much higher calling. It needed to be, yet again, an act of the mystical, or of the miracle.

I always loved the idea that we, the audience, had no clue as to where we were going with each appearance of one or the other throughout the play. The mystery of the mystical. Making it work was a whole other thing. I’ll have to admit spending many hours tinkering with the logic and obtuseness of each of them as we drove to the final moment when they each appear simultaneously at the crossroads on the road to Sedona. We didn’t want to lose you, the listener, but we relished in the idea of making you wonder. I believe it accelerated the mystique of the miracle.

Miracles and Fantasy

The dictionary defines “fantasy” as “extravagant imagination.” Were the original Bible stories fantasy, or are you a believer? My own personal conclusion has always been that it doesn’t matter whether you believe the stories or not. It’s the truths of the stories that count. Practice the truths that a man called Jesus taught and we find that they lead to a better life, more happiness, more success and more satisfaction.

If it was discovered one day that the entire Bible was a fiction, it wouldn’t matter to me one iota.  The truths are not fiction. They are real. In my own life, I have experienced enough miraculous moments that prove the efficacy of the truths taught, so it was easy to move often in our story from normalcy to the miraculous. One thing for sure: Our story is full of miracles. It is full of “extravagant imagination.” The premise of our tale is based on miracle — the virgin birth. If you can buy into that idea then, a school bus and a woman being carried off in a tornado, angels, and things that disappear before your very eyes are all a piece of cake. Dive in and fantasize or dive in and believe. It’s your choice.

Avoiding the Expected

I have a tough time with much of TV today and most movie thrillers and love stories. All too often stories are told with rehashed plots and little surprise. Usually 20 minutes into the story, when I imagine where they’re going with this, by golly, that’s exactly where they go. At that point I usually turn it off and read a book. Same ol’ same ‘ol. There are billions of great human-interest stories out there. Why not be more creative with our stories? Anyone can be a cookie cutter.

The tricky part of our story was that most listeners already know the full story, and that creates a trap for the writer. How do you surprise when they already know what’s coming? 

So, our motto became, in the process of telling the story, never go where they expect you to go. Get the listener off the beaten path as often as possible. Kill Mama. Leave Elvira behind. Lose Lizzie to a tornado. Kill Gabe. Kill the purple chariot. Keep ‘em guessing. Especially avoid setting up the curtain line. Surprise, surprise, surprise. Even our title is full of surprises. What do I mean by that? 

I’ll never tell. It’s up to you to figure it out.


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