Julie Shannon, a resident of Glenview and the composer and lyricist of the beloved Chicago holiday musical “The Christmas Schooner,” died Wednesday from cancer, said John Reeger, her longtime friend and collaborator. Also a former schoolteacher in the Deerfield public schools, Shannon was 71.
“Julie had a passion for human decency, kindness and social justice,” said her husband Bill Geller. “We have developed lifelong friends, members of our family, from our work on Julie's shows. For Julie, there wasn't much of a line between life and art.”
“Julie's shows were her children,” Reeger said. “She kept every word that was written about them. The way ‘Schooner' became such a part of the Chicago Christmas has meant so much to her.”
The show most certainly occupies a special place in the city of its birth, just as its composer was beloved in the theater community.
“The Christmas Schooner,” the story of the so-called Christmas tree ships that once plied the treacherous waters of Lake Michigan in winter to bring Christmas trees to homesick Chicago immigrants, was first professionally produced by the Bailiwick Repertory Theatre in 1995. The piece honored the selflessness of the turn-of-the-century captains and crews from Northern Michigan and Wisconsin who risked their lives, more for duty than profit, on a lake they knew like the backs of their hands, but that could easily ensnare them.
Each holiday season — first at the Bailiwick, then at Theatre at the Center in Munster, Ind., and most recently at the Mercury Theatre on Southport Avenue — “Schooner” made its welcome return, captivating Chicago-area audiences with Shannon's rousing, moving melodies, such as “What Is It About the Water?,” “We All Have Songs,” and “The Blessings of the Branch (Pass It On).” It is an uncommonly emotional piece and, for some, an annual sign that Christmas has arrived again in Chicago.
Cecily Strong, who this weekend joins the cast of “Saturday Night Live,” got her early theatrical break playing one of the young roles in the show.
The show has since been licensed and produced nationally, becoming one of the most often staged musicals to come from Chicago. There have been, Reeger said, more than 150 productions in the last few years. Shannon (who also went by Julie Shannon Geller) also composed a show titled “Stones” (starring Felicia P. Fields), another collaboration with Reeger, as was her “Let the Eagle Fly: The Story of Cesar Chavez.” Their latest collaborative musical, “The Man Who Murdered Sherlock Holmes,” was in the workshop process. Geller said Thursday that he hoped that latest show would still reach full production.
“Julie was such a sweet, sweet human,” Reeger said, noting a quality that sails every Chicago Christmas with her warmhearted show, which will be back at the Mercury this Christmas in what now is likely to be an especially resonant production.