OGDEN — After putting on nearly 60 shows, choreographing hundreds of dances and teaching more than 5,000 students, how does one decide it's time to hang up the tap shoes and director's hat?
Jim Christian, director of musical theater studies at Weber State University, is ready to exit stage left after 27 years.
“There’s a lot of nostalgia in the process,” Christian said. “Over the years, this is where I’ve met so many people who have now become lifelong friends. In the process of theater, you create relationships. You don’t just get into a cast and move on; you find people who become part of your story.”
The final chapter in Christian’s story at WSU is “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” set to run Feb. 26 through March 5. It’s a tip-tappin’ musical filled with big dance numbers and beautiful Gershwin tunes — a fitting exit for a song-and-dance man.
Christian’s involvement with music was casual at first: His mother was a voice teacher, and she put him in piano lessons at age 6.
“I was always involved in school plays and a few things at church, but it wasn’t until high school that I got involved and auditioned for things,” said Christian, a graduate of Murray High School.
While Christian was studying communications at the University of Utah, his musical theater friends learned he could play the piano and began dragging him along as their accompanist, he said, “and I got caught in the vortex.”
“I never had the desire or courage to go into performing,” he said. “I wanted stability and a family. But I had a passion for teaching.”
Christian left for graduate school to get a master of fine arts.
“My beloved, cautious parents, who spent many sleepless nights worrying about my future, breathed a huge sigh of relief when I got my first job in Kentucky,” he said. “They were always my staunchest supporters.”
While teaching at San Diego State, he heard about the opening at Weber.
“I pursued it with a vengeance,” he said. “I took a hefty pay cut to come here but considerably upgraded my lifestyle in doing so. … Weber has been there through so many different milestones in my life. The different support that I’ve received in different ways from different individuals has been incredible.”
Christian taught everything from the history of musical theater to acting, voice, auditioning and directing.
“He has developed a strong musical theater major and had a profound impact on the theater program as a whole,” said Jenny Kokai, theater program coordinator.
But beyond the textbooks, Christian has always felt strongly about building character as well as performers.
“I frequently draw a Venn diagram with two intersecting circles,” he explained. “There are lots of talented people in the world and a lot of nice people in the world. The people in the cross section of nice and talented are the people who work all the time.”
When asked about his students and witnessing their growth, Christian notes there are too many stories to tell.
“There are literally hundreds and hundreds of students that I’m still very aware of and stay in touch with,” he said. “It’s fun to watch their career paths.”
One student Christian worked with was Angela Jeffries, an actress he first met in Wyoming summer stock.
“She was this shrinking violet who would panic any time she was asked to do any dance steps,” Christian said. “She came to Weber and quickly became one of our shining stars with multiple lead roles at Weber and other area theaters. She just finished up a contract on a cruise ship as a featured vocalist and is off to New York. She just needed to be awakened to her potential.”
“Jim has been more than just an outstanding professor or choreographer, voice teacher or director,” Jeffries said. “He certainly is all of those things. But he is also my friend, a bit of saving grace who has offered me wisdom in the most respectful, compassionate and understanding way. I honestly don’t know of anyone who has had more of an impact on my life.”
Kokai said Christian's work has had an “incalculable reach.”
“Tens of thousands of people have benefitted from seeing a student he trained onstage, or being taught by a student he trained, or working on or seeing a show he directed or wrote. He is kind, positive, hardworking, generous, knowledgeable and creative. Jim looks for the potential in everybody and works to foster their positive qualities instead of focusing on their negative.”
Kokai also noted Christian’s contributions as a playwright.
“Part of the reason the theater program committed to doing a season of all new works every four years is because we had Jim here providing us with outstanding new works in musical theater,” he said.
Christian penned four musicals in his time there, including “Pirated!” and an adaptation of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” His works continue to be produced in theaters throughout the country and have been honored at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.
As for the future, Christian is excited to turn the page to the next chapter: becoming a grandpa, with his first grandchild expected this summer. And he will continue directing at theaters throughout the region.
For now, he’s cleaning out his office — “I’ve been trying to eat that elephant a little bit at a time,” he said — and focusing on the upcoming production.
“If there is a single word, it would be ‘grateful,’” he said of the past 27 years. “Grateful for the experiences I’ve had at Weber, that I’ve enjoyed my time, and grateful to open up another chapter.”
If you go ...
What: "Nice Work If You Can Get It"
When: Feb. 26-March 5, times vary, matinees available
Where: Val A. Browning Center for the Performing Arts, 1901 University Circle, Ogden
How much: $10-$12
Erica Hansen was the theater editor at the Deseret News for more than three years. An area performer, she was also the original host of the radio program "Showtune Saturday Night."