Photo page header


A Fairy Tale Life

Alumna’s musical debuted during Copenhagen study abroad reunion

Alumni who went on the Denmark study abroad

These alumni studied abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark, in the 1960s or 1970s and attended a reunion during Homecoming in October 2022. Photo by Jeremy Wangler

From The Ichabod - Winter 2023 
By Annie Flachsbarth

In October 2022, the musical “Andersen: A Fairy Tale Life” debuted at Neese Gray Theatre on Washburn University’s campus. The musical, written by Washburn alumna June McCarty Clair, b music ’66, portrays the story of Danish author Hans Christian Andersen and his journey and personal struggles to write his way to success.

Setting the Stage

While attending Washburn, Clair spent a semester abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark. That trip, which included 12 students from Washburn and 18 from other U.S. schools, was the first study abroad program to Denmark for the university. While in Denmark, Clair learned about Danish culture and, of course, Hans Christian Andersen.

“Studying in Copenhagen was one of the high points of my life. Living in Europe while studying its history gave me a whole new perspective and really made it come alive,” Clair said. “I was placed with a wonderful family of very learned people – my Danish mother spoke six languages – I learned as much from them as I did in my classes. They were very proud of Denmark and were happy to share its history and culture with me. My time there helped me develop self-confidence and public speaking skills. The experience in Denmark has really made a lasting imprint on my whole life.”

After graduating, Clair taught music and then got involved in many aspects of theater, including acting, writing and directing. Eventually, she returned to teaching music and drama at Clay Middle School in Carmel, Indiana. While looking for inspiration after being out of teaching for many years, she discovered that the Lilly Endowment foundation – an arm of the Lilly pharmaceutical company – provides grants to promote and support educational purposes. In 2008, Clair applied and was awarded a $25,000 Teacher Creativity Renewal Fellowship grant. With this grant, she returned to Denmark to research more about the life and work of Andersen.

“He's the most famous man in all Denmark. He looms so large, yet today, all over the country,” Clair said. “His fairytales are still so famous, and Disney has mined many of them for feature films. So much of what he has done is ingrained into our culture.”

Anderson's well-known works adapted by Disney include “The Little Mermaid” and “The Snow Queen” – which inspired “Frozen” and its sequel.

Upon Clair’s return from Denmark, she wrote the story and then collaborated with her husband, lyricist John Clair, and composer Derek Hakes to bring the musical to life. As she began to research Andersen’s life, she realized Andersen himself was the story.

“He’s so famous, yet there are so many things about him that nobody knows,” Clair said. “He was born very poor. His father died when he was nine and his mother was illiterate. But he learned to read and write, and he eventually wrote down many of the stories he heard during his childhood. He was the first person to write in the vernacular of the people of that day – everything before that time had been very literary. And they couldn't keep his fairytales in stock. They sold out immediately.”

Clair decided to tell Andersen’s story in a two-act musical. After various iterations, the show is now staged more for an adult audience – and that is where friend and fellow Copenhagen study abroad participant, David Woods, b music ’65, entered the scene.

The Big Debut

In May 2021, Clair visited Topeka and met up with Woods to tell him about the musical. Woods, retired from a successful career in higher education administration, had become good friends with Jerry Farley during Woods’ time as a dean at the University of Oklahoma. He suggested he and Clair meet June McCarty Clair and David Woods posingwith Farley, then president of Washburn, to petition the university to put on the musical. They also met with Craig Treinen, associate professor and chair of the music department and Sharon Sullivan, professor and chair of the theatre department.

“Within two minutes, Craig said, ‘This is an excellent idea.’ And then Sharon did the same,” Woods said.

“I thought it's a great thing for a graduate who has done something like this to be welcomed back to do it on campus.”

The debut of the musical was also planned to coincide with Washburn’s homecoming weekend this fall and a reunion for alumni who attended the study abroad in Copenhagen. Those from the reunion who could attend watched the musical together on opening night on Oct. 21.

Curtain Call

“Andersen: A Fairy Tale Life” is Clair’s fifth musical. She would love to see the show performed in other colleges around the country – and if it were to go 
to Broadway, she definitely wouldn’t turn that down.

“I am so grateful to Washburn for presenting the musical, and for my dear friend, David, who was my cheerleader and embraced it,” Clair said. “And I am forever grateful to Washburn for initiating the Washburn semester to Copenhagen and letting me be a part of it so many years ago.”

Winter 2024 The Ichabod magazine cover with picture of the bell tower and snow fallen on campus

The Ichabod tells our story with features on alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, along with the latest campus news. View the current and past editions


Please enter your username and password below. If you do not have a username and password, click "New user registration" to register.

New user registration
Forgotten password

1729 MacVicar Avenue
Topeka, KS 66604 Phone: 785.670.4483