HOW TO CATCH A CHRISTMAS SPIRIT The Making of "Once Upon A CHRISTMAS CAROL"
"And I say... God Bless it!" Ebeneezer Scrooge's Nephew, Fred, explains the Christmas spirit to his Uncle Scrooge.
It's a busy Christmas market in 1840 London, and vendors sell fresh Christmas greens, silk ribbons, and Christmas toys. Here comes a trio of Sweets Sellers and a German fellow with a cart full of hand-carved Nutcrackers. All of them sing to their customers that Christmas is almost here, and the crowd join them in joyful anticipation of Christmas Day.
Well.. not everyone.
Now the crowd falls silent as sour Ebeneezer Scrooge carves a vicious path through their center. Clearly Christmas means nothing to him, but Ebeneezer doesn't know Christmas is ready to change his mind.
Soon the ghost of Scrooge's long dead business partner, Jacob Marley, will appear to him, warning of three spirits who'll visit him that night: the Ghosts of his Christmas Past, Present and Future. Each will take Scrooge on a journey to visit his young loves and losses, see the happy family life he’s missing now, and mark the dark future that only he can change.
Ebeneezer Scrooge (Phil Erickson) is properly terrified by the Ghost of Christmas Present (Shawn Malone) in the 2012 production of ONCE UPON A CHRISTMAS CAROL .
This is how the musical Once Upon A Christmas Carol begins. For the next hour and a half, Scrooge will go on a journey that leads to his redemption. And the audience is with him every step, because very scene will be woven throughout with unique characters and joyful, poignant and hilarious music - everything anyone needs to fall in love with the Charles Dickens’ classic all over again.
Yes, a lot of A Christmas Carol adaptations have been created over the years - a lot of musicals, too. So why in the world would we - the creative trio of Diane El-Shafey, Carma Jones and myself - dare to write another? Well, because we could, I suppose, but first and foremost because we knew we could do it well and bring something to the story no had ever done before.
So, in the year 2010, we sat down and wrote a musical, and Dolly Stevens of The Growing Stage produced it at The Old Stone School in Hillsboro, Virginia. Then we tweaked it and produced it again in 2012 at the Franklin Park Arts Center in Purcellville and won a DC Metro Theatre Arts "Best of 2012" designation, as well as other accolades. And we produced it once more at Franklin Park Arts Center in 2018. Every show has had full houses and an enthusiastic response (And while audiences have loved it every time, it should be noted that the year we received awards was the only year a reviewer attended!).
So, how did we catch the spirit of this story? Well, speaking for myself as the adapter of the script and the Director, I've wanted to write a stage version of AChristmas Carol ever since I was a child. My family lived across the Potomac River from Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. and we attended A Christmas Carol there nearly every winter, and every time I saw the story performed, I knew something was missing.
When I grew older and began to write plays, I finally put my finger on the problem: in order for audience's to feel the full impact of a play, they need to invest in the characters from the very start.
For Scrooge, it meant a need to to feel more deeply about Scrooge before he became cold hearted. I didn't want audiences to simply hate Scrooge for his choices and be glad to see him suffer until he repents. I wanted them to care about him, saw the deep well of his loss and yearn for him to change. And I wanted audiences see Scrooge yearn for that change, as well.
Belle and Young Scrooge (Annie Stokes and Drew Hare) entertain the Fezziwig Party with the charming romantic 19th century duet, "Oh, No, John". The Ghost of Christmas Past has brought old Ebeneezer here to remind him how happy he was with the love of his life, Belle.
By 2010, I'd been blessed to produce several musicals with Composer Diane El-Shafey and Assistant Composer / Accompanist Carma Jones. They complemented each other perfectly, with Diane creating the words and piano score, and Carma assisting with the music and creating the instrumental score. They were professional and the depth and pure charm of the music they created was magic.
During the years we'd worked together, I'd been writing the historic fiction novels and (scripts) for original plays, adaptations and musicals. I was also an award winning 19th century historian with a layered knowledge of 19th social behavior, dance, etiquette, folk music... and its unique humor. All this had given me confidence to try something big. I knew I could bring things to A Christmas Carol no one could or ever had.
So, after seeing yet another disappointing stage production of A Christmas Carol in 2009, I called Diane and suggested creating a musical adaptation. As I began to explain why I had the audacity to approach such a task, we realized we were on the exact same page. Yes, the story had to stick to the book, but a stage adaptation needed audiences to fully understand the 1840s London Dickens knew and then take a closer look at Scrooge's whole life to make the story come alive. When Carma said she was happy to join the project, we jumped right in.
And I'm glad to report Charles Dickens hasn't haunted us yet.
London thieves in "The Scavenger Song" (L to R: Penny Hauffe, Christopher Miller, Chris Saunders and Sue Derrow)
We began by looking at the story from a modern audience's perspective. Then we pretended our audience had never seen or read the story and knew nothing of 19th century London.
We also looked at the tale from Charles Dickens' point of view. We knew his 19th c. readers understood the story's context: a London Christmas was a well-known quantity to them: the bustle of an English market place, the warm hearths and happy homes - nothing was knew to them.
Dickens chose to start his history in his office as Ebeneezer is rude to poor assistant, Bob Cratchit. Then we see cold hearted Ebeneezer reject a request for donations, and lastly tell his cheerful nephew, No, he would not attend his party that night. Now, 19th century readers knew the good a small donation could do in poverty-stricken London, and they could easily imagine the dances and parlor games Fred had planned that Scrooge would miss, but modern audience need those blanks filled in. And the book gives a strong idea, but a play - a musical - has to enrich the picture.
So we set our first scene smack in the middle of a London Christmas Market as a glorious song parallels the rise in anticipation of Christmas Day. Everyone can see the baked goods and toys, hear the laughter and flirtations along with the shouts of wide-eyed children. Every person there is a one-of-a-kind character whose words, action and song brought the moment to life. Our audience meets the charity workers as they pass through the generous crowd, and they see Scrooge's nephew, Fred, buy his Uncle a beautiful Christmas wreath before entering his Uncle's office.
So, yes, we remain accurate to the book, but with the bold music and characterizations (34 actors creating 125 characters!) , we painted each scene in rich colors that flow all the way to the frame's edges.
And the resulting energy was amazing. When all was "said, sung and done", the audience and the actors had a wonderful time, and every performance sold out.
The best reward, though, has always been the audience response - especially the children. Audience members told us they felt they were seeing Dickens' classic story with new eyes. And, just as we hoped, A Christmas Carol, suddenly meant more to them.
I recently spoke with professional singer Annie Stoke, who portrayed Scrooge's lost love, Belle - and a half dozen other characters, in the 2012 production. Annie told me what she loved most about the show was the beauty of the music, and then the challenge and pure unadulterated fun of becoming a different character every time she stepped on stage.
Pure fun is probably the best way to sum up our perspective on this New Musical Christmas Classic! The creative trio hopes to eventually have it published, but, in the meantime, begin to offer it to theatre companies across the country and see what happens! Because, as The Ghost of Christmas Present has said, “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour!”
The 2012 Cast of ONCE UPON A CHRISTMAS CAROL premiere at Franklin Park Arts Center, Purcellville, Virginia