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.
Yes, there’s been a thousand Christmas Carol adaptations 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? Because we knew they’ve all had one crucial storytelling element missing that we could bring to it… and in a way no had ever done before.
For an hour and a half, ebeneezer 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. And one thing more…
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 .
In the year 2010, Diane and Carma sat down and wrote the music and I adapted a script from A Christmas Carol to create a musical which Dolly Stevens of The Growing Stage produced it at The Old Stone School in Hillsboro, Virginia.
We tweaked it and, in 2012, my company, Run Rabbit Run Theatre produced it and I directed the show at the Franklin Park Arts Center in Purcellville. That production won a DC Metro Theatre Arts "Best of 2012" designation, along with Phil Erickson (Scrooge) as “Best Actor in a Musical”, Diane El-Shafey as “Best Musical Director”, and myself, “Best Director of a Musical”. We produced it again in 2018, and every show has had full houses and an enthusiastic response.
So, how did we catch the true spirit of this story? Well, 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. I’d read the book many times, 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 an audience's to feel the full impact of the story, they needed to invest themselves in every character from the very start - especially Mr. Scrooge - and to do that, the audience needed 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. That’s a shallow investment. I wanted them to care about the man, see the deep well of his loss and yearn for him to change. And I wanted audiences to 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 and Accompanist Carma Jones. They complemented each other perfectly: Diane creating words and piano score, and Carma assisting with music and creating instrumental score. They were professional, and their musical range - from depth to charm - was astounding.
During our years together, I'd been writing the historic fiction novels and (scripts) for original plays, adaptations and musicals and had become an award winning 19th century historian. I had a layered knowledge of 19th social behavior, dance, etiquette and folk music and that era’s unique humor. Yes, the audiences of A Christmas Carol needed to invest in the characters, but they also needed to invest in 19th century London!
With all that, I knew I could bring things to A Christmas Carol no one else could - or ever had.
After seeing an especially disappointing Ford’s Theatre stage production of A Christmas Carol in 2009, I called Diane and suggested we create 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. When Carma said she was happy to join the project, we jumped right in.
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, pretending our audiences 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. His 19th c. readers already 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. Watching Dickens push it away was horrifying to them, and we needed modern audiences to understand.
Now, Charles Dickens had chosen to start his story in Ebeneezer’s office as he’s rude to his poor assistant, Bob Cratchit. Next we see cold hearted Ebeneezer reject a request for donations, and lastly tell his cheerful nephew, No, he would not attend the party that night.
Dicken’s 19th century readers knew the amazing good that even a small donation could do in poverty-stricken London, and they could easily imagine the wonderful dances and parlor games Fred had planned and Scrooge would miss, but modern audience need alllll those blanks filled in. And a musical can enrich their imagination and touch them in ways nothing else can.
So we decided to start the show smack in the middle of a London Christmas Market, with a glorious song describing happy anticipation of Christmas Day. As Londoners sing, our audience sees all the baked goods and toys and hears laughter and flirtations alongside shouts of wide-eyed children. And every person there is a one-of-a-kind character whose words, action and song brings the moments of Christmas anticipation to life.
For instance, the first time our audiences meet the charity workers who’ll visit Scrooge is as they pass through the generous crowd and the younger charity worker flirts with a Ribbon Seller. As the song plays on, we meet Scrooge's nephew, Fred, as he buys his Uncle the beautiful Christmas wreath he’ll soon try to give him. And in a little while, we meet Scrooge himself treating these delightful Londoners with utter contempt.
Next, we go to Scrooge’s office - where Dickens started his book - and our audiences have a much deeper understanding of what Scrooge has chosen to reject.
And that night, when the Ghost of Christmas Past, pulls Scrooge to back to his youth - to the Marleys’ party, just as the book describes, but we go further into Scrooge’s life: we see a kind and happy Scrooge playing parlor games and singing a romantic duet with his love, Belle.
After the party - again, per the book - the young Scrooge will break off their engagement. But she sings “Belle’s Song” to him, begging him to come away from his greed.
The Ghost of Christmas Past (Molly Warndorf) brings Scrooge to the moment his younger self (played by Drew Hare) chooses money over love.
The haunting “Belle’s Song” - a particular audience favorite - sung by Belle (Annie Stokes) to the young man who has grown cold.
And the audience who had truly liked his young self is deeply struck by the loss of his soul.
I recently spoke with professional singer Annie Stokes, who portrayed Belle as well as 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.
During the story’s journey, we remain accurate to the book, but the bold music and characterizations - 34 actors creating 125 characters - paint each scene in rich colors that flow all the way to the frame's edges.
Our best rewardhas always been 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.
And I'm glad to report Charles Dickens hasn't haunted us yet.
The 2012 Cast of ONCE UPON A CHRISTMAS CAROL premiere at Franklin Park Arts Center, Purcellville, Virginia
Yes, pure fun is probably the best way to sum up our perspective on our new musical Christmas Classic! We, the creative trio, hope to eventually have it published, but, in the meantime, we’ll 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!”