Merry Christmas to All: the American Theater Recycles Films of the Past for Historic Holiday Cheer this Season





12-5-11

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

This holiday season three blockbuster Hollywood films from the past are being turned into stage plays by Santa and his elves to help theaters celebrate Christmas. I’s a first.

Over the past few years, a stage version of Frank Capra’s enchanting 1940s Christmas film, It’s A Wonderful Life, with good old George Bailey, of Bailey Building and Loan, and Clarence, the angel in search of his wings, has been produced as It’s A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play.  Along with it, a new stage version of the hit 1954 Bing Crosby/Danny Kaye musical, White Christmas, about a pair of ex-GIs who stage a play to save the bankrupt New England inn of their beloved old general on Christmas Eve, is hitting theaters coast to coast.

And now this winter, there’s a theater version of the irreverent, howlingly funny and lovable holiday film A Christmas Story, the small-town charmer about little Ralphie, who desperately wanted a Red Ryder rifle for Christmas (“You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!”).  The new version of A Christmas Story, by Jean Shepard and produced by Peter Billingsley, who played Ralphie in the 1983 film, is on a tour of the country now and by Christmas Day will have been shown in half a dozen theaters.  It was at the Fisher Theater in Detroit last week and is at the Progress Center in Raleigh, NC this week.  The musical will be at the David Straz Center in Tampa next week and at the Chicago Theater December 14-30.  The new musical, which could go on to be its own holiday tradition, has a book by Joe Robinette and music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

So far, A Christmas Story has been a huge hit.

“The musical received standing ovations every single performance when it was here.  People just loved it.  It was a standout for us,” said James Manduzi, the general manager of Detroit’s Fisher Theater.  “Everybody came because they had seen the movie over the years.”

Surprisingly, people who did not care for the movie loved the play.  “I’m one of them,” said Manduzi.  “I thought the play was put together much better than the film.  Maybe it being live, or on stage in front of you, that did it, but it worked here.  We had lots of people who thought the play was better than the film.”

Executives at the Paper Mill Playhouse, in New Jersey, discovered the same thing with their film-to-stage hit, White Christmas.

“Everybody watches that movie on TV and likes it.  We are talking tens of millions of people.  So, naturally, they want to see it in a theater, too,” said Patrick Parker, associate artistic director of the Paper Mill.   

Audiences learn much about history through the film-turned-plays, too, from World War II battlefields to the postwar American economy to small-town life in the ‘70s.

The three film-into-stage vehicles do not mean that theaters throughout America have no creative skills for the holidays and nothing under their Christmas trees for the family; it just means that now they can attract ever larger audiences with a film (in this case A Christmas Story) that just about everybody has seen, and smiled at, at some point in their lives.  The turn to successful films may dramatically alter the theater landscape at Yuletide, but not necessarily in a bad way.  Santa will still come down the chimney and devour the cookies the kids left for him.

The three new plays, no matter how popular they are, will be left well down the track by the Christmas champion for performances numbers, endurance and boxes of Kleenex—Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

We surveyed just over fifty U.S. theaters and nearly half of them are producing A Christmas Carol right now, or will stage it by December 25. The 168-year-old story of cranky Ebeneezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim and the three ghosts of Christmas, all on the old cobblestoned streets of London, is, by a wide margin, America’s favorite holiday play.

Theaters stage it again and again.  The Guthrie, in Minneapolis, is producing A Christmas Carol this year for the thirty-seventh  consecutive season.

A Christmas Carol is a timeless story of redemption for Scrooge.  That story works today just as it did a hundred years ago.  You have poor little Tiny Tim, hard working Bob Crachit and the ghosts,” said Quinton Skinner, an executive at the Guthrie.  “You can also do a lot of marvelous things in this play, like having ghosts fly in from the top of the theater and people popping up out of trap doors on the floor.”

Skinner said, too, that families love it.  “We get people who bring their kids and then, years later, those kids bring their own kids. It’s a holiday tradition around here,” he said.

And A Christmas Carol, more than any holiday play, brings history.  You learn all about Charles Dickens and mid-nineteenth-century London and all of its problems.  Many theaters even have education programs for high school and junior high school students where they stress what life was like for the characters in the play.

Among the theaters that will produce A Christmas Carol is the Actors’ Theater of Louisville (December 6-25). They preceded it with their own version of A Christmas Story, which ran November 8 – 27.  They are joined in productions of A Christmas Carol by Houston’s Alley Theater (December 1-27), which is showing A Christmas Carol along with an irreverent holiday comedy, Santa Land Diaries, that is now running and continues through New Year’s Eve.  A Christmas Carol is also being produced by the Alliance Theater of Atlanta, Georgia, December 25-27, the American Conservatory Theater of San Francisco (December 1-24), the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (November 25 – December 24), the Dallas Theater Center (November 25-December 24), the McCarter Theater, in Princeton, NJ, the Guthrie in Minneapolis, ( November 19-December 30), and the Hartford Stage, in Connecticut (November 25 – December 30).  Also:  the San Jose Repertory Theater (November 23 – December 24), the Trinity Rep in Providence, RI, (November 18 – December 30) and the Virginia Stage Company, in Norfolk, Virginia (December 2 – 24).

The plays presented by many of the other theaters across the U.S. in December represent a mix of work, but most with some kind of holiday connection.  As an example, the Cleveland Playhouse is presenting the Sherlock Holmes play, The Game’s Afoot, but billing it as “Holiday Homicide.”  The Diamond Head Theater in Honolulu, which will surely not see a white Christmas, is staging Cinderella, a family show.  The Actor’s Theater of Charlotte, North Carolina, is producing Chaps! A Jingle, Jangle Christmas (December 12-23).  The Old Globe Theater, in San Diego, is staging a brand-new musical by Burt Bacharach called Some Lovers, which is a new version of O. Henry’s Christmas story, Gift of The Magi.  The Barrington Stage Theater, in western Massachusetts, is screening the movie White Christmas in the theater at 2:00 p.m. December 17.

In addition to all of that, dozens of theaters across the country are staging family-oriented Christmas plays of one kind or another, plus holiday reviews of strictly children’s theater holiday shows.

“Holiday shows in theaters always do well, and you can stage the same show year after year and keep drawing crowds.  They’re theater magic,” said Manduzi, of the Fisher Theater in Detroit.

Judy Joseph, vice president of programming for the Straz Center in Tampa, agrees.  “People expect a holiday show of some kind in November and December.  We were eager to get A Christmas Story because everybody saw the movie.  You have to give people a very professional show, however, and this is it,” she said.

Ms. Joseph added, though, that the Straz Center, which has five theaters, also stages a production of The Nutcracker every holiday season.  “The holidays are very special for people, especially families, and they want good entertainment.  All of these holiday shows give them that.  I think shows like Nutcracker and A Christmas Story give people a sense of the past, of simple times, and in this recession people yearn for that.”

Numerous theaters, from New York’s prestigious Metropolitan Opera House to tiny community theaters, are staging the Nutcracker ballet, about the wondrous goings on in a home on Christmas Eve.

Some theaters are continuing their regular, serious stage series through the holidays.  These include the Warehouse Theater, in Greenville, S.C., which is staging Stones in his Pockets through December 17; the Zachary Scott Theater Center, in Austin, Texas, that is presenting God of Carnage (November 29 – Jan. 8), the Salt Lake Theater in Salt Lake City, Utah, which is producing How I Became a Pirate (December 9-30); the Signature Theater, in Arlington, Virginia, which has Hairspray (November 21-January 29); Steppenwolf Theater, in Chicago, which is showing Penelope, now through February 5; and the Syracuse Stage, in Syracuse, NY, which is producing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Nov. 25 – Dec. 31).

And, of course, do not forget the production of A Klingon Christmas Carol, snatched for the holidays from Star Trek.  A rather bizarre knockoff of A Christmas Carol, staged in the Klingon language with characters dressed as Klingons, is playing again at the Mixed Blood Theater in Minneapolis through December 13.  Another production of the show, produced by the Commedia Beauregard, is playing at Chicago’s Greenhouse Theater Center.  There are English subtitles for those who might not be familiar with Klingon (although I would think everybody is). Oh, Scrooge in Klingon is SQuja.

No matter what stage you go to this month, there is sure to be a holiday play or at least a holiday look to the theater. It is that wondrous time of the year once again.


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