Stage versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol are to American theatres what The Nutcracker is to ballet companies – or what pantos are to UK theatres. But that’s not the case when it comes to Broadway. When the Old Vic’s A Christmas Carol opens on Wednesday, it will be only the third version of this oft-adapted tale ever to appear in these storied theatres.
The previous Broadway Christmas Carol was Patrick Stewart’s one-man edition, which played four limited runs, in 1991, 1992, 1994 and 2001. While putting any show on Broadway isn’t inexpensive, Stewart’s was likely as economical as they come, since the teeming ranks of Dickensian characters were all embodied by the protean former starship captain.
It’s intriguing to ponder why this surefire holiday hit hasn’t been a seasonal favourite that established itself on Broadway long before now. Surely it’s not because of over-familiarity with the material. After all, many US regional theatres are said to balance their budget with A Christmas Carol, so there’s an evident appeal to what is almost a holiday ritual.
Demand is often so high, that a number of years ago Trinity Repertory in Providence, Rhode Island, managed to field two entire casts so that they could perform it three times a day, six days a week. At Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, New York, where I was managing director for two years, the holiday production was so popular that discount tickets were on sale for only a single day – in July – and the orders rolled in.
Of course, New York has long had its own Yuletide tradition, the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular, which dates back to 1933 and plays in the nearly 6,000-seat venue just outside the defined theatre district of Times Square. With three or four shows a day at the height of the season, that’s tough competition, as is The Nutcracker at New York City Ballet.
‘At US regional theatres, carollers in the show are often drawn from the ranks of local musical groups, with children’s roles cast through local auditions’
But the perennial appeal of A Christmas Carol has been sufficient to power dozens of movies, with even modern spins like the Bill Murray version Scrooged now having aged into a traditional treat themselves. On television, one high-rotation adaptation is a TV movie with a starry UK cast including David Warner, Susannah York, Edward Woodward and Roger Rees providing support to the Scrooge of George C Scott. It’s worth noting that Broadway’s new Scrooge will be played by Campbell Scott, taking on his father’s role from 35 years earlier.
At regional theatres, it’s fairly common to find Christmas Carols positioned as community outreach, with carollers drawn from the ranks of local musical groups and children’s roles typically cast through local auditions. Broadway doesn’t have the same freedoms due to different Actors Equity contracts, and while the Lyceum will field a cast of 17, which is by no means small, it’s not packing people on to the stage the way a regional production might.
New York hasn’t been wholly Christmas Carol-resistant. A musical version by Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens, with a book by Ahrens and Mike Ockrent, played the Theatre at Madison Square Garden for a decade in the 1990s and early 2000s, with major stars as Scrooge, including Tim Curry, Roddy McDowall and Frank Langella. That take also became a television version, in 2004, with Kelsey Grammer as the fabled miser.
And that third Broadway Christmas Carol mentioned at the top? A musical version of the story, Comin’ Uptown, with Gregory Hines as Scrooge, played a brief run of 19 previews and 45 regular performances at the end of 1979 into early 1980.
While small Off-Broadway Carols have cropped up now and again, perhaps the greatest deterrent to an annual Broadway Christmas Carol has been the shelf-life of such a production. Some people don’t want to start thinking about the holiday until mid-November and it’s old news after New Year’s Day. So the economics of producing a satisfying version that works economically in a very short season is the built-in bugaboo that the Old Vic version is now challenging.
It will prove very interesting to see whether Jack Thorne’s adaptation, directed by Matthew Warchus, can successfully colonise the Great White Way and become a perennial. But regardless of whether Scrooge fills his coffers in New York, he can rest assured that he’s secure on stage just about everywhere else. Bob Cratchit will be entering numbers in his ledger come December 26 for many years to come.
Matthew Lopez’s two-part The Inheritance receives its US premiere on Broadway this Sunday night, once again directed by Stephen Daldry. The cast includes John Benjamin Hickey, Kyle Soller and Lois Smith.
The South African musical group Ladysmith Black Mambazo and playwright Eric Simonson, who created the stirring The Song of Jacob Zulu back in 1992, have reunited at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre for a new project, Lindiwe, opening on Tuesday. Simonson directs.
Tony Kushner’s first professionally produced play, A Bright Room Called Day, seen at the Public Theater in 1990 returns to that venue for its first major New York revival, opening on Tuesday. Kushner has made revisions to the play to encompass the present day, rather than root it solely in the post-Reagan era when it premiered. Oskar Eustis, the Public’s artistic director, stages the play.
The Half-Life of Marie Curie, a new play by Lauren Gunderson, opens Off-Broadway on Tuesday under the auspices of Audible, which will release it in audio form in December. It focuses on Curie’s life after the death of her husband and her relationship with fellow scientist Hertha Ayrton. Gaye Taylor Upchurch directs.
Kenny Leon directs the newest play from Will Eno, The Underlying Chris, opening on Thursday at Second Stage. It’s described as an examination of how a person comes into their identity.
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/