The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Theaters are shut, but ‘A Christmas Carol’ is forever. The endless variety online proves it.

(Christine Almeda for The Washington Post)
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This year, you can have “A Christmas Carol” any way you want it. Almost. You’d like to see it in real time on your laptop? You can do that. Want to gather around the radio like in the olden days and listen to the stage adaptation on Christmas Day? Yup, you can do that, too. How about a puppet version? A musical version? A digital production in which Scrooge is Ebenezer’s great-great-great-great granddaughter? Or one in which all the characters are played by a single actor?

Yes, yes, yes and yes. The only way you won’t see the Dickens classic is in the traditional manner: live, on a stage, with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future dazzling and/or scaring your little ones, and the Fezziwigs dancing their merry bonnets off. If you’re disappointed, well, get in line behind the leaders of theaters coast to coast, for whom “A Christmas Carol” is often a box-office bonanza — the holiday triumph that helps fill coffers for the rest of a season.

With the pandemic shutdown erasing one public ritual after another, theater companies have scrambled to deliver their Yuletide breadwinner on another platform — even if the money it normally rakes in will only be the equivalent of Scrooge’s table scraps. If at all.

“It’s the biggest revenue source of anything we do all year,” said Paul Tetreault, artistic director of Ford’s Theatre in Washington, where the production usually accounts for $2.5 million in ticket sales and 17 percent of the company’s annual revenue.

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Rather than cancel outright, though, Ford’s and an assortment of other theaters across the country, and beyond, have decided that the bleakest alternative would be no “Christmas Carol”-ing at all. Perhaps as a community service, or a minor moneymaker or even just a pledge to audiences that they’ll still be around after the covid-19 crisis finally fades, they are producing their seasonal offering in the manners in which the circumstances allow.

At Ford’s, that means a free, hour-long Christmas Day broadcast at noon on WAMU, the local public radio station, a tack similar to the on-demand audio version that Chicago’s Goodman Theatre has created, which runs through Dec. 31. London’s revered Old Vic is serving up full performances — for as much as £80 pounds — performed live on its stage through Christmas Eve. And a filmed incarnation, first performed at Los Angeles’s Geffen Playhouse with actor Jefferson Mays, portraying more than 50 characters, is streaming for $30 through Jan. 3; a portion of the proceeds go to 80 participating regional theaters.

On and online it goes, from Maine’s Portland Stage, to the New York Classical Theatre (with a 15-minute version!), to the Dallas Theater Center. It seems you just can’t stop the treat.

“It’s a great representation of the Old Vic as a venue, in terms of providing entertainment that’s got a purpose behind it, and a social mission,” said Matthew Warchus, the Old Vic’s artistic director, who staged this version by Jack Thorne with Andrew Lincoln as Scrooge. “The theater definitely has a role to play, and this year, that’s true more than ever. The thing that theater fundamentally does is bring people together, and this production is a great exemplar of theater as a unifying force.”

It is remarkable, the degree to which “A Christmas Carol” unifies the programming of so many stages this time of year.

“I don’t think at first we thought about money. At first, we thought of it as a community event,” said Gregory Mosher, chairman of the theater department at New York’s Hunter College, who, as artistic director, first produced “A Christmas Carol” at the Goodman in 1978 with executive director Roche Schulfer. Diverse casting, Mosher added, helped cement its reputation early on as an important city event.

“It’s a big entry point to the theater,” Schulfer said. “People who don’t know about the Goodman know about ‘A Christmas Carol.’ ”

Although a 1951 film of the Dickens novel, with Alastair Sim as Scrooge, is regarded by fans as a touchstone, there is no definitive interpretation for the theater — no single acting text from which all creative teams draw. That a story set in 19th-century England thrives in this country so ubiquitously, in so many permutations, remains a bit of a wonder. But you can come up with your own explanation for its universal appeal: It’s a story of redemption; it requires you to think of those less fortunate; it’s a parable of social justice; it’s simply a resplendent holiday yarn.

Mays filmed his one-man “Christmas Carol,” under Michael Arden’s direction, late last month in an old movie house — the United Palace theater — in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. Part of what makes multiple versions of the play eternal, for him, is simply the ritual.

“That experience is reflected in the story itself — it’s about memory, and memories of the past, images of the present and phantasmagorical visions of the future,” Mays said. His childhood memories are embedded in his performance — of his father and, particularly, his mother, an actress in her youth, reading the story to him and his siblings. “It is such a deeply personal story, because I stole line readings from my parents,” he said.

Charles Dickens’ beloved holiday classic "A Christmas Carol" starring Tony Award winner Jefferson Mays and directed by Michael Arden. (Video: A Christmas Carol Live)

At Ford’s Theatre, where “A Christmas Carol” has been a mainstay for more than four decades, the preparations for the streaming audio production began with adapter/director Michael Wilson trimming the 90-minute stage version to slightly under an hour. Tapings were conducted in October, with some of the 18 actors in their dressing rooms, others in makeshift home studios, and all of them on Zoom.

“It can’t happen in a theater, but it’s great that it can happen in our houses,” said Craig Wallace, reprising his Ford’s Scrooge for the fifth year.

Under covid-19 restrictions, only a few actors at a time could record in the theater itself, and on a Saturday in late October, Wallace was one of them, bah-humbugging his way through a scene with Michael Bunce and Ryan Burke as solicitors under Scrooge’s thumb and Stephen F. Schmidt as Jacob Marley. Remotely, Wilson offered tips on line emphasis, sound designer John Gromada supervised the recording, and dialect coach Rachel Hirshorn-Johnston offered encouragement on accents.

“Ryan,” Hirshorn-Johnston said during one scene break, “I’m still missing the liquid ‘y’ in ‘desti-tyute’ and ‘multi-tyude.’ ”

If the theater world feels frozen in place this year, an apparent industry-wide commitment to keeping up with the Cratchits helps in keeping spirits bright — and in hoping for a spring thaw.

“We just felt it was critical that we present it in some form,” Tetreault said of Ford’s radio version. “And I actually think when all is said and done, an audio recording in an almost old-fashioned kind of way is going to be pretty spectacular.”

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