Rep’s Meaningful Pageant

With the current production of “A Christmas Carol, The Musical” the Rep is doing what theatre artists have done practically since Charles Dickens’ novella about Ebenezer Scrooge was published in 1834.

Thanks in large part to the annual stage productions (and then, of course, film adaptations) of “A Christmas Carol,” the story of Scrooge’s redemption is a much a part of the American holiday as Christmas trees and eggnog.

“A Christmas Carol, The Musical,” written by noted composer and lyricist Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens, was in fact a fixture of New York City’s not inconsiderable holiday season for 10 years. “A Christmas Carol, The Musical” debuted at Madison Square Garden in 1994 with played each season thereafter with a series of high profile performers from Tony Randall to Roger Daltry taking on the role of Scrooge.

For the Rep’s creative team, the familiarity of the tale is one that presents its own set of problems. “How do we get audiences to watch what the story is about instead of watching this famous thing go by?” wonders director Alan Souza. “It is the trap of ‘A Christmas Carol.’”

This is the second year that Souza has helmed a big holiday musical for the Rep. His  “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” seen here in 2010, dazzled audiences and critics with its energy, color and style. For Souza, the message at the heart of “A Christmas Carol” is especially powerful in 2011.

Dickens, he notes, was writing about the Industrial Age and economic hardship that affected his own father, who went to jail for debt. “Dickens was writing about the socio-economic conditions and he was writing about the class system,” says Souza. “He was writing about what happened to his family. He was writing about the haves and have-nots. Turn on the television today and you could not have a more appropriate message.”

The director notes that the musical version communicates these ideas and characters in a different way than adaptations without the music. “It’s always a challenge in musicals because the book is written in shorthand, especially when based on a novel,” says Souza. “The music allows us to explore emotions and ideas that we don’t get to when it’s just speaking.

This version is masterful, thought it is different than that the one in New York. The music is very, very bright, as you would expect from Menken and Ahrens. We want that to be the hook and then surprise the audience in how we present the characters such a vivid way. You know Scrooge but you don’t him in the way we are portraying him and you don’t know it as a musical comedy.”

David Benoit has always been drawn to the character of Scrooge but didn’t think he would ever get the chance to play the part. Souza had worked with Benoit before and specifically asked him to audition. “I’ve wanted to play Scrooge since I was in college because I thought I understood him,” says Benoit. “I do understand him. But my physical type dictates the director’s choices.

Thankfully Alan is one that goes for the underbelly and not the shell.” “We want to find the humanity in Scrooge,” says Souza. Benoit knows that the expectations for “A Christmas Carol” are already set. “When you tell people you are in ‘A Christmas Carol,’ they sort of roll their eyes,” says Benoit. “But it’s just a beautifully written piece. The arc of Scrooge is so huge. We have these beautiful kids in the cast that are so hopeful and wonderful. All I have to do is watch them.”

The director wants more than a pageant, more than a brightly colored musical – though he wants that as well. “We will have succeeded if we can get the audience to believe these people exist in front of us,” says Souza. “You don’t realize you have so much in common with Scrooge. We are going to make a pretty package but the message there for the taking.”