‘TIS THE SEASON TO BE LISTENING TO A CHRISTMAS CAROL By Peter Filichia
They’ve arguably done more than anyone else to get kids interested in musicals.
We’re talking about lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Alan Menken who for decades have delighted children (and, when you come to think of it, plenty of adults, too).
Ahrens is a Tony-winner lyricist whose credits include the child-centric Seussical, Anastasia and many Schoolhouse Rock episodes. A kid is also an important character in her Once on This Island.
Menken’s the EGOT winner whose credits include Little Shop of Horrors, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Newsies and Aladdin. Literally millions of kids here and around the world know dozens upon dozens of his melodies.
Back in the mid-‘90s, Menken, Ahrens and her co-librettist Mick Ockrent joined forces to write a musical that has a very famous child in it: Tiny Tim, the little disabled kid who’s able to melt the flint-steel hard heart of Ebenezer Scrooge.
A Christmas Carol would be ensconced underneath Madison Square Garden, directly below where the Knicks and Rangers do battle, in what was then called the Paramount Theatre. Starting in 1994, it played ten consecutive holiday seasons.
During its initial run, Columbia recorded it. Although it’s been unavailable since the show’s closing in 2003, it’s back — as well it should be. Both songwriters did top-notch work.
Ahrens and Menken get into the non-Christmas spirit right away by having Ebenezer Scrooge sing that Dec. 25th has “Nothing to Do with Me.” This holiday hatred doesn’t stem from a lack of religious beliefs but from Scrooge’s fear that if he gives an occasional present to a relative, a day off to an employee or a handout to a beggar, he’ll wind up in the poorhouse as his family did.
That fate actually befell the father of Charles Dickens, who obviously remembered that situation when he conceived A Christmas Carol in 1843.
On this recording, your Scrooge is Walter Charles, who’d been on Broadway as Albin in La Cage aux Folles, Vince Fontaine in Grease and an unnamed cat in the original cast of that Andrew Lloyd Webber mega-hit. Charles makes a frightful villain in the early songs, but does a convincing 180-degree turn when he reflects on “Yesterday, Tomorrow and Today” near show’s end.
Jeff Keller, who occasionally portrayed The Phantom of the Opera in that even bigger Andrew Lloyd Webber mega-hit, plays The Ghost of Scrooge’s former partner Jacob Marley. Given that Marley is not only merely dead, but really most sincerely dead, Menken’s decision to put his song “Link by Link” in a minor key was most apt.
The Ghost of Christmas Past is portrayed by Ken Jennings. He’s best-known for originating Sweeney Todd’s Tobias Ragg (“Not While I’m Around”) whose hair turns ghostly white when he realizes what’s been cookin’.
Here The Ghost of Christmas Past delivers “The Lights of Long Ago” to remind Scrooge that he did have a love interest in his youth. Although Dickens had named her Belle, Ahrens and Ockrent redubbed her Emily. Was this in tribute to the actress whom you’ll hear, one Emily Skinner? You undoubtedly know her from her subsequent roles as an adoring wife in The Full Monty and a less satisfied conjoined sister in Side Show.
Emily envisions “A Place Called Home” for her and Ebenezer during the annual big Christmas bash thrown by the effervescent Mr. Fezziwig and his equally happy-go-lucky wife. A good time is had by all in the rollicking “Mr. Fezziwig’s Annual Christmas Ball.”
Gerry Vichi portrays Fezziwig. Although he’s performed in eight Broadway musicals dating back to Woman of the Year, you may not know this character actor by name, only by face. Get to know that face through mid-January in Something Rotten!
As Mrs. Fezziwig, Mary Stout’s on hand. While doing A Christmas Carol, she must have felt that she’d come full circle – for her first Broadway assignment had been another musicalization of a Dickens’ story: David Copperfield. The character’s surname provided the title of a 1981 short-run musical in which Stout played David’s surrogate mother, Peggotty.
Although Fezziwig gave Scrooge and Marley their first break, the two aren’t above a hostile takeover when the man’s generosity drives him into bankruptcy. Fezziwig’s insolvency reinforces to Scrooge he’s on the right track: save every pound or take a pounding. Emily soon returns Scrooge’s ring now that she sees he’s more interested in a monied life than a married one.
Yes, Scrooge has abundance but not charity, so The Ghost of Christmas Present arrives to make the present quite unpleasant for the miser. The spirited Spirit endeavors to teach Scrooge that the best way to live life is with “Abundance and Charity.” Michael Mandell, who would later appear in both Broadway productions of Elf, does the honors here in another rollicking production number.
Lest that message be lost, The Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to a home where a family is celebrating “Christmas Together.” Now these were the days before such films as Home for the Holidays showed that “relative humidity” wasn’t just a term to describe weather, but one that described a bevy of relatives getting hot under the collar. But a family’s sharing a holiday back in those days was cause for celebration, as we see Scrooge’s employee Bob Cratchit, his wife and his children, including the infirm Tiny Tim. To show their joy, what would be better than a swirling waltz? Menken provides one that is delicious.
So is the show’s final number sung by the entire company of more than 100. It’s called, as you might expect, “God Bless Us, Everyone” – a Menken-Ahrens beauty that definitely deserves to become a Christmas standard.
Notice that the spine of the jewel box simply says “Original Cast Album.” Dubbing it an “Original Broadway Cast Album” wouldn’t have been apt, for the production used a different contract system to pay its artists. An “Original Off-Broadway Cast Album” would have missed the mark, too, for the Paramount had thousands of seats, more than all the off-Broadway theaters at New World Stages put together.
Besides, A Christmas Carol’s weekly schedule was also substantially different from Broadway’s; because the show was only eighty-seven minutes long, it was able to play two or even three times a day, making for a fifteen-performance week.
And that brings me to this story.
One cold January morn in 1995, I was walking down Eighth Avenue and spotted an actor I knew. He threw his arms out wide and loudly proclaimed “Peter! At last! I’m out of prison!”
Good Lord! Prison! What had he done!? Then it’s true what we hear about actors?
“Yup!” he said with pride. “I’ve done my eighty-eight performances of A Christmas Carol in one month’s time and now I’m free! Free!”
God bless us, everyone! Perhaps you won’t want to play the Original Cast Album of A Christmas Carol eighty-eight times in a month. But don’t be surprised if you’re inclined to revisit it several times during this holiday season – and maybe even a bit beyond.
A Christmas Carol is now available for purchase on iTunes here, Amazon here and Google Play here. Listen on Spotify here and Apple Music here.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.