Once upon a time, Christmas started the night of December 24. Now, thanks to media saturation, the holiday seems to begin the day before Halloween and all but obliterate Thanksgiving. If all the commercial hoopla surrounding the holiday is sapping your Christmas spirit, there's always Charles Dickens' fable, "A Christmas Carol," to remind everyone what it's all about.
Theatrical productions and adaptations of Carol are ubiquitous, but one of the most popular, and certainly the most opulent, is the annual musical staged at Madison Square Garden, with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens (Ragtime), and a book by Menken and director Mike Ockrent. The fifth go-`round for the musical starts previews at MSG Nov. 27 for an official opening Dec. 2 and a run through Dec. 27.
Roger Daltrey, lead singer for the rock group The Who, stars as Ebeneezer Scrooge, the miserly old man who changes his ways after a night of ghostly visitations.
Besides being a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Daltrey has appeared in several movies including, of course, "Tommy," the 1975 Ken Russell film of The Who's rock opera. Other film roles include "Quadrophenia," "Mack the Knife," Romantic Moritz (1999) and the television miniseries "Pirate Lives." Daltrey also sang the role of the Tin Woodsman in a 1995 concert rendition of Wizard of Oz.
Last year, the role of Scrooge was played, in rotation, by two different theatre veterans: Hal Linden and (the late) Roddy McDowall. Previous Scrooges included Walter Charles and Tony Randall. Carol's authors, Menken and Ahrens, have been busy recently. Menken is helping adapt Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame to the stage, while Ahrens and her co-writer Flaherty (Tony-winners for Ragtime) are working on Livent's Dr. Seuss (assuming economic plans aren't put awry by the ghost of Drabinsky's past...).
Designing the spectacle of A Christmas Carol are Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer (lighting), William Ivey Long (costumes), Tony Walton (sets) and Tony Meola (sound). Flying is by Foy, musical direction by Paul Gemignani, with orchestrations by Michael Starobin and Douglas Besterman. Susan Stroman (Steel Pier, Crazy For You) directs.
For tickets and information on A Christmas Carol call (212) 307 4111.
(As an extra dose of Christmas spirit, Daltrey and Ragtime's Audra McDonald will be the ones lighting the 25 foot Broadway Christmas tree this year, Dec. 9.)
Since gathering members of the press and getting them excited about an upcoming show is the best way to get good things written about it, on Nov. 12, Madison Square Garden opened the doors of a rehearsal to this year's A Christmas Carol. Playbill On-Line was there:
The event took place not at MSG but in a rehearsal room on the third floor of the Ford Center -- currently the home of another Lynn Ahrens show, Ragtime. We were ushered into a small rehearsal room, complete with a black dance floor and colored tape spike marks, indicating for the actors where the set pieces will move in and out during the show.
Rehearsal props are strewn about each side of the stage with dummy chains, gravestones and presents cast about as well. Because of space and money considerations, most rehearsals aren't accompanied by the lush orchestras we're used to seeing in a large venue like Madison Square Garden. Instead, a piano and a scaled down drum sit sat huddled in the stage left corner of the room.
Bedecking the stage-right walls is a collection of virtual mock-ups of the sets and lighting. They may be cardboard and colored tape right now, but they give the actors an idea of what the stage will be during the actual production.
The Nov. 12 presentation begins with speeches by the MSG executives and the introduction of adapter/director Michael Ockrent, choreographer Susan Stroman, conductor Paul Gemignani, and of course, the star of the show: former frontman of The Who, Roger Daltrey.
The presentation begins with the scene where the audience is first introduced to Scrooge. Daltrey pushes through the others actors with a cane and book in hand, commanding things like, "Cratchit, Hurry up will you!" and the traditional, "Christmas is a humbug!"
Three charity collectors enter urging Scrooge to donate some money for the poor of England, for "they have nowhere to go for Christmas." In perfect character, Daltrey replies, "Are there no prisons or workhouses?"
The second presented scene features the popular number from years past, "Link by Link," where not only is Scrooge haunted by the ghost of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley (played by Paul Kandel), but by other ghosts who are burdened with the "chains of their past." The entire ensemble is featured in this one, banging and clanking the chains strewn about the necks of each actor. The number ends with Scrooge being chained up just like them.
The Ghost of Christmas Present (Roz Ryan), makes her debut in the next segment, where the Cratchits are all sitting around the dining room table and Bob cuddles his crippled son, Tiny Tim. Daltrey sings a solo where he begins to find compassion for the sorrows of others. The Ghost of Christmas Present reveals two children to Ol' Ebenezer: "Ignorance and Want." Scrooge asks if they have a home, and she replies using his own words against him, "Are there no prisons or workhouses?"
Christine Dunn, a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, begins the fourth segment as The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be, in a number titled, "Dancing on Your Grave." The number begins with four male chorus members digging a grave in the background while the Ghost pirouettes through gravestones and coffins.
The finale to the Yuletide favorite is "God Bless Us Everyone," which Daltrey just recorded with The Harlem Boys Choir as a benefit for their school. "God Bless Us" has the entire cast facing the audience, in a setting reminiscent of a grade-school class photo, with a grinning Daltrey set at top center nestled in between the Ghosts and Tiny Tim.
After the presentation, PBOL had the brief opportunity to speak with choreographer Susan Stroman and Roger Daltrey.
Stroman told PBOL that working on the show has been, "A great experience; it's the fifth year in a row and still fun. The show has great deal of opportunity to dance. We have ballet with the Ghost of Christmas Future, musical comedy numbers, and the Fezziwig Ball, which is very much like a square dance. Everyone who auditions has to be able to move, and then I get to throw some dancers in the mix."
When asked about the show and his reasons for doing it, Daltrey had this to say, "The show is a great family show, a tradition, and in ninety minutes you get all the main parts that Dickens is trying to get through. That's what I think is fantastic about this adaptation".
"Bad Guys are always fun to play, because you can't just be 'bad', but there has to be that sense of fun," said Daltrey.
"The only "Christmas Carol" I can remember seeing is the Alastair Sim film, which is a classic. I vaguely remember reading it as a boy, but after the sixties, I'm surprised I can remember anything."
When asked about the persistent rumors that another Who rock opera and film, "Quadrophenia," might be turned into a stage adaptation, Daltrey laughingly said, "No, no plans whatsoever. I might be wrong, who knows what Pete [Townshend, The Who's guitarist and impetus behind bringing Tommy to the stage] has in mind. I don't think it could work because it's all about youth, rock and rebellion, and Broadway singers can't sing like that eight performances a week. I don't think anything more can be done with that than what The Who already did."
PBOL also asked Daltrey about the Broadway version of Tommy and his feelings about it -- considering he sang the role of "Tommy" on the record and played him in the Ken Russell film. He found watching the Broadway adaptation, "Difficult. Very difficult. I thought the cast was brilliant, but I had a lot of problems with the show, with the changes that were made for Broadway. But, again, there's no way to sing like I did in "Tommy" eight times a week".
Madison Square Garden's A Christmas Carol, starring Roger Daltrey, runs Nov. 27 - Dec. 27. For tickets ($19-$58) or more information, call (212) 307-4111.
-- By Sean McGrath and David Lefkowitz