“It’s never too late to change.” That is the ultimate message in this musical version of A Christmas Carol.
I always consider Dickens’ story to be one of the greatest ever told. We all know people in our lives that could do with a good visit from three ghosts guiding them to redemption and a second chance at life.
When Mike Ockrent began to write this adaptation of A Christmas Carol with Lynn Ahrens and Alan Menken, not only did he want to remind audiences about this optimistic message, he wanted to create a show that children who might not normally ever go to the theater would remember for the rest of their lives.
Mike set out to create a theatrical experience that would be a true combination of traditional English Pantomime and classic American musical theater.
I was lucky enough to be the choreographer of this magnificent Christmas extravaganza. It will always be one of the highlights of my life, because of the extraordinary collaboration with the stellar creative team and their complete investment in telling this morality tale.
The show ran for 10 years at Madison Square Garden in New York City. This production had an innate ability to deliver an abundance of joy to everyone involved. Year after year, many of the devoted cast members would return, as would the entire creative team: the set designer Tony Walton, costume designer William Ivey Long, musical director Paul Gemignani, the musical team of Lynn Ahrens and Alan Menken, and our brilliant director and writer Mike Ockrent.
It gave us all great joy to gather together and bring this story to New York families every holiday season.
Our many Scrooges consisted of prominent actors such as Frank Langella, Tim Curry, Hal Linden, Roddy McDowall, Jim Dale, Tony Randall, and Roger Daltrey. Every actor who portrayed Scrooge would, at some point, tell me this was one of their most beloved roles. They relished the chance to portray a character who goes on an emotional journey through memory, empathy, and the confrontation of his own death. These actors had the opportunity to create a transformation from a miserly, self-serving, insensitive human being to an ethical, caring, and charitable member of society.
In writing this new adaptation, Mike Ockrent and Lynn Ahrens tapped into the real life of Charles Dickens. Dickens’ father was sent to Debtors’ prison and Charles had to leave school at the age of 12 to work in a factory. Because of his poor childhood, Dickens easily sympathized with children living in poverty. Our production shows how Dickens’ writings were influenced by his own childhood experiences.
As far as my role as choreographer, I had the great opportunity to tap into a variety of dance forms: ballet, tap, modern, and, of course, comic staging.
Tony Walton’s 19th Century London set gave me a variation of dance spaces. His set not only filled the proscenium, but spilled out onto the sides of the auditorium, surrounding the entire audience. It represented Victorian London’s contrasting class society – the very wealthy and the veritable poor. I had the challenge of filling all those spaces and making the audiences feel as if they had been transported back to Victorian England.
One of my favorite production numbers is Jacob Marley’s “Link by Link.” The chains he and his fellow ghosts carry represent the greed of their lives. This allowed me the opportunity to choreograph with a prop not normally used by a choreographer. The dancers swing chains through acrobatic moves such as Coffee Grinders, figure eights, and ultimately flying the performers above the stage to form a mammoth web of chains with a terrified Scrooge hanging in the middle. We even had a garbage can filled with chains in the orchestra that the percussionist would play to highlight the choreography.
Another cherished song is “Fezziwig’s Ball” sung by The Ghost of Christmas Past. He reminds Scrooge of the kindhearted Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig and guides him right into the middle of the Fezziwig celebration. We witness holiday cheer shared with all of Fezziwig’s guests as they partake in a rousing knees-up. Upper class, middle class, and working class characters do intricate steps interweaving between one another, creating quadrilles, polkas and Victorian waltzes.
The Ghost of Christmas Present sings the spirited “Abundance and Charity.” He starts with a large cornucopia-shaped sleigh filled with a bounty of Christmas treats. To help him distribute his presents, he has a slew of jubilant tap-dancing Victorian Pantomime ladies. (Dickens wrote about his admiration for tap dancing at Almack’s Hall during his tour of America.)
And my favorite number, “Dancing on Your Grave.” The Ghost of Christmas Future (a role always danced by a prima ballerina) takes Scrooge to his tombstone and dances a powerful danse macabre en pointe as she tries to pull Scrooge into his grave.
As a choreographer, this story gave me many opportunities to stage meaningful moments. I was inspired by the glorious melodies of Alan Menken, the witty and profound lyrics of Lynn Ahrens, and the loving guidance of Mike Ockrent. And of course, Charles Dickens.
If we all were able to truly embrace Scrooge’s last lines, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year,” the world would be a much better place.
Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Book by Mike Ockrent and Lynn Ahrens
Based on the novella by Charles Dickens
Direction by Mike Ockrent
Choreography by Susan Stroman
Set Design by Tony Walton
Costume Design by William Ivey Long
Lighting Design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer
Sound Design by Tony Meola
Musical Direction by Paul Gemignani