If Charles Dickens were alive today . . . imagine the royalties.
His "A Christmas Carol" has long been one of the greenest evergreens in the theatrical repertoire, counted upon not only as a major heart-warmer and a holiday ritual but also as a guaranteed box-office draw by innumerable theater companies. A tale that warns against greed, it undoubtedly inspires a bit of greed as well.
This year appears to be the Scroogiest season yet for Southern California. Five Southland productions of Dickens' work will operate on Actors' Equity contracts during the coming holidays. The fare includes the longest local run yet for Patrick Stewart's solo version and a three-city tour of a new production from A Noise Within, plus the annual renditions at South Coast Repertory, San Diego Repertory Theatre and Santa Susana Repertory Theatre.
In addition to all that, a comedy that lampoons the whole "Christmas Carol" industry--"Inspecting Carol"--is playing Culver City, after earlier productions in Laguna Beach and Solana Beach.
Here are close-up looks at some of the players in this year's "Christmas Carol" field.
Patrick Stewart was holed up in what he called a "shabby" Derbyshire hotel lounge one morning 11 years ago, on a day off from shooting "Lady Jane." Torrents of rain fell outside. Having read the newspapers, he turned to a bookshelf, picked a volume of Dickens and began reading "A Christmas Carol." He couldn't put it down.
"I finished it in one sitting," he recalled, "and as I did, my face was awash with tears."
Shortly after that rainy day, Stewart first performed "Carol" at his brother's request, at a benefit for the restoration of the organ at the parish church they had attended as children. He didn't cut enough of the text, so it lasted almost three hours, he said, "but there were no signs of restlessness."
Three years later, Stewart was in his second season on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and was, he says, "beginning to accept the reality that this series was not going to go away. I was concerned that my stage muscles would atrophy." So he devised several solo performances he could do on short breaks from the series, without much planning.
One of them was "Carol." He showed the script to a Dickens expert at UCLA, Albert Hutter, and performed this new adaptation for the first time in Hutter's living room, followed by a couple of public but not publicized performances at UCLA--attended, he recalled with a measure of hyperbole, by "two old men and a dog."
The following year, promoted performances began, again at UCLA. L.A. critics were invited and liked what they saw. Word went out through the Trekker network. "The rest is history," Stewart said--six years of weekends at various Southland venues, three years of longer runs on Broadway, an Olivier Award in London in 1993, and now back to La Jolla and Los Angeles.
Because Stewart owns his adaptation, it has been "extraordinarily lucrative," he said.
Yet he continues to be affected by the story on an emotional level, too. On a recent morning at an otherwise empty Doolittle Theatre, he began rehearsing the thing again, all by himself, with just a work light for illumination. Surely that first flush of emotion from 1985 was long gone? No, he said: "On at least two occasions, I could not go on, because I was too moved by the story."
Stewart plays around 40 characters, though he said the exact number is in doubt because of disagreement among onlookers over "whether I play the pudding or not." He tinkers with the text every year, and now approximately two-thirds of the original is cut, including several passages that, he says, "grieve me greatly." Running time is down to approximately two hours plus intermission.
Dickens wouldn't mind the cuts, Stewart believes. The author himself cut parts of the text at his own public readings, which usually were followed by his reading of the murder of Nancy from "Oliver Twist." "Dickens was the first person who started softening up the story," Stewart claims, because "he wanted something light to preface the murder."
Despite such softening, Stewart said, some of the social criticism within "Carol" is as strong as anything else Dickens wrote. "So many versions emphasize the sentimental, the romantic, the bucolic, and not the redemption of an individual who was doomed. But I find the transformation of this remote, locked-away ice man incredibly moving."
"I feel like I'm going off to battle. I said to the dog, 'I'll see you in three weeks,' " said director Sabin Epstein. He was speaking on the eve of the first rehearsal for his adaptation of "A Christmas Carol," to be staged by A Noise Within in Lancaster, Glendale and Redondo Beach on a $180,000 budget--the company's largest budget ever for a single show.