Q: What was your inspiration for your adaptation of A Christmas Carol?
A: I wrote and directed Rockin’ Christmas Party, a musical review with just enough script to hold the songs together, and it became a big Austin holiday tradition for so many people — I did it for 10 years at the Paramount for a four week run each year and then we moved it to ZACH’s Kleberg stage where it ran for another 7 years. It was fun for the audience and I would change up sections of the show each year to keep it fresh, but around the 15th year it stopped being fun for me creatively. I hated to end a show that so many people came to each year, but I needed to let it go so I could embrace other projects artistically. I began to think about what else I could create for ZACH for the holidays and that’s when my attention turned more seriously toward A Christmas Carol and how I might approach it.
Initially, I had sketched out a plot where Scrooge was a contemporary African American woman who was a media mogul a la Oprah Winfrey as a vehicle for actress Janis Stinson with whom I’ve worked a lot. About a year after I started work on that a TV movie version starring Vanessa Williams came out and while it was not the same plot, it was similar enough that I felt like it would look like I was copying the movie, so I abandoned that writing, although three of the songs I had in that version are in the current show.
I like the form of Baz Luhrmann’s film Moulin Rouge where he used music from multiple eras and genres, re-orchestrated to tell the story of bohemian Parisians in the early 1900’s. I like the aesthetic of anachronistic elements colliding in a story, so the juxtaposition of contemporary music and a period setting and costumes appeals to me very much. For me it allows an accessible way into a story for a contemporary audience. The holiday party that Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, throws at his home is usually depicted with the partygoers being male/female couples playing a word association parlor game where Scrooge gets described as a bear and other animals to suggest his disagreeable nature. Fred is a newlywed in his 20’s, and if I think about a party involving some twenty-somethings and their best friends today it is going to be a more fun, raucous party with music, drinking, dancing and maybe some karaoke. Also their friends are going to include people of multiple ethnicities and sexual orientations, including people who are single. So I wanted to take this fancy party in gowns and tuxedo tails and make it feel a little closer to what it feels like to be mid-twenties now. This same idea is applied throughout the show. It is no secret that I am a big fan of gospel and soul music and great vocalists. So the Christmas carols we sing have arrangements that are soulful, sometimes doo wop or honky tonk-inspired, and sometimes with a full gospel church approach.
For the Fezziwig Party, Allen Robertson (Musical Director & Arranger) and I wanted the arrangements to have an older, acoustic piano feeling since it is in the “past” in the story. Consequently, some contemporary songs by the Black Eyed Peas, Justin Bieber and Ace of Base have been given arrangements with instrumentation to help suggest another time that’s nostalgic. I also made the decision to make the Fezziwigs a Jewish family celebrating Hanukkah — we have families in our community who celebrate this holiday season in many ways, and I didn’t want the only representation onstage to be only of the Christian tradition.
The holidays make some people depressed, and sometimes this has to do with family relationships, and sometimes it is about being reminded of a romantic relationship that ended in the past, like Scrooge, or one that isn’t going well in the present. I wanted to represent this voice of loneliness and feeling blue in my play as well, so the end of Act One is when Scrooge’s fiancé Belle ends their engagement. The Ghost of Christmas Past encourages Scrooge to not give up on love even though he’s been “bucked off of the horse,” and that love is worth the risk for the many ways it enhances your life.
Q: How long have you been working on this script?
A: I have been jotting down notes for the past ten years that I kept in a file on my laptop. In earnest I began work on it about two years ago, and the past seven months have been the most intense part of the writing process and song selection. Throughout rehearsals and the preview period I have been doing some rewrites and changing staging and musical moments. I knew this would be a large undertaking, but I’ve got to say during technical rehearsals it seemed even larger than I had imagined it because it has all the requirements of a large musical, with a very large sound effects soundscape, and the requirement to create stage magic for our ghosts. What is on stage matches what was in my head all these years I’ve been thinking about this, and you can’t always say that when you get to the finished production. I feel very fortunate to have worked with such terrific designers and collaborators on this project.
Q: Why did you choose a nontraditional casting?
A: I approach all casting at ZACH as multi-cultural, unless a particular musical like Hairspray or a play like All The Way calls for specific casting because the play is about race relationships, or race figures into the historical plot. I think the experience for all of us is enhanced by seeing a world which is diverse and varied on stage. I think contemporary audiences, especially those coming to ZACH, expect us to have actors on stage who are representative of many facets of our community. At regional theaters across the country, A Christmas Carol often becomes the time in which you will see diversity in casting choices, and at ZACH we take this to heart as a regular casting practice.
Q: How did you determine which characters and scenes should represent each of the different cultures included in the story? Were the cast members involved in any direct changes to the script/story/etc?
A: Throughout the play the music came first, I wasn’t thinking about race or culture, I was looking for music where the lyrics matched the emotional content of the character’s journey or told the story of the scene we were in. Once I had the music roughly in place some trends began to emerge for me and there were some actors I wanted to pre-cast in roles. Working with Michael Valentine this summer as Tommy I decided to cast him as Fred, Scrooge’s nephew because Michael has a wonderful contemporary R&B white soul pop quality that is crystal clear and I knew would lend itself nicely to the party I wanted to create around Fred.
I had selected the songs “For The Love of Money” and a sparse dark arrangement of “If You Could Read My Mind” for Marley, Scrooge’s business partner, and to me there was only one voice I knew that would be really outstanding on this material and that was Roderick Sanford. I didn’t start out at the beginning of this process thinking I want Marley to be African American — it just so happened that the best candidate for the role as it began to form, was a black actor. The same for the Charitable Gentleman, the successful businessman who collects contributions for the needy at the beginning of the play — I knew I wanted this role to double with the Ghost of Christmas Past and Kenny Williams, who I’ve worked with a lot, came to mind for me because he has such a strong nostalgic, crooner quality I wanted for the ghost representing the “past”. That he is African American was inconsequential to me; Kenny has been one of my closest friends for over 20 years and I wrote the Ghost as an exaggerated extension of his own personality and things I have heard him say over the years. Kenny is also good friends with Billy Porter who won the Tony Award for Kinky Boots, and I told Kenny six months ago, “If you and Billy had a baby it would be the Ghost of Christmas Past in this production.” From day one of this rehearsal process Kenny has known exactly who this character was and delivered “him” in the room.
I knew I wanted the Fezziwig family to be Jewish, because I wanted to include other family traditions. In the novel Mr. Fezziwig is a fantastic businessman, who is generous and kind and has a warm sense of family that is very inclusive of everyone who works for him.
For me the story of the Cratchits is the most important part of the play because it becomes the demonstration to Scrooge of what a loving family is and how a life is well lived. That there is no focus on material things because the family is focused on the riches they enjoy from each other in their close relationships. Robert, a good friend of mine, is always relating to me stories about his family at the holidays and the closeness of the relationships he has with his parents, grandparents and siblings. There is a strong sense of tradition in the way they celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas, that isn’t really a part of my family anymore. The bond of love in Robert’s family is very strong and the sense of connection they experience is so attractive. Robert is Mexican American and this sparked the idea for me that the Cratchit family could be a Hispanic family that would be reflective of Austin in that a large percentage of our city is comprised of Latino/Latina families. Based on my friendship with Robert, and subsequent interviews I did with some ZACH staff members and other friends who have a Mexican American heritage, I began incorporating the traditions and terms of endearment they related to me as the framework for these scenes.
Having worked with Paul Sanchez and knowing that he is a great father in real life, I wanted to have him play Bob Cratchit and then I built the family off of casting him. I knew Paul played guitar at home with his kids and I liked this as the idea of how we would incorporate music into the Cratchit household, so that it was acoustic and simple, and subsequently more honest and direct than perhaps other parts of the play.
I did not originally have a song in the show for Marta, the oldest daughter of the Cratchits but upon meeting Marianel Marquez I knew I had to create a moment for her because she sings with an honesty and power that is something very special. Alejandra McGuire who plays Mrs. Cratchit grew up in Mexico City and when I did the bilingual Jesucristo Superstar at ZACH, Alejandra and her niece did the Spanish translation of the lyrics for our production that was approved by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
On the first day of rehearsal, I told the actors who were cast in the Cratchit family that what I had written was only a blueprint for their scenes and that I needed their full participation in shaping these scenes so they would feel authentic to their experience. What was said in Spanish and how it was said I left entirely up to the actors and we incorporated all of their changes. Every single Hispanic friend and actor I interviewed for this section of the show expressed the same common traditions they felt should be incorporated into the scene — a manger scene, tamales, poncho Navideño, prayer, oranges and nuts in the stockings for the kids. We incorporated all of these elements into the Cratchit scene as part of the fabric of the family without calling any special attention to it, just as we don’t call any special attention to the menorah in the Fezziwig scene, it’s just part of the family.
In the Cratchit scenes we are doing a Bruno Mars song and a Beyonce song because the emotional content of those songs matched what I needed to convey in those moments, and Paul suggested he play “Count On Me” in a Spanish guitar style and that he float the melody in his tenor in a way that might be more evocative of music he would sing with his family in Mexico. Allen and I were completely open to this and let him run with it because having ownership of it was the most important thing to me. In the Fred Party scene are two songs associated with Latino artists, Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull, simply because these songs worked best lyrically in the story I was developing, not because they were Latino artists. There are other Hispanic actors in the cast playing affluent party guests at Fred’s party who are friends with he and his wife Gwen.
Scrooge’s housekeeper/cook Mrs. Dilbert is a very small part of Charles Dicken’s novel — I was interested in expanding her role and having this actress also play the Ghost of Christmas Present, who is responsible for showing Scrooge the things as they truly are. I saw women of various races for this role and there were Caucasian women who made the character work in auditions by playing it in a style that was kind of like a character from Designing Women, it worked and was funny. Musically I selected songs that are for a soprano and have a soulful, soaring gospel quality with songs by Earth Wind and Fire, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, and gospel versions of Christmas carols. The two actresses who delivered these songs with the most conviction and authenticity and had the best reading of the scenes were Jacqui Cross and Amma Osei, both of whom are African American and are sharing the role of Mrs. Dilbert. So I was willing to cast this role with any race, but I was not willing to compromise the integrity of the music with any interpretations that felt false. We incorporated ad libs that each actress had, and the gospel moments in the show are “a call and response” between singer and choir, so this needs to be open to the vocal instincts and inspiration of the singer. Jacqui and Amma interpret these moments differently, as they should, because it is about inspiration in the moment. It’s up to the discretion of the actress and her instincts, and these are intended to be different from night to night based on what is happening in the room with the audience in that particular show.
Q: If there’s one message you hope the audience takes home with them, what would that be?
A: I love the line in Dickens’ story, and I am paraphrasing, where he says that some people laughed to see the changes in Scrooge, but he let them laugh, because now his own heart laughed and that was enough of him. We can’t be completely responsible for the ways that we are perceived or who people think we are, but we must be accountable to ourselves and to our own hearts. Scrooge doesn’t care if people are questioning his motivations for the change he has made in his life, he cares about realizing that change for himself to become the person he always intended to be. I put Aloe Blacc’s song “Love Is The Answer” in this show because as corny or simplistic as that seems, I truly believe that sentiment. It is how I was raised and I subscribe to the notion of love thy neighbor as thyself. A Christmas Carol celebrates family, romantic relationships, friendship and the ways we can be good stewards and builders of community regardless of race, gender, religion or lack thereof, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, or anything else we use to draw divisions between people in a community. With all the work I am involved in I want to foster community and learn from other people who are different from me — it builds understanding and helps open our minds and hearts to new perspectives that make living better.
Q: You know these characters well, if Scrooge could give us all once piece of advice, what would it be?
A: To live each day with Christmas in your heart and make each moment count.