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Scrooge U: Part XXXVII -- Ahrens & Menken deliver delightful "A Christmas Carol: The Musical"

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Scrooge U: Part XXXVII -- Ahrens & Menken deliver delightful "A Christmas Carol: The Musical"

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"Tell the truth. You're getting kind of tired of writing about 'A Christmas Carol,' aren't you?"

No, this wasn't an e-mail that some disgruntled JHM reader sent me. But -- rather -- the ever-wise & patient Nancy (Who -- FYI -- has been formatting each & every one of the photos that we've featured in the "Scrooge U" series). Given that this website will be wrapping up its first-ever 40-part series in just a few days, my significant other just wanted to know if I was officially Dickens-ed out yet.

I said "No." Mind you, I also told Nancy that -- if I ever again suggested writing a 40-part anything for JHM (Particularly over the holiday season) -- she had my permission to shoot me. But -- truth be told -- I'm not entirely Dickens-ed out. Not yet, anyway.

I mean, how many times do you actually get to something like this? Compare & contrast this many versions of a particular holiday story. See what sort of spin each set of film-makers puts on Dickens' tale. How they interpret the material.

Take -- for example -- Lynn Ahrens & Alan Menken's "A Christmas Carol: The Musical." Which uses Charles Dickens' text as the inspiration for a heartfelt TV movie loaded with great songs.

Copyright 2004 Hallmark Entertainment

Truth be told, this new musical version of "A Christmas Carol" actually started out life as a stage production. Director Mike Ockrent came up with the initial concept for this show. Which called for telling Charles Dickens' classic holiday tale on a truly grand scale. With a cast of 70, a 25-piece orchestra, a set design that literally surrounded the audience in 1843 London, even an indoor snowfall.

But Ockrent's really genius touch was in recruiting Lynn Ahrens to help him write the book for this new adaptation of "A Christmas Carol." Lynn -- in turn -- would pen the lyrics for all 22 songs in the show. Which Alan Menken would then provide the music for.

The end result debuted in 1994 at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. And audiences immediately embraced this tuneful new adaptation of Dickens' classic tale. Returning year after year to experience what eventually came to be seen as a NYC holiday tradition.

But sadly all good things must eventually come to an end. After 10 years of presenting five weeks of live shows at MSG each holiday season, "A Christmas Carol: A Musical" closed for good in December of 2003. Only to have RHI Entertainment immediately begin work on translating this popular stage musical to the small screen.

Copyright 2004 Hallmark Entertainment

Thankfully, the folks at RHI were smart enough to recruit Ms. Ahrens to write the teleplay. And Lynn kept she & Mike's very best concept from "A Christmas Carol: A Musical" intact. Which was that -- as our story starts -- the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Be are already out walking the streets of London. Carefully observing Ebenezer Scrooge (Kelsey Grammer) as he interacts with his fellow man on Christmas Eve.

The first to come in contact with this miserable miser is the Ghost of Christmas Present (Jesse L. Martin). Who -- while disguised as a sandwich board man -- cautions Scrooge that " ... Life'll pass you by in just a while, sir. And it may be later than you know."

Next up in the Ghost of Christmas Past (Jane Krakowski). Who -- while she's dressed as a lamplighter -- Ebenezer accidentally knocks down. Scrooge hurries off without helping this holiday spirit back to her feet. Which is why she calls after him " ... Oughta take the time for doin' right, sir. You'll be sorry, sir, when you look back."

Finally it's the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be (Geraldine Chaplin). Who -- while dressed as a blind woman -- asks Ebenzer if he can " ... spare a coin for someone who is blind, sir?" When Scrooge -- as he brushes her off -- says "Go to the workhouse, old woman. I have nothing for you," this holiday spirit latches onto his arm, saying "None so blind as those who will not see."

This trio of encounters coming so close together really unnerves Ebenezer. So he pries the old woman off his arm and then hurries away, only to have this supposedly blind woman call after him "Go your sorry way and never mind, sir. Come the future you'll remember me."

Copyright 2004 Hallmark Entertainment

As if things weren't already going badly enough for Ebenezer Scrooge, his trip home is interrupted by a funeral procession. As he stands, waiting for the hearse to pass, he realizes that the woman in the coffin is Mrs. Smythe. Whose husband just visited Scrooge, seeking an extension on his loan. Given that Mr. Smythe (Ian McLarnon) had to spend all of his available cash to insure that his wife received a proper burial.

"What was Scrooge's response for Smythe's request for a just little more time to repay his loan?," you ask. Ebenezer responded by saying that he would begin eviction proceedings for the Smythe family the very next morning.

This is perhaps why Scrooge now has trouble meeting the eye of the Smythe family as they slowly walk past him, lost in their grief. But the song that young Grace Smythe (Emily Deamer) sings about how we should ...

Let the stars in the sky
Remind us of man's compassion
Let us love till we die
And God bless us everyone

... seems to touch Ebenezer, if only for a moment. Then -- closing himself off from the world again -- Scrooge hurries home. Only to rub his eye with disbelief. Given that the doorknocker at Ebenezer's house has taken the shape (albiet temporarily) of his long-dead partner, Jacob Marley (Jason Alexander).

Copyright 2004 Hallmark Entertainment

This sets the stage for one of "A Christmas Carol: The Musical" 's more memorable numbers, "Link by Link." During which Alexander clearly has a ball playing Jacob Marley.

The way Jason plays Jacob, it's obvious that Marley has gone a wee bit mad. Which is understandable. What with having to spend his afterlife in eternal torment, dragging all of those chains around. Still, Jacob tries to tell Ebenezer where exactly he went wrong in life. Why it was a mistake for Marley to spend all of his earthly days ...

Stacking up my silver and my bits of gold
Filling up my vault when day was done
Vaults are made of lead and cash is very cold
And around your neck, they weigh a bloody ton

Per usual, Marley warns Scrooge about the three ghosts that are about to visit him. And the first to arrive is the Ghost of Christmas Past. Which Ebenezer obviously recognizes but can't quite place.

Copyright 2004 Hallmark Entertainment

As this point, this holiday spirit spirits Scrooge back to his youth. Where we get to see a seminal event in young Ebenezer's life that Ockrent & Ahrens invented for "A Christmas Carol: A Musical." Which shows Scrooge's father (Mike Kelly) being sentenced to debtors prison for failing to pay his bills. As he's dragged away, yelling "Learn this lesson, Ebenezer! Save your pennies! Make your fortune and keep it!" ... The man leaves young Ebenezer (Josh Wilmott), Scrooge's mother (Ruthie Henshall) and his sister, Fan (Leah Verity-White) destitute.

Given that Scrooge's father's debt still has to be settled, Ebenezer is now forced to leave school at the age of 10 and begin working. Still, Scrooge's mom advises her son to not let the cruelty of the world harden his heart by singing ... Well, whaddaya know? The exact same song that Grace Smythe sang earlier in this TV movie, as she followed her mother's hearse to the graveyard.

Anyway .. . From there, the Ghost of Christmas Past brings Scrooge forward in time to Fezziwig's annual Christmas ball. Here we witness Scrooge as a young adult (Steve Miller) proposing to his fiancee, Emily (Jennifer Love Hewitt). These two then launch into the most heart-felt number from the score, "A Place Called Home." Which is made all the more poignant when the older Scrooge can't help but be drawn into this song.

This scene arguably is Kelsey Grammer's very best work in "A Christmas Carol: The Musical." The way that his version of Ebenezer tries to not look at Emily, as if averting his eyes will somehow spare him the heartbreak of losing her again. The slight pause Grammer takes on the line in the song where this trio warbles about home being the place " ... where the dreams are true." As if those words just turned to ashes in Scrooge's mouth.

Copyright 2004 Hallmark Entertainment

The Ghost of Christmas Past then takes Ebenezer through his break-up with Emily & Jacob Marley's death before handing the emotionally overwrought miser over to the Ghost of Christmas Present. Who -- in the rollicking number "Christmas Together" -- show Scrooge everything that he's been denying himself by living so closed off from the rest of the world.

One particular vignette in this song really seems to get to the miser. It shows his nephew, Fred (Julian Ovenden) at home on Christmas Day with his family & friends. And even though Ebenezer threw Fred out of his office just 24 hours earlier, his nephew still raises a glass in tribute "... to my wicked old Uncle Scrooge." Not in jest, mind you. But because Fred still genuinely holds out hope that someday he may actually get to know his mother's brother.

This is the point that "A Christmas Carol: The Musical" keeps hammering home in scene after scene. The importance of family. Whether it's watching Bob Crachit (Edward Gower) 's loving interaction with his son, Tiny Tim (Jacob Moriarty) or how Mr. Smythe humbles himself in front of Scrooge in order to keep a roof over his daughter's head ... This musical version of Charles Dickens' classic tale keeps harping upon how important it is to maintain those family ties.

Mind you, no moment in this musical nails home that idea better then Scrooge's graveside revelation that he really needs to change. No sooner does this miser renounce his wicked ways then what does Ebenezer see? A vision of his mother & his sister Fan singing (what else?) the very same song that Grace Smythe sang.

Copyright 2004 Hallmark Entertainment

From this point forward, it's pretty much the standard version of "A Christmas Carol." Only -- this time around -- Scrooge sings as he asks the charitable gentlemen to forgive his earlier rudeness, thrusting checks & a bag of coins into their hands.

But what makes this particular part of "A Christmas Carol: The Musical" memorable is that -- as Ebenezer is wandering the streets of London on Christmas morning, trying to do good -- he once again bumps into the sandwich board man, the lamplighter and the old blind woman. Now recognizing these three for what they really are, Scrooge shares a secret smile with this trio of holiday spirits before heading off to Bob Crachit's house.

Their work now done, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future look on approvingly as the now reformed miser strolls away. Then they dance out of sight.

Copyright 2004 Hallmark Entertainment

Given the overall focus of this particular adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic holiday tale, it is only appropriate that the very last thing we see Ebenezer do in "A Christmas Carol: The Musical" is knock on his nephew Fred's front door. Where Scrooge then asks if he's still invited for Christmas dinner. Of course, Fred invites Ebenezer in as the last production number begins.

All in all, "A Christmas Carol: The Musical" is a delightful version of this holiday story. This 2004 TV movie has a great cast, terrific production values, solid special effects and arguably Alan Menken's best score since "Beauty & the Beast." No matter what time of year it is, if you find yourself in need of a little holiday cheer, this is the disc that you really want to be slinging into your DVD player.

Tomorrow ... Tiny Tim in toe shoes?! Get ready for "A Christmas Carol," the ballet.

Your thoughts?

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  • Oh, Jim. Where to start?

    I can grant you this version of "Christmas Carol" hits all the right story bumps. And it has a few inventive twists, but your praise of the score is a little too much.

    Calling this the best score that Menken has written since "Beauty and the Beast" is not only ludicrous, but ignorant. From a creative standpoint, alone, "Little Mermaid" and "Pocahontas", not to mention "Aladdin" are deeper, richer scores with far more texture, fun and pathos than this score was blessed with - or will ever have.

    I find this score, like many musical versions of "Christmas Carol" to be little more than serviceable.

    The song you kept gushing over, "God Bless Us, Everyone", was nice the first time. A little less the second time and, by the time you get to the end of the show, it has become the ubiquitous drone - the song reprised SOOOOO many times, it has lost it's flavor and color. Kind of like chewing the same piece of gum for over an hour. You know it's STILL there, and you can't wait to find a receptacle to spit it out into!

    The opening number, in the counting house, is uninteresting to the extreme. The lyrics are all but forgettable and they're set to an equally-and-less-than-memorable tune.

    The Fezziwig number - OH! The Fezziwig number is obnoxious. By the fifth time they all screamed "Rah-rah-rah-rah, Boom!", I was OVER it. A party's a party, but it was like that really LOUD party next door, until all hours, when you call the police to break it up - you've had a headache from it for the last two hours.

    Then there's the number (Numb-er?) written for Christmas Present! In your effervescent assessment of this dastardly piece of musical TV, did you forget THIS one? Not only is the song numbingly repetitive (the same verse and chorus, the lyrics and melody, repeat over and over and over and over). I think Christmas Pres is a little OCD! Then there's the Christmas Hotties who dance this number. For a second, I though I was at Radio City's Christmas Spectacular watching the Rockettes. This number, as well as the Fezziwig debacle are so glaringly out of place and stylistically incorrect, they should have been jettisoned from the stage version to begin with!

    And, wasn't it in your blog that you made mention of the fact that actors seem to think that, in order to be perceived as miserly, they must squint?! What does Kelsey Grammer do throughout almost the entire presentation? SQUINT! I wanted to reach in and hand him a new prescription or eyewash! Has noone learned anything from the bad camera habits of Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey? What became of that much better acting job you credited Alastir Sim with? I did like his hair, though. Kudos to the Hair Designer.

    The two highlights of this score, for me, were "Link by Link" and "A Place Called Home". The strike the right balance of character development, story advancement and holiday aesthetic. Other than that (and maybe the FIRST time we hear "God Bless Us, Everyone") this score is musical trite, triffle and trash. Alan has done, and continues to, much better work. If you don't believe me, go back and listen to the score for "Hunchback of Notre Dame". "Hunchback" soars to the very of gates of heaven. "Christmas Carol" sinks, almost joining Marley in Hell.

  • Nitemuze2: little correction. The Little Mermaid was *before* Beauty and the Beast.

  • Thanks! Actually, I realized that after I posted (duh!); that Menken has written much better material than "Christmas Carol" is still a valid point, though.

  • I agree on much of the score being just so-so. Maybe if I gave it another listen.

    But I scratch my head on the wholesale change to Scrooge's backstory.  Now, I realize that this is a lot closer to Dickens' own childhood--father arrested for debt, son had to go to work young. But the backstory for Scrooge as Dickens wrote it, and the Sim and Scott versions built on, is central to my conception of the miser. This version seems to downplay the importance of Fan.

    But...Kelsey Grammer. If that man read the telephone book, I'd be enthralled. If he SANG the telephone book, I'd swoon! Wish I could graft his vocal chords onto the man I marry.

  • Nitemuze2: I totally agree with that ;)

  • I'd trade 15 or 20 of these Scrooge articles for the final installments of just one other series, like Star Tours or Mary Poppins. :-)

  • Yeah, I would agree that this score was not exceptional for me.  The songs seemed to have relatively little variation and Menken continues to not generate anything to make me regret the loss of Ashman any less.  I also had a tough time seeing Grammer as Scrooge, and not as Frasier pretending to be Scrooge--the fact that some of the people have accents and others don't was a little distracting, but understandable.  

    Mostly, I think whoever is doing the lighting and cinematography for these made-for-tv musicals needs to be replaced.  The last few I've seen--this one, Music Man, Once Upon a Mattress--the big numbers all look as though they were filmed in a high school gymnasium at 2 in the afternoon.

  • Lonegungirl said: "Menken continues to not generate anything to make me regret the loss of Ashman any less".

    While I dislike "Christmas Carol", I cannot agree with this statement (if indeed you are suggesting that Menken, without Ashman, has written nothing of note).

    Both the scores for "Pocahontas" and "Hunchback" sing, soar and sell the story and the characters. Written with Stephen Schwartz as lyricist these scores were worthy of the attention they received. Schwartz, himself, is no slouch, with scores like "Godspell", "Pippin", "The Baker's Wife", "Prince of Egypt", and (of course) "Wicked" to his credit. And, with Dean Pitchford, his small musical, "Weird Romance" has a trove of wonderful songs.

    And, to his credit,  lyricist Tim Rice did a very nice job, with Alan Menken, in filling out the scores of "Aladdin", and the stage version of "Beauty and the Beast".

    With David Zippel providing lyrics, the score for "Hercules", while not his best Disney score, still contains some great charts like "Zero To Hero", "A Guy Like You" and "Go The Distance".

    Since the death of Howard Ashman, Alan Menken has still charted a great career, filled with wonderful music. "Christmas Carol" just doesn't get filed under this category, though.

    Now, while I disagree on this point, I cannot agree with you more about the lighting. WHO ARE THESE LUMINARY INFIDELS?! And why is someone giving them money to make these musicals look like this?

    Somehow, the folks who did lighting and cinematography for "Cinderella" and "Annie" got it right, but the rest of them are terrible. Lighting for "Gepetto" was so-so, but it had some scenes that suffered, I think.

  • Showtime's Reefer Madness was pretty well done too. I think in general there's a tendency to keep these things stagebound instead of cinematic. Which is fine for the stage version my family went to during my teens, but not for the tv movie version. Also, the tv star casting here felt overdone. I don't think I ever caught an actress as Xmas Past... Paul Kandel was Marley for a couple years in a row.

  • Oh, Jim, gotta disagree. This was one of the WORST adaptations of Dicken's Scrooge tale EVER. I taped it and got only about halfway through before turned it off. Terrible, terrible terrible. Songs, awful, acting, awful, casting, worse. I'd take the Muppet version over this, and I hated that!

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