Published in The Washington Post
Bud Miller, the miserly chief executive of Milweiser Brewing, sits in his office on Christmas Eve counting grains of corn.
“You would prefer I would empty my coffers to put in a fancy ‘malted barley’?” he bellows. “Beer is meant to be brewed on a mass scale with no objectionable flavors!”
But later that night, he’s visited by the Ghosts of Water, Grain, Hops and Yeast and eventually learns the true meaning of craft beer.
Such is the tale of “A Beer Carol,” a live radio play by the Chicago theater company Drinking & Writing. Three performers stand at microphones inside the Haymarket Pub and Brewery before an audience of 40, making sound effects by hitting bowls for church bells or blowing bubbles into water.
Chicago was one of eight stops in my recent journey from Pasadena, Calif. to Washington, D.C., seeing stage adaptations of “A Christmas Carol,” in an attempt to find the true meaning of the show about finding the true meaning of Christmas. I expected to see the ways this American ritual unites us around the universal themes of giving and forgiving, of lost love and second chances. But what stood out were the variations: the beer and hip-hop versions in Chicago, the one-woman production in Phoenix, the Memphis play “If Scrooge Was a Brother.” Though film, TV and the Internet still rule our daily lives, “A Christmas Carol” is the rare piece of popular culture that’s still experienced through a local lens.
Immediately after Charles Dickens published the original novel in 1843, stage adaptations proliferated, and Dickens eventually did public readings himself. Departures from the story aren’t new: There have been operas and graphic novels, Patrick Stewart’s popular one-man version, and numerous TV episodes, such as “A Keaton Christmas Carol” on “Family Ties.”
Many I saw had common elements. Narrators kept assuring me that Marley is “dead as a doornail,” and Scrooge’s line about wanting to meet all three ghosts “at once and get it over with” failed to get a laugh every time. The Ghost of Christmas Past could be a Tim Burton-esque figure in a billowy white dress and top hat on a swing, or a flying, shirtless Roman soldier in a metallic silver kilt, or a Run-DMC-style ’80s rapper in a red Adidas track jacket and gold chain.
Even the traditional versions varied. At A Noise Within in Pasadena, the design verged on the operatic. Sewing Tiny Tim’s burial shroud becomes a Sisyphean task for the Cratchits, as the garment was a black gown that took up the entire stage, worn by a dancer who stands motionless.
On the flip side is the more populist production at Silver Dollar City, a mining-town-themed amusement park in Branson, Mo. In December it becomes a Christmas wonderland, with a Rudolph-themed light parade and sweatshirts with slogans such as “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season.” Its “Christmas Carol” has synthesizer music that recalls Andrew Lloyd Webber circa “The Phantom of the Opera,” plus a parody version of the main song in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” (“You’re a mean one, Mr. Scrooge”). In the section about the future, one character sings “Thank You Very Much” while tap-dancing on Scrooge’s coffin.
Other productions were even more offbeat. Last year I caught the Speakeasy Society’s immersive show “Ebenezer” in a hidden back room of Golden Road Brewing in Los Angeles, where we could follow characters in and out of rooms and even strike up a conversation with a despondent Bob Cratchit sitting at the bar.
While Chicago’s flagship version is at the Goodman Theatre, the city has a number of deviations, including “Twist Your Dickens,” a Second City parody version in the Goodman’s second space, plus “A Beer Carol,” “A Steampunk Christmas Carol” and “A Klingon Christmas Carol,” performed in the original “Star Trek” language with English supertitles.
The four-actor “A Q Brothers’ Christmas Carol” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater modernizes the story via hip-hop and other musical genres. Marley sings reggae, while Scrooge at one point raps, “If it were up to me, I’d deport 12 million residents / Put up a giant wall to keep ’em out and pay to become the president.”
Many productions try to correct for the fact that the original story focuses on white males. Color-blind casting is common: In three productions I saw, while Scrooge was played by a white actor, his sister Fan was black.
At Mississippi’s 83-year-old Natchez Little Theatre, housed in a former church, Artistic and Executive Director Layne Taylor created a version set after Reconstruction (that I didn’t see, though I visited the theater). Scrooge runs a bank and cotton brokerage, repossessing plantations and taking advantage of freed slaves — one of whom is Bob Cratchit.
Taylor, who is white, says the all-volunteer theater was still putting white actors in blackface as recently as 2001. When he took over soon after that, he pushed to integrate the theater and use it as a teaching tool in a city that markets tours of its antebellum mansions but whose population is more than half black.
“The heritage has formed around the wealthy white people of Natchez,” he says, “but the history of Natchez is African American.”
Even more ambitious is “If Scrooge Was a Brother” at Memphis’s Hattiloo Theatre, a company founded in 2006 to produce plays by and about African Americans.
The play, staged on a bare set in the company’s year-old, $3.3 million complex, portrays Scrooge not just as a miser, but a sellout to his race. Marley, the show’s only white character, was a mentor to “Scroo,” as he’s called, and helped him get scholarships to a top parochial school and an Ivy League university. Scroo now aspires to be in Marley’s country club, sucking up to the white membership committee head by going easy on his company’s debts while evicting poor blacks who miss a rent check.
At one point, Marley tells Scroo that although he was smart, he also got lucky, and if he were living somewhere else, he might have been Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown. “You’re important in your pond, but in this other pond you’re just another black dude,” says Ekundayo Bandele, the theater’s founder, in an interview before the performance.
The version in downtown Phoenix by the Arizona Theatre Company, while a one-woman show, is more conventional, though it does extract words such as “mankind.”
“We tried to gender-neutralize some things,” says the performer, Katie McFadzen.
Sometimes patrons feel protective of the traditional versions. In Jackson, Miss., New Stage Theatre’s production is straightforward if genuinely scary, as the ghostly Marley sparked shrieks at the student matinee I saw. But right after Hurricane Katrina, the theater put on a “junkyard ‘Christmas Carol’ ” with street people becoming the characters. Some liked it, but others revolted.
“People in the Jackson area, they want a moving Victorian postcard,” says the artistic director, Francine Reynolds. “They say, ‘Please tell me you’re doing the traditional version.’ ”
Pleasing audiences can be important, as “A Christmas Carol” is often a big moneymaker. At Ford’s Theatre, for instance, 30,000 people see it every year, and it makes $1.9 million, and at the Alley Theatre in Houston, the show is typically the top revenue earner each year. The productions can be elaborate, but they can recycle the same sets and costumes.
Plus, there’s ancillary revenue, as the Goodman has an elaborate Christmas shop teeming with nutcrackers and “Frozen” merchandise, while the Alley has corporations sponsor its lobby Christmas trees for $2,500 to $10,000.
Theaters know audience members will return year after year. “You can’t get sick of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ ” one veteran Ford’s Theatre audience member insisted (though I know from experience that she’s wrong).
At Jackson’s New Stage, I sat next to Ali Dinkins, who has seen the show year after year and even starred as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Still, her eyes welled up at a climactic scene. “I’m usually so cynical outside the theater — ‘Oh, I have to see “Christmas Carol” again?’ ” she says. “Then I come in and I’m like, ‘They lost their child!’ ”
Few are more in tune with the story’s power than Michael Wilson, who in 1990 wrote the adaptation now used at Ford’s Theatre, the Alley and Hartford Stage. He took inspiration from “The Wizard of Oz,” as Scrooge visits three people who owe him debts, and then those same three actors show up as the ghosts.
Wilson said that even this year, at the first preview performance in Houston, when the lights came up for intermission, he found himself weeping uncontrollably. The general manager asked if he’d just received some bad news. “I was kind of embarrassed to tell him, ‘No, I’m just sitting here crying 25 years later about the same story.’ I don’t think he ever figured it out.”
Nancy Studenroth, a portfolio manager in Chicago, told me that earlier in the night, she was trying to rush home on the subway, but because she was going to “A Q Brothers’ Christmas Carol” later, she couldn’t help but assist a veteran in a wheelchair who couldn’t get up the escalator. After seeing the show, she says, “I think, ‘How can I do better?’ It’s like going to confession.”
Many audience members, however, find it hard to articulate why they’re drawn to the show, beyond “It’s tradition,” “It gets you in the spirit” or “It warms my heart.”
At Silver Dollar City in Branson, I met two women on their annual three-hour pilgrimage from Kansas City: Rose Skibers, in a bright red “It’s a Wonderful Life” sweatshirt, and Marilynn Carleton, in candy cane print pants. They typically buy “Show Lover’s” passes that get them seats close to the stage and bring DVDs of film versions to watch in the hotel.
“I don’t know!” Rose insisted, when I inquired as to why she likes it so much. So what’s your favorite part? “My favorite part is Nov. 1, when I can start watching the DVDs again and people don’t think I’m insane.”