The Christmas-time presence of two popular holiday films transformed for the live stage offers the chance to explore the phenomenon, especially since the works have some interesting connections to the state and region.
The shows are “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, and “A Christmas Story,” playing at the Lunt-Fontanne in New York City.
While it would be easy to shrug it off and say the producers were looking to make a buck (as if that were a bad thing), the story of how the stories were redesigned is part of a long tradition, even though film is a newcomer to the storytelling mode.
While film is notorious for taking its material from a variety of sources (short stories, plays, real life events, comic books, TV shows, and even dreams), theater predates the practice of adapting familiar sources for audiences. The reasons are pragmatic. Ancient audiences generally knew the familiar stories, could be quickly engaged, and had a shared experience.
Generally speaking, theater subject matter changed and familiar stories about the all-too-human human beings — not gods or myths — became the ticket to fill the box office. It helped that theater also incorporated popular forms of entertainment, such as minstrel songs, lowbrow comedy, and acrobats. The merging of familiar tales with diverting entertainment leads us to the two plays.
The stage version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is based on the 1946 film starring Princeton University graduate and Triangle Club performer Jimmy Stewart. The film was based on a short story, “The Greatest Gift,” by Rutgers University graduate Philip Van Doren Stern. How the story became a film is in itself instructional.
Being unable to sell the story that came to him as a dream, Stern self-printed a few hundred copies in 1945 and mailed them as Christmas greetings to friends. A copy ended up in the hands of an RKO Pictures executive. A year later the once dismissed tale found life in a collection of short stories, was printed by Good Housekeeping magazine, and was purchased by RKO Radio Pictures film studio.
Today the film version of the story is included by the National Film Registry for the Library of Congress and rated highly by a variety of film groups including the American Film Institute.
The Bucks County Theater version was written in 1997 by playwright Joe Landry, whose intent was more an attempt to evoke an era than recreate a film.
In previous interviews Landry says that while as a 12 year old in Fairfield, CT, he connected to the story of the small-town man filled by the American dream, the idea of writing it for the stage came from someone else. “My longtime friend, a local high school drama teacher, was looking for a stage adaptation of the material and found none existed. When she asked me if I’d like to write one for her, I was honored. This initial adaption was along the line of ‘Our Town’ and focused primarily on the final third of the film.”
While the adaptation was successfully produced, the playwright became concerned about the number of actors needed to present the play (25). He also became entranced by Woody Allen’s film “Radio Days.” Says Landry, “It was along the journey of ‘Wonderful Life’ that I discovered something between stage and screen: the radio. It wasn’t until after adapting ‘Wonderful Life’ as a radio-play that I learned hundreds of Hollywood films were given the radio treatment. I learned that studios would use the radio version as extended trailers for their films, both in initial and re-releases.”
In addition to being able to reduce the size of the cast, transforming the play to a studio allowed the writer to explore the story anew.
“The appeal of my radio play adaptation is that the audience experiences the story in a way they never have before. The radio adaption doesn’t attempt to put the film on stage, but rather puts it in the minds of the audience as they listen to the story unfold and connect the visual dots in their head the same way one does when reading a book. This engages the audience to become part of the story, while letting them into the potentially new world of the live radio broadcast.”
Yet the production is more of a play within a play, and the focus is a group of 1940 radio actors working to create the story. A New York Times review of a production last winter noted, it “is exactly what it says it is . . . actors supported by a sound-effects man, deliver the lines of all the characters from the movie.” The writer reassures audiences that there is “absolutely no harm to the original. In fact, it has added another layer of nostalgia.”
The newly revived Bucks County Playhouse has wisely decked itself in the nostalgia of the 1940s to launch its first holiday season production. With thick green garlands and Christmas trees trimmed with pudgy bulbs, era music, and period-dressed performers wandering the theater, the audience is pleasantly invited to step into a world of Christmas past.
Then the quick-paced 90-minute “broadcast” from WBUX starts, and the affable and capable six-member cast (all Broadway vets) delight as they act, sing, dance, perform on instruments, create sound effects, and switch on and off characters in an instant. Justin Guarini and Jill Paice are the handsome couple who speak for the film characters made famous by Stewart and Donna Reed. Lauren Molina winningly engages with her portrayal of a radio performer, the female population of the story’s Bedford Fall locale, and her cello accompaniment. With Kevin Pariseau (radio announcer, the key characters, and pianist), Mark Price, and Garth Kravits providing expert support, the show is as charming as an old fashioned Christmas card. That’s especially evident when the highly talented cast breaks into commercial break songs that sound right for the radio and light up the stage.
A funny thing about the Broadway production of “A Christmas Story” is that it did not start out to be a Broadway play, says the beloved film’s stage adaptor, playwright Joe Robinette.
Time Magazine says of the new Broadway show, “Try enough times to turn a beloved holiday movie into a Broadway franchise … and eventually one of them has to score. This is the one. A cult favorite among a certain generation, it’s the story of an Indiana kid named Ralphie whose obsessive mission is to get his parents to buy him a BB gun for Christmas. The show reproduces the film’s tone of sardonic nostalgia, as well as all of its fondly remembered scenes. A new holiday tradition is born.”
Says Robinette in a phone interview two days before opening, “A number of my plays and musicals have been published by Dramatic Publishing. They got the rights for a stage version of ‘A Christmas Story.’ Then they got the rights for a musical version and asked me if I would be interested in writing the libretto. I said, ‘Sure, I don’t even have to go to the script because I have sons and a daughter who watch the film every year.’ This was seven years ago, and it has developed since then.”
The Richwood, New Jersey, resident, who retired seven years ago from Rowan University’s theater department, explained the play’s genesis. “First I was paired with a composer that Dramatic Publishing had selected. Originally it was to be a musical to be published by Dramatist and made available to amateur and small groups. As we were working on it, another producer, Jerry Goehring of Patriot Productions, heard about it and asked if he could get the rights to produce it. Then he began a search for a theater company for a premiere production.”
Robinette says that the producer went to several regional theaters in the tri-state area. Then he approached the artistic director of the Kansas City Repertory Company. “We did the first production in November of 2009. And it successfully broke all records. Then we did a show in Seattle at the 5th Avenue Theater and broke all attendance records except for ‘Jersey Boys,’ which ran a week longer.”
After those successes the producer was able to interest backers in the show, and the play went on a five-city tour. “I think they were getting ready for another tour but always, in the back of their minds, they wanted to get it on Broadway. Then I got a call in the middle of the summer that they got a Broadway theater, the Lunt-Fontanne. Then we started rehearsals the first of October with a new cast and three or four people from last year.” By the way, one of the producers is Peter Billingsley, who played the central character in the 1983 film and is an Emmy Award-winning television producer.
While Robinette has written both original plays and a good number of adaptations — including the authorized version of “Charlotte’s Web” (with input with E.B. White) — this is his first adaptation of a film.
It is also one that is extremely well known, especially to this region. The author of the original story (from “In God We Trust All Others Pay Cash”) and narrator of the film, Jean Shepard, was a Washington, NJ, resident, well known for his long-running WOR radio program, his annual appearances at Princeton University, and his television program on New Jersey Network.
Robinette says that “A Christmas Story” is so much a part of our culture now that when he tells people that he’s working on the adaptation, three out of four people instantly say, “You’ll shoot your eye out kid.” The remaining quarter say, “I love Charles Dickens.”
Of his approach Robinette says, “You start out trying to write the best you can. With the various incarnations of (the play), it got better all the time. My process with anything that I am attempting to adapt is to do a form of triage.”
The first step, he says, is to find out what has to be in it, and that included the tongue on the frozen flag pole, the bunny suit, and the old man winning the leg lamp. Then the second stage is to see what may be included. The third part is then to see what would be OK to lose because half of the show has to be musicalized and cover the moment.
“It’s kind of like a puzzle, and I have to get all the pieces together,” Robinette says. “By making it a musical you’re making a new dimension to the piece. You’ve got to do it so that people won’t say that they could have stayed home and watched the movie. That new dimension is the musical making of the film. You’re kind of doing a Reader’s Digest version of the movie and putting the musical around it. You have to create new stuff, some sort of spark that wasn’t in the movie.”
To make his point, Robinette mentions one of the most enduring images of the film. “For example, when the old man wins the leg lamp it begs for something, like a musical number with a number of legs coming out with the Rockettes.”
Of his work on Broadway, Robinette calls himself “very fortunate” and notes that the success has a lot to do with working for a young audience, which a lot of artists stay away from. “I stayed with the young audience because I knew I had a ready made outlet for it. At the college we did a total of four shows every summer. We did two plays and a children’s musical. One of the nice things about writing for a children’s audience you can recycle a play every five years. You have such a turnover audience,” he says.
“I have worked in New York on several different projects. Theater Works toured a show that I wrote — a small cast touring version of ‘Charlotte’s Web.’ I’m a couple of hours from the city, but it has not hampered me not to be that close.”
Not at all. The New York Times touches on what was noted earlier about producers wanting to make money, but comes back to what is really important, “Every year at this time Broadway producers are seized with the urge to pick parents’ pockets with splashy holiday fare aimed at young audiences. ‘A Christmas Story’ wins points for being less glitzy and more soft-spoken.”
Just like Shepherd’s original story that has talked its way into our treasured American holiday tales.
“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope, PA. Wednesdays through Sundays through December 30. $29 to $54. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.
“A Christmas Story,” Lunt-Fontanne Theater, 205 West 46th Street, New York, NY. Through Sunday, December 30. $65 to $170. 877-250-2929 or achristmasstorythemusical.com.