The Holiday Hustle

Move over, Ebenezer. U.S. theatres are hatching audience-pleasing alternatives to Dickens—and they want those shows to become seasonal traditions, too.

By Lonnie Firestone

Each Autumn, whether we’re ready or not, the signs of Christmas come glittering into focus. The first glimpse of red and green décor. The first opportunity—or obligation—to see family. A cinematic street scene of Christmas lights and falling snow (no matter the temperature). Meredith Willson described this anticipatory time best: “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.”

Theatres have good reason to look forward to the holidays, as they’re a prime opportunity to get patrons in the door—many of them first-time or once-a-year-only theatregoers—for a holiday-themed show. The question for many companies is not whether to do a holiday show but whether to take a chance on a new one. For a great number of theatres, large and small, the Dickensian spectacle of A Christmas Carol still does the trick. But there’s an increasing consensus that, like the holiday eggnog in need of an extra shot of rum, seasonal shows can benefit from a bit more punch. Theatres and theatremakers alike have moved to shuffle off the ghosts of Christmas past and revamp the yuletide in the hopes of producing that paradoxical treasure: a brand-new classic.

But the business model for a successful (translation: profitable) production is inherently different for Christmas shows than for programming at other times of the year. Holiday productions need shelf life—typically they have to run for several years, if not in the same theatre each winter, then in a variety of venues year to year in order to earn their keep. Jerry Goehring knows this model well as the head producer on A Christmas Story, now running on Broadway following a multicity national tour that spanned three Christmases. The film on which the musical show is based premiered on-screen in 1983 and introduced the world to Ralphie, the apple-cheeked kid whose greatest Christmas wish is a Red Ryder BB gun. The movie has earned cultlike loyalty, and the musical’s producers hope to capture that fan base with the staged version, which features a score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

Goehring acknowledges that the largest demographic of ticket-buyers will most likely be those who loved the film as children, many of whom are now old enough to bring their own kids. The film also airs on TV each year, exposing new viewers to the story. In a phone interview, Goehring mentioned that 52 million people watched A Christmas Story on TV last year, a figure that bolsters his confidence in the show’s potential for ticket sales.

It’ll all come down to the “sweet weeks,” as he puts it—those five weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day when the desire for holiday entertainment is at its peak. Granted, there will be competition in New York City: Elf and Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, both of which had successful Broadway runs in years past, will be back on the Main Stem. There’s also The Nutcracker at the New York City Ballet as well as Radio City Christmas Spectacular, the gold standard in Gotham holiday entertainment.

Goehring is prepared for the long haul with a show as large and expensive as A Christmas Story. “It’s a long-term payback,” he says, expressing hopes that the show will receive productions at theatres around the country in the years ahead. “Investors know they have to have patience. It takes a certain point of view to know that your Christmas show will take years to pay back.”

The discussion of why some Christmas shows have yearly appeal—and why others don’t—inevitably prompts the question of what themes or qualities make the difference. After all, most holiday shows don’t have much to do with religion. If Christianity features at all, it’s in a more socially minded application—generosity, selflessness, togetherness and family. Goehring suggests that any great Christmas musical should have a “message of love. If you can relay that, you have something special.”

Bearing just such a message is A Christmas Memory, based on the eponymous short story by Truman Capote. Like A Christmas Story, this show originated as a work of literature, became a film, and has now transmogrified into a musical. But in every way, it is the anti-blockbuster, and producer Jayson Raitt likes it that way.

“I envisioned it as an opportunity to create a new, smaller musical, with the warmth that a holiday show needs, as an alternative to the big Christmas shows,” Raitt says. “I knew that a lot of regional theatres look for shows with smaller casts and orchestras. And for theatres that have two or three spaces, maybe they program A Christmas Carol [on their biggest stage] and something smaller and new [for the second stage].”

It’s a savvy approach: not to dethrone beloved old classics like A Christmas Carol but to become the perfect complement. A Christmas Memory, originally published as a short story in 1956, centers on Buddy, a seven-year-old based on Capote as a child, whose closest friend is an elderly relative. The work was adapted into TV films in 1967 and 1997, the first of which won several Emmy Awards.

Duane Poole, who wrote the 1997 film script and is now the librettist of the show, had the idea to do the story as a musical and suggested it to Raitt. Composer and lyricist Larry Grossman and Carol Hall were approached soon after to write the score. It helped that the Capote estate liked the films and has been an advocate of the musical.

A Christmas Memory received its world premiere at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, Calif., in December 2010 and ran at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in 2011. Following these successful runs, Raitt has licensed three- and seven-piece orchestrations for the show to appeal to a wider array of theatres.

Would theatregoers see two Christmas musicals in a season? “I really believe that there are plenty of people who would,” Raitt says. “Lots of people who’ve seen A Christmas Carol would be pleased to see something else.” Raitt is confident that A Christmas Memory will be that something. It offers a story that is small-scale and intimate, “but with the pedigree of Truman Capote.”

If one strategy for getting a new Christmas show off the ground is showcasing patron-pleasing material in an intimate setting, then the Hub Theatre in Fairfax, Va., is onto something special. Helen Pafumi, the Hub’s founder and artistic director, conceived and co-wrote an adaptation of the Frank Capra Christmas favorite It’s a Wonderful Life. With the pared-down title Wonderful Life, the work is a one-man show featuring actor Jason Lott, who co-wrote the script.

“I’m not a lover of holiday shows—I never have been,” avows Pafumi. “I’m really drawn to works that have those great moments of change onstage. And George Bailey does that exactly. I wanted to do a pared-down version, to have one man doing all the characters.”

The work is “95-percent original” material, but Pafumi says it still holds the core themes of It’s a Wonderful Life. The show performed to great success and was nominated for a D.C.-area Helen Hayes Award. “One-man shows never make it into a new-play category, and holiday shows absolutely never make it!” she says, relishing the honor.

Pafumi plans to remount Wonderful Life this season based on its solid performance last year, with Lott once again playing all the parts. She’s even considered licensing it to a few other theatres that have expressed interest. But despite the show’s success, she says, “I wouldn’t categorize it as the thing that becomes our big blockbuster.”

By contrast, there are theatres inclined to double down on Christmas. The Penobscot Theatre in central Maine offers a big holiday production for audiences across the state and beyond. Situated in the town of Bangor in an opulent opera house, the theatre entices people, including Canadians, to drive up to five hours to see its holiday offering. For years, that show was A Christmas Carol, though the company’s production history also includes stagings of A Christmas Story, David Sedaris’s perennially popular The Santaland Diaries and Stuart Ross’s Forever Plaid. This year, the holiday selection is not a bona fide Christmas show at all—it’s Annie (another family-friendly attraction that happens to be on Broadway this season).

Bari Newport, the company’s new artistic director, says that A Christmas Carol just didn’t feel like a compelling choice for her first holiday production at Penobscot. “When I started, we held auditions for people in the community, and there were so many kids. There’s a new crop of talent, and the Christmas slot is a way to showcase their voices. Doing Annie started to seem like a no-brainer,” she explains, adding that the Strouse-Charnin-Meehan show is that unique property that combines “pageantry” with a heartwarming narrative.

Considering the diversity of her audience, Newport came to realize that creating a show with a big cast, great music and the “bells and whistles” her audience expects is more important than something specifically Christmas-y. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Annie is set at Christmastime. Newport, who is directing Annie and has channeled the greatest portion of her theatre’s budget into the production, has good reason to hope it’s a huge success. But regardless of its outcome, it won’t stop her from choosing a new holiday show next year.

“Part of the fun of my job is season selection,” she says. “I don’t want to be doing the same thing every year.” For Penobscot Theatre, the goal is something grand and wonderful. Santa may or may not be in attendance.

With an eye toward enticing the season’s nontraditional theatre audiences, many companies are ready for something completely different. Consider Striking 12, which co-creator Valerie Vigoda calls “a holiday show for people who don’t like holiday shows.” The musical was created by the band GrooveLily, featuring Vigoda on electric violin and her collaborators Brendan Milburn on piano and Gene Lewin on drums.

“We wanted something fun and uplifting but also irreverent—a palate cleanser if you’ve experienced some of the more earnest shows of the holidays,” says Vigoda. “The show is honest about the fact that it’s a time of year that does exhaust and depress people, and Christmas shows are included in that oversaturation.” The show’s witty lyrics were written in collaboration with Rachel Sheinkin (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee).

Striking 12 may have been seen as a tough sell outside certain urban centers, but GrooveLily has found success with theatre companies that presented Striking 12 as part of their subscription season. And once people saw the show, they recognized a heartwarming message in the story of Grumpy Guy, the musical’s lead character.

The show’s most memorable run was at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto in 2004. It was so successful that, in a move that’s anathema to many holiday shows, it ran a week into January. It is now listed among the theatre’s top 10 shows of all time.

“There are die-hard Striking 12 fans who tell me they need that dose of honesty,” says Vigoda, who will perform the show with Milburn and Lewin this month at the Metropolitan Room in New York. “I love that we still do it, but we’re not going to do it forever. The fact that you can see us or see another professional company—it’s all good. We hope it’s an evergreen piece.”

The musical has been licensed to numerous theatres that present their personal spin on the songs and narrative. The Good Theater in Portland, Maine, is one example, mounting its own production with a cast of 12 and with expanded orchestration.

Good co-founder, executive producer and artistic director Brian Allen, who typically presents an annual Christmas revue show each year, was captivated by the music of Striking 12 and decided to go with it. “Holidays are about tradition,” Allen concedes, “but I think audiences are ready for something different.”

Another production that has potential to reach a more diverse audience is Coney Island Christmas, receiving its premiere this year at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. The new work was a commission for Pulitzer-winning playwright Donald Margulies by Geffen founder Gil Cates, who passed away in 2011.

“Gil called and said, ‘How’d you like to write us a Christmas play?’ And I said, ‘Well, if I’m going to write a Christmas play, it’s going to be a Jewish Christmas play,’” Margulies remembers with a laugh. “I knew I was looking for a unique way into the tradition. I wanted to turn the Christmas play expectation on its head.”

Based on the short story “The Loudest Voice” by Grace Paley, Coney Island Christmas tells the story of Shirley Abramowitz, who is chosen to play Jesus in the school Christmas pageant. Despite the Jewish/Christian crossover, Margulies insists that religion isn’t the focus. Rather, it provides the framework for a larger narrative.

“It’s not a Christian play, it’s not even a Jewish play,” he says. “But I think it does touch on issues of faith. In its depiction of embracing all cultures, there’s a particularly humanistic feel that is congruent with the holiday story. It’s about immigration in America, and assimilation, and what it means to be an American. So it became a much bigger play.”

The Geffen intends for Coney Island Christmas to become a holiday perennial, and Margulies says he hopes the play will take on a “subtle reinvention” each year. The element of a yearly tradition, especially for families, Margulies says, is essential to what a holiday show is about. “So many of us have happy associations with family ventures that took us to the theatre,” he notes. “I know I do.”

X-Mas 2.0

From interpretive to zany, the spectrum of Christmas entertainment has never been more varied. Read on for a diverse sampling of holiday shows at theatres around the country—there’s something for every reveler.

The Local Movement

• A Tucson Pastorela: a Southwest spin on the nativity story at Tucson, Ariz.’s Borderlands Theater (Dec. 20-23).
• A Carol for Cleveland: Cleveland’s Public Square in the 1970s is the backdrop for this Christmas play about generosity between strangers, staged at Cleveland Play House (thru Dec. 23).
• In Winter Tales, at Vermont Stage Company, Christmas stories are submitted by the theatre’s own audience members, reflecting their unique holiday experiences (Dec. 5-9).

Spotlight on Kids

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer comes to life at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, including “Rudolph Unwrapped,” a live puppetry demonstration (thru Jan. 6).
A Wind in the Willows Christmas: Two River Theater Company in New Jersey stages the world premiere of this holiday version of the beloved children’s story (Dec. 8-30).
Santa Claus Is Coming to Town: a wild array of characters help Santa find his lost bag of toys. Performed by Harrisburg, Pa.’s Popcorn Hat Players (Dec. 1-22).

Comedy Is Central

A Very Joan Crawford Christmas: Christmas meets a movie icon (in drag) in this sardonic holiday delight at Portland, Ore.’s Triangle Productions! (thru Dec. 23).
Invasion: Christmas Carol: Dad’s Garage in Atlanta creates an improv show. At each
performance the audience will select an “invader” to shake up Dickens’s tale (thru Dec. 23).
Who Killed Santa?: Blue Barn Theatre in Omaha presents a choose-your-own-ending holiday murder mystery, where suspects range from Frosty to the Little Drummer Boy (thru Dec. 15).

The Christmas Revue

Christmas of Swing: Minnesota’s History Theatre in St. Paul transports to 1944, when the Andrews Sisters sang songs like “Let It Snow” and “Mele Kalikimmaka” to World War II soldiers (thru Dec. 23).
Christmas in Nickyland: La MaMa E.T.C. in New York presents its holiday revue in the theatre’s own cabaret, the Club (Dec. 15-16).
A Christmas Survival Guide: Harlequin Productions in Olympia, Wash., welcomes the holidays with humor in this musical guide to the holiday (thru Dec. 31).

Christmas in History

• A Civil War Christmas: a portrayal of Christmas in 1864 from Paula Vogel. Coming
to New York Theatre Workshop (thru Dec. 30).
• All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914: Theater Latté Da in Minneapolis stages this compilation of songs and true stories from the battlefield (Dec. 19-22).
• Sanders Family Christmas is set in the winter of 1941 as one of the Sanders sons ships off to World War II, staged by A.D. Players in Houston (thru Dec. 31).

New Takes on Old Texts

• The Chimes: Illinois’s Remy Bumppo Theatre Company produces Dickens’s lesser-known Christmas work, performed by artistic director Nick Sandys (Dec. 15-31).
• Ebenezer: this premiere production by Joseph Zettelmaier at Michigan’s Williamston Theatre reencounters Scrooge 15 years after his transformation by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future (thru Dec. 23).
• The Ultimate Christmas Show (abridged): the Reduced Shakespeare Company, at San Diego Repertory Theatre, presents short takes on classic Christmas stories (Dec. 5-23).

Lonnie Firestone is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.