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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Musical Scrooges (originally published 12/99)

Here we go again: another year, another "Christmas Carol." This year it is Patrick Stewart who has taken on the role of Ebenezer Scrooge for cable television, having had a successful run with his one-man show consisting of dramatic readings from the book. It is a tribute to the resilience and endless fascination of Dickens's "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner" that we are always ready to see a new interpretation of him and that skillful actors always seem to be able to bring fresh dimensions to the role.

Given the multitude of adaptations of this classic narrative for film and television, it has often struck me as odd that there aren't more musical versions. In view of the musical implications of the story's title, it would seem to be a natural for musical treatment. I suppose it has to do with the fact that musical productions are more difficult and generally more expensive to mount. Still, there have been a few noble efforts at setting Scrooge to music through the years. Here are some that can be found on home video.

"Scrooge" (1956). One of the most fascinating versions I've ever run across is this made for television adaptation starring Fredric March as Scrooge and Basil Rathbone as Marley's Ghost. It's one of those public domain cheapies that you find on a dump table at the back of the video store for $1.98. I picked it up just for the novelty of seeing March in the lead role. To my surprise, it turned out to be a musical production with a score by Bernard Herrmann. Known for his collaborations with both Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, Herrmann was one of the finest film music composers ever to work in the industry. I was unaware, however, that he had ever composed show tunes for any medium. For fans of Herrmann's music, and they are legion, this is a little known curio that shouldn't be missed.

"Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" ( 1962). This cartoon version has long been one of my Christmas favorites. It's on the short list of titles that I try to watch each and every year at this time. The voice of Jim Backus takes center stage as lovable, nearsighted Mr. Magoo. Here, however, Magoo is appearing in a stage adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" in the role of Scrooge. What we get, then, is Backus playing Magoo playing Scrooge, and doing it all brilliantly. The jokes about Magoo's nearsightedness are put aside once the play gets underway, apart from one or two sly references, but in their place is a characterization of Scrooge that can stand alongside the best of them. But the most startling revelation here is the quality of the songs. Written by Bob Merrill and Jule Styne, they wouldn't seem a bit out of place in a Broadway musical. Clearly, the composers made no compromises on the basis of its being "only a cartoon," choosing instead to bring to bear the full measure of their talents and craft.

"Scrooge" (1970). The most familiar musical version is undoubtedly this elaborate production starring Albert Finney as Scrooge. Director Ronald Neame and screenwriter/composer Leslie Bricusse apparently set out to do the "Christmas Carol" to end all "Christmas Carols," the ultimate adaptation. Although such a thing is clearly not possible, it is fun to watch them try. Finney is a wonderful Scrooge, and is ably supported by an impressive cast, including Alec Guinness as Marley's Ghost and Dame Edith Evans as the Ghost of Christmas Past.

"The Muppet Christmas Carol" (1992). When I first heard of this movie, I naturally assumed that the role of Scrooge would be played by Oscar the Grouch. In fact, it is admirably filled by Michael Caine, with the familiar muppet characters taking various supporting roles. Guiding us through the proceedings is Gonzo, in the role of Dickens himself, acting as narrator. The songs were contributed by Oscar-winning songwriter Paul Williams.

On its original publication in 1843, Dickens wrote of his "ghostly little book" that he hoped it might "haunt [the reader's] house pleasantly." He could scarcely have known how thoroughly home video would permit Scrooge and his companions to haunt our living rooms. With or without musical trappings, they will no doubt continue to do so well into the coming millenium.

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