It's been 25 years since the Sacramento Theatre Company first presented its original version of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." That production was written by Richard Hellesen with music composed by David de Berry. Dennis Bigelow, who had commissioned it, directed.
Their version of the holiday story maintains remarkable visibility across the country, with annual productions in cities such as Denver, Dallas, Phoenix, Baton Rouge, La., and Rochester, N.Y.
After this year's production, STC will put the show on hiatus. To commemorate its 25th anniversary, Hellesen answered a series of questions about the show.
As you began working on the adaptation, what was the most important element of the story to you?
When I got the assignment, I'd never actually read the book before although of course I knew the story from other versions and its huge presence as part of Christmas lore.
So when I finally sat down to read the original text, to think about how to adapt it, I was struck by how much richer Dickens' writing was than I'd known.
It's funnier than I expected, and more moving, and it has an almost relentless social conscience that I think gets watered down in many versions.
I realized that if I wanted to be true to the source, I needed to make sure all of those things were present even if it meant sometimes going to a darker place than what I thought of as the "feel-good" versions.
I think we caught some grief for that early on, but my argument was that this is a story of redemption and that means you have to pass through the darkness to really appreciate that warm, bright light of Christmas morning.
Two of your collaborators on the original project, composer David de Berry and director Dennis Bigelow, have passed away. Would you like to say anything about working with them?
Well, there would be no show without them. It was Dennis' idea to begin with and remember, this was only a couple years after STC had decided to go professional and become the first Equity regional theater in Sacramento. It was also an enormous artistic decision to actually hire a writer and composer to create something new, to employ as many actors as possible, to push the resources of STC at that time to the limit, and then give this gift to the community as their holiday tradition. No one had, to my knowledge, done that before in this town, and Dennis was exactly the one to do it.
Anyone who ever worked with him knows how much he lit up a room, rehearsal or otherwise, when he walked into it. And though he kept asking, thinking, challenging through the whole process, he did it with such excitement and delight that we were all swept up in his vision.
And David was nothing less than the perfect collaborator talented, funny, very exacting and incredibly generous. Personally, I think he worked harder than anyone, and his beautiful score proves it. Sometimes I would just go sit and listen as he taught the cast the songs patient, encouraging, expecting results, but also giving them what they needed.
This will sound corny, but any time I go to see another production, the audience is doing their usual pre-show buzzing, and then the lights go down and those first chords of the "Advent Carol" start and, bam, David's in the room.
And I always lose it when "Fan's Song" happens in Act I every time, because I remember the first time I heard it in rehearsal and I lost it then.
The empty seat in my photo for the article is for him. ...
This version of "A Christmas Carol" has played to audiences all over the country for the past 25 years could you reflect on that?
I don't think anyone is more astounded than I am, that something that started with a conversation in the STC courtyard ended up being possibly the most- produced show ever to start in Sacramento. And if I really want to be astounded, I just think of the thousands of actors and technicians who've gotten work because of it and the hundreds of thousands of people who made it a part of their own holiday celebrations, including any number of children for whom it was their first time at a play.
I still keep an eye on the text, but I've been very, very lucky to have Gregg Coffin taking care of the music end of things he did a great modernization of the sheet music a few years ago and a brilliant reorchestration of the soundtrack to the show, so David's work sounds even richer and fresher.
But the bottom line is that we started with a very good story that remains relevant and powerful though, if I can brag on us just a bit, I also think that for whatever reason, we made a bunch of really good creative choices at the outset, and those choices still seem to work for theaters and audiences.