(Dedicated to my oldest and dearest friend, Sarah Berenbeim, 1983-2013)
Probably the hardest task in all of theater, even harder than making a completely original idea into a successful show, is to try to adapt a truly great work of literature into a musical. I’m not talking about truly great plays; they can be adapted more or less whole-cloth, and the only real challenge is coming up with scores equal to their original impact. Admittedly, none of the Cyrano musicals have quite worked, despite some very distinguished attempts, but several Shakespeare plays have been musicalized, often with magnificent success–The Boys from Syracuse, Kiss Me, Kate, West Side Story.
No, I’m thinking more of truly great novels. Of course, I’m not denying that it can be done. Mark Twain’sHuckleberry Finn, the most qualified candidate for the proverbial title of “The Great American Novel”, was turned into the reasonably successful Big River; and while one can question the effectiveness of the dramatization, country songwriter Roger Miller certainly did a wonderful job of bringing the story to life in song.
Even more successful (and better) is Lionel Bart’s legendary one-man musicalization of Charles Dickens’sOliver Twist. But this long intro is intended to lead the reader into the subject of an even greater Dickens work, the most popular of all his novels and one of the most beloved stories ever told. As nearly all of you already know, I’m referring to A Christmas Carol. Given this readership, vast even by the standards of the truly great literature, it is actually rather surprising that only two attempts of any stature have been made to musicalize it (and no, Comin’ Uptown is not one of them).
One, entitled Scrooge, was a movie musical starring Albert Finney, featuring several distinguished British actors in supporting roles, and with a score by Leslie Bricusse, co-songwriter of Stop the World–I Want To Get Off and The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd and lyricist of Jekyll and Hyde. This movie was later adapted into a stage version featuring several new songs (also by Bricusse) and starring his longtime collaborator Anthony Newley.
The second, simply called A Christmas Carol, featured a score by Alan Menken, composer of Little Shop of Horrors and most of the renaissance-era Disney scores, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, lyricist of Ragtime andOnce On This Island, and was given an annual “festival” performance at Madison Square Gardens for ten years between 1995 and 2005, with a shifting collection of stage and film stars as Scrooge. After its last performance, it was filmed for television in a revised version with television star Kelsey Grammar in the lead.
Both films are available on DVD, and there are two CD recordings of A Christmas Carol (I will refer to “A Christmas Carol” as “the Menken version” for the rest of the review to avoid confusion). One recording is of its first performance and one is of the television soundtrack. The stage version of Scrooge is also available on CD, but the movie soundtrack has never, to my knowledge, been released on the CD format.
I intend to compare these two musicals, one song at a time, in order to determine which was the more successful adaptation. I am judging them first and foremost on their fidelity to the intent of the source material and their success at capturing the novel’s intended effect, on the assumption that when you are musicalizing such an important work fidelity is to be deemed even more important than intrinsic quality. I have lined up the songs as best I could, comparing them directly when they clearly musicalize the same moment in the story. However, I was careful not to be too rigid about it; after all, if a moment is musicalized in one work but not in the other, it either should or should not be there, thus further clarifying the success of the material at conveying Dickens’s ideas. I also intend to clearly label which songs in the discussion come from which work, and to further divide them if they are found only in one version, stage or film, of the show and not in the other.
Thank you, and enjoy.
“A Christmas Carol” (Scrooge)/”The Years Are Passing By” (Menken–stage)
Scrooge begins its action with a collage of traditional Christmas carols, building into a beautiful, ennobling chorus number. Effective enough, but a little too obvious. The Menken version, at least in its original stage incarnation, opened in a graveyard with a man singing about the passage of time and the inevitability of death. I guess I can see how, on television where the audience hasn’t paid to get in and only has to press a button to watch something else, the TV version felt compelled to change this opening, but it’s really the perfect way to start the show. Think about it–Dickens opens his novel by talking about death. The first words are “Marley was dead”. This is followed closely by a grim joke about the expression “dead as a doornail”. This somber, sobering opening should be reflected in any adaptation (though it almost never is) because it is crucial to Dickens’s ultimate message–that the way we live our lives really does matter, because we’re not going to be around forever.
“Jolly, Rich and Fat” (Menken–stage)/”Jolly Good Time” (Menken–TV)
The TV production of the Menken version also traded in its second song for something easier to take. I suppose I can see why it was impossible, for marketing reasons, to open a television broadcast with a song about death, this number, and then Scrooge’s callous “It Has Nothing To Do With Me”, as that would make for a grim first ten minutes that none of the target audience would expect or want to hear–as I observed, it is much easier to change a channel than to walk out of a theater performance. But this is a terrible shame, because “Jolly, Rich and Fat” is a unique and brilliantly effective song; the basic upshot of it is that the various rich men and women who indulge themselves with their money and give a little to the poor once a year, then pat themselves on the back for it as though they were really giving something up for their fellow men, are just as bad (or very nearly) and just as out of touch with the Christmas spirit (and by extension, the concept of human kindness) as Scrooge. This shakes up our assumptions about the story and its relevance to our own lives, restoring in one song the atmosphere in which the book was originally published and the message it meant to convey. Most movie adaptations nowadays give the impression that Scrooge is some horrible anomaly in a world where everyone else appreciates the true meaning of Christmas, which is not at all what Dickens intended. Dickens intended for his audience to see themselves in Scrooge, and hopefully to be inspired to make some changes in their lives based on his example; the book is as much a social commentary as it is an inspirational heart-warmer. But when you watch a movie version today, or even read the book out of the context of its times with the complacent attitude those adaptations have taught you to have, the reflection on yourself comes across as the same sentiment of false self-satisfaction expressed by the singers in this number. And on top of all this, the television production of the show traded in the number for “Jolly Good Time”, a tepid cliché to the same tune that sounds like every soulless secular Christmas carol ever written rolled into one. Like I said, I understand the necessity, but I was profoundly disappointed when I finally heard the original number and saw what they had allowed to go to waste.
“Christmas Children” (Scrooge)/”You Mean More To Me” (Menken–TV)
Both of these numbers for Bob Crachet and Tiny Tim are beautiful songs; the question, then, has nothing do with their intrinsic quality, and everything to do with how well they musicalize this particular moment in the story. “Christmas children” is gorgeous, and its minor-key melody gives it a very distinctive sound, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with the story. It’s just an original Christmas carol, not an integrated book song, and in fact the lyrics are terribly anachronistic (“Children everywhere/Will say a Christmas prayer/Til Santa brings/Their Christmas things”? These are the Victorian poor, and none of them would ever in a million years say something like that). “You Mean More To Me” actually isn’t as good a song, though it has a pretty tune and lyrics that are simple but touching, but it works beautifully here. Not only does it suit the characters, it has a subtle hint of foreboding and heartbreak to it, something absolutely necessary to the scene. After all, Tim is dying, and Bob knows it, and “You Mean More To Me” develops the characters in preparation for what will happen to them later, just as an integrated theater song should, and thus makes a more constructive contribution than any extractable little modern-day carol, however pretty it may be.
“I Hate People” (Scrooge–movie)/”It Has Nothing To Do With Me” (Menken)
While “I Hate People” was stupidly softened in the stage version to the inane “I Hate Christmas”, in the original film it was a truly priceless moment (“People are despicable creatures/Loathsome inexplicable creatures/Good-for-nothing kickable creatures”), and I still frequently quote the lyrics in conversation. Even so, it was the wrong song for the moment. Why? Because, obviously, it’s a comedy number, and Scrooge’s negative qualities at this point in the story are not meant to be funny. In the novel, his cruelty was taken seriously, and his brutal statements were often truly horrifying. The line “Let them die and decrease the surplus population,” has become so familiar from the various adaptations that we don’t really hear it anymore and most adaptations that use it don’t give it much weight in its delivery, but when the book was published, it was perhaps the most shockingly heartless thing that could possibly be said. In the Menken/Ahrens version, Scrooge is given a song, “It Has Nothing To Do With Me”, that says basically the same thing as “I Hate People”, but in a coldly callous, often shocking way that has no humor to it at all. It isn’t as much fun when taken out of context, but within the show it was a wonderful illustration of how heartless, tortured and lonely this man really is.
“Father Christmas” (Scrooge)
I really don’t see why they put this in there at all. It’s an intensely annoying song (apparently deliberately so) sung by a bunch of kids who are following Scrooge around annoying him. This song has the effect of making you keenly sympathize with Scrooge’s misanthropy and with his dislike of the boys and the common horde in general, which is terribly counterproductive in ways that are so obvious I am ashamed that they did not occur to the people who were in charge of this movie.
“Beware, Beware, Beware” (Scrooge)/”Link By Link” (Menken)/”Make the Most of This World” (Scrooge–stage)
The song “Link By Link”, and the grotesque and ridiculous dance number that accompanied it, was probably the single most serious breach committed by the relatively faithful Menken version. What the song, and especially its accompanying production number, did–played the scene of Marley’s visitation for campy comedy–was unforgivably destructive. In the Scrooge movie, this slot was taken by a chilling song fragment, all the more powerful for it brevity, called simply Beware, Beware, Beware, which is a far more effective number. However, in the stage version of Scrooge, they made this simply the intro verse to a new number, “Make the Most of This World”. Besides being a weak song any way you slice it and almost as silly as “Link By Link”, the message it states (that there is no Heaven and everyone goes to Hell when they die–and yes, it actually says this outright, so clearly that no-one could fail to understand it), is not only certainly not like anything Dickens ever intended, but when you think about it, unbelievably bizarre by virtually any standards. I am completely stumped as to what this has to do with anything and why in God’s name they included it in the first place.
“It’s Not My Fault” (Scrooge–stage)
Perhaps the most surreal moment in Scrooge, this one was added for the stage version of the show, and while nearly everything added for that version was more or less worthless, this is arguably the worst of them all. To begin with, it’s a terrible song any way you put it. Second, it is as out-of-character and untrue to the novel as any song in either version, often in really bizarre ways: for example, it begins with Scrooge ranting about how Marley must really be plotting to steal his money, and continues with Scrooge laughing at his own puns as he makes fun of the fact that Marley’s dead and he’s alive. Admittedly, Scrooge made some jokes of this sort during his confrontation with Marley, simply to maintain a brave face and control his terror, but this song is sung in soliloquy, and while Bricusse and the others involved in writing that movie seem to think that no-one watching was smart enough to understand this and so they’d better cut it out, Scrooge and Marley were friends. They really were. Marley cared about Scrooge enough to come back from the grave to him in an effort to spare Scrooge his own fate; he says quite clearly that Scrooge’s second chance is “of his devising”, and the whole dialogue between them is layered with a subtext of genuine affection that Marley isn’t allowed to show openly (“nor can I say all I would”). “Scrooge” attempts to break this down on both sides, making Marley merely a ghost, rather than the ghost of Scrooge’s best friend, even going so far as to have him show amusement at Scrooge’s fate in the Hell sequence. Conversely, they wrote this counter-productive and musically worthless ditty for Scrooge that, like so many moments in the work, plays a crucially serious emotional moment for comedy because they think that’s all their audience will sit still for. I have never encountered such disrespect for either source material or an audience.
“The Lights of Long Ago” (Menken)
This ravishing and evocative song, one of the loveliest in the Menken version, does a beautiful job of drawing us into the “past sequence”, and definitely adds something to the proceedings in general. It also helps recapture some of the atmosphere that Dickens imbued simply from his description of the Ghost of Christmas Past’s distinctive (and highly symbolic) appearance, which is lost in any visual-medium version because there is literally no way to recreate a creature like that even on a movie screen, much less a stage.
“God Bless Us, Every One” (Menken)
If you’re doing a musical version of “A Christmas Carol”, you’re kind of expected to turn this, the book’s most famous and important line, into a song. Scrooge does not do this, but then it really isn’t so much an adaptation of the novel as the standard packaged movie version of the story with songs added; even so, it is a definite letdown on the part of the movie and its subsequent stage version. A song with this title should not only be present, but be the musical heart of the show, and in the Menken version it is; moreover, this is arguably the single best song in the entire show, and has every bit of the musical and emotional impact one could possibly expect of it. One might complain slightly that it should have been a solo for Tiny Tim (who actually never sings it, though he speaks the line a few times), but the song still remains amazingly moving and inspirational in all of the scenes where it is used.
“December the 25th” (Scrooge)/”Mr. Fezziwig’s Annual Christmas Ball” (Menken)
“December the 25th” is yet another original Christmas carol, but unlike the others, it is in a place where a genuine character song was not really necessary–the Fezziwigs’ celebratory dance, which cries out for a “performance number”, since few people would pour out their emotions in a party tune. It is, at any rate, superior simply as a song to “Mr. Fezziwig’s Annual Christmas Ball” which, despite a lively if derivative tune, is every bit as heavy-handed and obvious as the title makes it sound.
“Happiness” (Scrooge)/”A Place Called Home” (Menken)
In the novel, we only see Scrooge and his fiancée at the moment she leaves him, but in a visual-medium adaptation there is an understandable temptation to show them while they were still together. These songs are both romantic ballads for the young Scrooge and his fiancée (whose name was Belle in the novel and changes variously between adaptations). Both of them are spectacularly gorgeous songs, among the most beautiful in either of the two versions, but I have a marked preference for “A Place Called Home”, and here’s why: “Happiness” is a generic romantic ballad, and, lovely as it is, it has nothing to do with the characters singing it. It’s also a calm, placid song, while “A Place Called Home” is intense, emotional, and riveting to watch or listen to. You can really hear in the lyrics echoes of Dickens’ language when Belle describes the lost dreams they once shared in the novel, and the moment is fully convincing and consistent with Dickens’ original material.
“You, You” (Scrooge)/”Money Montage” (Menken–stage)
An interesting little pair of numbers. The “Money Montage” is a nightmarish sequence which shows, with shattering speed, Scrooge’s collapse into greed and the loss of his fiancée and his entire old life, closing with the Ghost of Christmas Past’s haunting cry of “They are what they are”. It’s a stunning, chilling sequence, but I have to question its real suitability for the material, as the way it speeds up certain moments (particularly the parting between Scrooge and his fiancée, which is reduced to a single four-line verse for her) takes away both much of the nuance and some of the humanity. I rather prefer “You, You”, a heartbreaking, philosophical ballad for the older Scrooge after he watches his younger self stand by and let his fiancée walk out on him. This moment of quiet, desperate sadness, where Scrooge recognizes that she was his “only hope”, is, in my opinion, much more in tune with Dickens’ emotionalistic novel. And the deletion of the “Money Montage” in the show’s TV production had one good effect…it allowed for a vivid portrayal of Jacob Marley’s death and Scrooge’s quiet despair afterwards (“He was my only friend”). The idea that Marley was Scrooge’s last link to humanity and that his death severed the last emotional ties Scrooge had left, while not really established in the novel, is certainly not contradictory of anything in it, and I must admit that it appeals a great deal to me personally.
“I Like Life” (Scrooge)/”Abundance and Charity” (Menken)
Both these songs say exactly the same thing; more, they say it in more or less the same way, as life-affirming expressions of joy and optimism, both basically structured as list songs enumerating the various pleasures of life. Frankly, in this case “Scrooge” has the more effective number. “Abundance and Charity”, sad to say, simply isn’t a good enough song to have the impact necessary for this moment. Worse, it switches locations to a dream theater for a production number, a change of scenery that is completely and obviously unnecessary, and far too silly to match the tone of the novel; Dickens’ novel has no real comedy relief as such, that is, nothing extraneous present purely to draw laughs, and the fierce joy of his novel is always serious and exalted, which causes a problem in both works since musical theater is traditionally expected to provide ‘comic relief’. “I Like Life”, with its strange feeling of joyful solemnity, is much better suited to Dickens’ tone, and entails no extraneous scene changes.
“Beautiful Day” (Scrooge)/”Christmas together” (Menken)/”Good times” (Scrooge–stage)
Now, “Christmas Together” has a lovely, warm melody that perfectly suits the feel of the scene, but the lyric is truly embarrassing in its heavy-handedness, its cheesy rhymes, and its lame attempts at humor…it even uses the line “I never knew/there was anything to/spending Christmas together” at one point. On top of that, there is a more conceptual problem with the song…it’s a massive ensemble montage featuring what seems like half of the city of London for a few seconds each. Yes, Scrooge sees several different people and groups of people celebrating Christmas, but in the novel, they are for the most part presented as a collection of individual, intimate moments among loved ones. The “crowd shots” in the early part of the present sequence, fun and heart-warming as they are and as tempting as it is to use them as a chance for a production number, are not the proper part of the sequence to musicalize, being neither the climactic nor the most significant part of the episode. The song used here needs to be a quiet, intimate number, probably among the Cratchits.Scrooge provides just that; while one might ask that the lyrics be a little more character-specific, Tiny Tim’s “Beautiful Day” is a touching and truly beautiful expression of joy that emotionally drives home the theme of pleasure in the moment and of Christmas day and its significance while fixing attention on the characters (and more specifically, the one character) that is most central to the sequence. And anyway, you absolutely have to give Tiny Tim a solo–in the Menken version they didn’t, and he ended up fading into the background, which is a seriously bad outcome for this story. There is also a small group number for the Crachits in the stage version of Scrooge (“Good times”), which is a fairly forgettable song, but has nothing really wrong with it other than being lightweight and predictable. It doesn’t have the desired impact for the scene, but it is correct in content and, while it contributes little, it does no harm.
“The Minister’s Cat” (Scrooge—Stage)
A song created out of a game played by Fred’s guests, which appears only in the stage version of Scrooge, but was built out of a dialogue scene in the movie. I’ll acknowledge that its childish tone is not at all out of sync with the party scene in the book…after all, Dickens’ point was to remind us that “it is good to be children now and then”. The song is not very interesting and entirely lacks the wit that Dickens brought to the scene, but I suppose it does no real damage.
“No Better Life/A Better Life” (Scrooge–stage)
The only decent item added for the stage version of Scrooge. This song is first sung as “No better life” by Scrooge as a rationalization about his way of life, and later appears, under the title “A Better Life”, as his contemplation on everything he’s learned and the realizations he’s made about his world just before the future sequence. I think the first rendition may be a little too self-conscious and self-examining for Scrooge, who really shouldn’t think much about his life _at all_ at the beginning of the story, but it’s a very pretty song, and I think it’s a highly effective touch the second time around, highlighting so clearly that no-one could possibly miss it the fact that Scrooge did _not_ change his ways just to avoid the threat of death (or in this case, death followed by an embarrassingly silly version of hell <see below>). The Menken version wouldn’t have really needed this, but “Scrooge” certainly does, and the movie suffers terribly from not spelling out this point. One wishes this song had been added earlier, but better late than never, I suppose.
“Thank You Very Much” (Scrooge)/ “Dancing On Your Grave” (Menken)
The grim chorus number “Dancing On Your Grave” achieved what “Link By Link” had so miserably failed at–it was seriously frightening. Unfortunately, they used it way too early in the show…the decision to make the future sequence a surreal montage rather than a series of realistic scenes was a very bad one that robbed the sequence of its chilling impact, and the musical scene that grew out of this number was embarrassingly silly at a moment when serious was crucial, but the whole thing was still far closer to Dickens’ intent than the “Hell Sequence” in “Scrooge” (here the silliness seemed at least somewhat unintentional), and some of that impact was restored by the actual song itself, a scary, unsettling piece which, with better placement, would have been the ideal song for the moment. “Thank You Very Much” is an equally chilling number that achieves its aim more subtly…a cheerful salute of thanks strongly reminiscent of Oliver, sung by Scrooge’s various debtors as an ironic expression of their joy at his demise. Despite the comic device of Scrooge idiotically believing their expressions of gratitude to be sincere, which is wrong for the character at this point in ways that should be obvious and wrong for the novel itself in ways that are even more obvious, this song is a very striking way of summing up the point of the entire future sequence, and ultimately more effective than the potentially powerful, but regrettably ill-thought-out, sequence in the Menken version.
“Yesterday, Tomorrow and Today” (Menken)
This is where the two shows begin to sharply diverge from each other, and the reason that I vastly prefer the Menken version even though Scrooge has a better score. From here on I will be talking not only about songs but about the climactic scenes themselves. In Scrooge, things start to fall apart when, after Tiny Tim’s death, which should have devastated Scrooge, he simply mutters “Poor Tiny Tim” and then immediately changes the subject to something related to himself. Compare this with the line in the Menken version, taken almost verbatim from the book and delivered with convincing horror and heartbreak by Kelsey Grammar in the TV production, “Tiny Tim dead? No! His gentle spirit was from God!” Subsequently in Scrooge, in a sequence so outrageously silly and foreign to the spirit of Dickens that it’s downright insulting, Scrooge descends to Hell (yes, you heard me right) and sees the punishment that awaits him there. Where to start with what is wrong with this sequence? One, this is absolutely the worst moment in the whole story to try to be funny…do they honestly think their audience is going to get up and leave if they don’t make a joke every thirty seconds? Two, and I know this is a quibble compared to the others problems with the scene, but Marley’s air of amusement at Scrooge’s fate is, as I explained earlier, completely out-of-character. But the single biggest problem with this embarrassing sequence, one that single-handedly destroys the entire point of the story, is that it really makes it seem like Scrooge was frightened and threatened into changing his ways, and therefore that there could not possibly be any sincerity in his change of heart. Let me spell it out for you, and for the morons who created that movie–Scrooge was never told by the spirits that he would die even a single hour later because he changed his ways. He was merely being reminded that he wasn’t going to live forever, and forced to confront the legacy he would leave behind in this world when he left it. The significant part of the picture is not that he died, but how he was remembered. Also, as anyone who actually read the book would know, in the novel Scrooge is willing to listen by the end of the past sequence, and almost totally convinced by the end of the present sequence. The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come merely drives home to Scrooge the reality of the issues and the stakes involved. The Menken version, on the other hand, executed this one crucial scene better than any other. They make explicit the implication of the novel, that Scrooge has known exactly who the dead man in the future is all along, but cannot admit it to himself. When the Menken Scrooge sees his own grave, he doesn’t even express surprise: he merely says, with resignation, “Oh, I see. Here lies Ebenezer Scrooge, the miser, who died scorned and unmourned, having done no good, given no joy, kept no friends nor family on this earth.” He then launches into a touching soliloquy on his determination to change his life and his fate, “Yesterday, Tomorrow and Today”. This leads into a stunningly moving rendition of “God Bless Us, Every One”. They encounter a little bit of awkwardness in moving from this uplifting moment to the terror that has to precede Scrooge’s awakening, but the scene is nonetheless a superb dramatization of one of the most moving moments in all of literature.
“I’ll Begin Again” (Scrooge)/ “What a Day, What a Sky” (Menken)
Scrooge on the other hand, decided to put its very similar eleven-o’clock soliloquy for Scrooge _after_ he wakes up in his own bedroom and realizes he’s been given a second chance. This is a gorgeous, moving, positively glowing song, which was actually a hit for longtime Bricusse collaborator Sammy Davis, Jr., and which falls just short of the amount of emotional impact that would make us believe a word he’s saying after watching the movie. It’s too little, too late, but it’s still more effective than the Menken version’s “What a Day, What a Sky”, which after a joyous, ringing first line (“What a day, what a sky, what a happy man am I”) tapers off into a rather feeble expression of happiness that does not really do justice to what must be one of literature’s greatest and most genuinely uplifting happy endings.
Now, what are my final conclusions? Well, I hate to say it, especially since Scrooge actually has a better score, but Scrooge doesn’t even try at all to musicalize the original novel. As I said, it’s the standard movie adaptation, not really any different in tone or content than the Donald Duck or Muppets versions, and the songs, from their very sound, announce the show’s blatant intentions as an Oliver rip-off. On top of all the above-mentioned problems, Scrooge is actually quite boring for long stretches–after all, every single possible audience member already knows not only the ending, but every single detail of the plot, and when you fail to bring out the emotional heat of the story (as Scrooge certainly failed), you’ve got a pretty boring script on your hands.
The Menken version is far from perfect…while there are certainly some wonderful moments in the score, the material is often simply too feeble and unspectacular to bring across the intended impact…but it takes the material seriously (for the most part) and gives the endeavor a noble try. It, unlike Scrooge, is an actual attempt at the musical adaptation of the original novel, and at certain key moments, particularly the scene where Scrooge sees his own death, it succeeds admirably where Scrooge fails miserably. Neither version really succeeded as a musical expression of the novel’s impact, but the Menken version seemed much more to be trying, so ultimately I have to say I prefer Menken and Ahrens’s version. But you’ve read the facts of the matter, and you are welcome to make your own call.
Thank you, thank you. Please don’t throw anything hard.