'Tis the season...again.
Do holiday plays recycle more memories than they create?
Ritual seems to grip people more strongly at Christmas than at any other holiday. For some families we know, it’s no big deal to go to the fireworks one Fourth and watch them on TV the next, or to rotate Thanksgiving dinner among different family members’ homes; but if you’re not baking cookies at Grandma’s on Christmas Eve while watching A Charlie Brown Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street and Scrooged—in that order, thank you—then Christmas will be ruined.
Theater succumbs to its own Christmas rituals: Consider the Goodman’s production of A Christmas Carol, in its 30th year, or that in most major cities there’s a theater company with the rights to The Santaland Diaries tied up every year. Of course these holiday shows wouldn’t be the perennials they are if there wasn’t a demand. The Goodman plans to sell its millionth Dickens ticket this year. Christmas shows seem to attract theatergoers who would never consider attending a play at other times of year.
Audiences of Christmas Present seem to adore the ghosts of Christmas Past. This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than the nostalgia nexus on Belmont Avenue. At the Theatre Building Chicago, one can find Porchlight Music Theatre offering the musical stage adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life, a movie that itself centers on George Bailey’s past; just across the hall is Theater Wit with the stage version of A Christmas Story, a production that pulls at the heartstrings of young viewers who grew up on cable TV marathons of a movie that idealized the childhood Christmases of their own grandparents. Next door at the Bailiwick, Hell in a Handbag’s decade-old Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer lovingly tweaks a 43-year-old cartoon special with a parody that’s merry and very, very gay.
The appropriation of established properties for the yuletide stage occurs all over the city, of course. American Theater Company stages It’s a Wonderful Life as a radio play, adding another layer of nostalgia for a bygone era. Movie adaptations don’t even have to be Christmas stories to be holiday hits as long as they recall the past in a family-friendly, say, MGM musical kind of way—see Circle Theatre’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Even this season’s new, Chicago-created holiday shows are versions of what’s gone before. The House Theatre’s Nutcracker is a riff on the familiar story, and A Reasonable Facsimile’s Soon-to-Have-a-Witty-Title Chicago Christmas Spectacular, though made up of new material, was inspired by photos of the ensemble’s own childhood Christmas mornings.
More than our own childhoods, commercial culture romanticizes the Victorian Christmas—it’s when our modern idea of a holiday season jelled. Clement Moore standardized our picture of Santa Claus, and Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, popularized the (historically pagan) German custom of the Christmas tree. Maybe that’s why we haven’t been able to pull our Currier out of our Ives ever since. Another retooled MGM tuner, Meet Me in St. Louis (at Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace after a spin at Circle last season), reaches back to the era, as does A City Lit Christmas, which includes Victorian songs and an essay by Charles Dickens.
And Dickens, of course, is the undisputed king of Christmas reminiscence. Carol and its various interpretations have made more money than Tiny Tim could ever dream of. Goodman’s executive director Roche Schulfer says that when the Goodman’s production began in 1978, only a handful of theaters around the country were chaining Jacob Marley to the stage. That’s hard to imagine now, with what seems like dozens of him clanking around Chicago alone. In the suburbs you can find separate musicals titled Ebenezer and Scrooge!, and in The Hipmas Carol hepcats Patrick Zielinski and Tyler Bohne set Dickens to a good Beat.
Despite the occasional bout of nostalgia fatigue, we can’t fault theaters for chiming the jingle bells of olde—they rake in cash that can help fund the rest of a season. But why are winter audiences so eager to board the way-back machine? Perhaps the lure of the familiar and a rose-colored view of “simpler times” are, simply, a salve for stressful times. Such shows are comfortable, and we suppose Christmas comfort is hard to resist.
For capsule reviews of perennial holiday shows, click here.