‘Connecticut Christmas Carol’ uses state figures as the story’s fabled characters

Lenny Wolpe portrays William Gillette as Scrooge in Goodspeed’s “A Connecticut Christmas Carol.” (Photo by Diane Sobolewski)
Lenny Wolpe portrays William Gillette as Scrooge in Goodspeed’s “A Connecticut Christmas Carol.” (Photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and its tale of selfishness and redemption has not only thrived through generations of readers and theater- and movie-goers. It has also been reimagined in creatively varied incarnations.

The latest variation boasts a Connecticut twist. It uses legendary Nutmeg State figures as its characters. Scrooge is William Gillette, the renowned Sherlock Holmes actor who famously built a castle in East Haddam. The Ghost of Christmas Past becomes abolitionist and author Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Ghost of Christmas Present is showman P.T. Barnum, and the Ghost of Christmas Future is author Mark Twain.

This new version of the tale, dubbed “A Connecticut Christmas Carol,” is the brainchild of LJ Fecho and Michael O’Flaherty, and it’s being presented through Dec. 30 at Goodspeed Musicals’ Terris Theatre in Chester.

Fecho, who wrote the book for the musical, and O’Flaherty, who did the music and lyrics, spoke about the show during a break in rehearsals. O’Flaherty is also Goodspeed’s longtime resident music director.

The two are from the same hometown of Reading, Penn., where they met at Genesius Theatre. O’Flaherty co-founded Genesius, which aimed to provide theater opportunities for young people, in 1971. Fecho was a student there and is now its artistic director. They became friends, and, in the early part of the millennium, Fecho asked O’Flaherty to collaborate on a musical about Genesius’ initial days.

They enjoyed working together on that, and they discussed teaming up again. Fecho came up with the idea of creating “The Belsnickel Scrooge”; the belsnickel is a Krampus-like character who’s the anti-Santa. That show was set in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, where Genesius is located.

The theater produced “The Belsnickel Scrooge” several times starting in 2007. About four years ago, O’Flaherty told Fecho that Goodspeed Executive Director Michael Price and, later, Price’s successor, Michael Gennaro, were interested in finding a Christmas piece Goodspeed might perform annually.

“When Michael said that, I said, ‘Hey, let me write (‘The Belsnickel Scrooge’) to fit Connecticut and see how it works,’” Fecho says. “It came together actually very quickly … I showed it to Michael, he loved it. We made some changes. We did a reading up here about two years ago with the ‘Guys and Dolls' cast to get a feeling of it.”

O’Flaherty notes that Goodspeed was bandying about a variety of ideas about Christmas projects, including revues of Christmas songs.

“We convinced them that doing an actual book musical was more of what Goodspeed is about; that is our history. Our history is not necessarily in the world of revues, so it made more sense to actually do a book musical version of the story,” O'Flaherty says.

Gennaro said yes to “A Connecticut Christmas Carol,” and it was primed for a run at the Goodspeed’s Terris Theatre.

Most of the music remained the same as “The Belsnickel Scrooge” transformed into “A Connecticut Christmas Carol,” but the script changed quite a bit.

Fecho says, “Where the work came in was researching all of Connecticut, especially the Hartford-East Haddam areas and coming up with the best way to go with this.”

During that research, he learned, for instance, that Mark Twain gave or lent Gillette $5,000 to start his acting career. He realized that not only did those two know each other, but so did Harriet Beecher Stowe and P.T. Barnum.

“Even though they are all different ages, they all knew each other decently,” Fecho says.

J.P. Morgan, who is the Jacob Marley of this version, might not have been as connected as the others were, but he is nonetheless a Connecticut resident of prominence.

When writing “A Connecticut Christmas Carol,” Fecho took a cue from how Peter Stone wrote the book for the musical “1776,” about the creation of the Declaration of Independence. Fecho had read that Stone took quotes from the historical figures who would populate “1776” and put them on index cards, using them as material and inspiration for the show.

“I thought, ‘Well, let me look at the quotes of these famous people (from Connecticut) and then fit them into the story here of Scrooge,’” Fecho says, adding that the script has other dialogue, too.

“It’s important to note that the piece is not a history play in any way,” O’Flaherty says. “We don’t really talk about the ghosts’ histories — just a little bit. It’s mentioned who they are and that kind of thing, but the idea of using four very, very well-known people gave us the luxury of not having to do that. We didn’t have to say, ‘Oh, this is Mark Twain, and he did this and he did this.’”

The creators slipped in some references to other Nutmeggers, including a member of the Wadsworth family (of Atheneum fame) and Igor Sikorsky. They drop the names of department stores at that time as well.

“It just makes it very, very personal to this area,” O’Flaherty says. “It all takes place there in East Haddam or Hartford. I think the people that come to see it are really going feel connected to it in that way because it’s a story about them and their lives.”

In “A Connecticut Christmas Carol,” the scenario is that Gillette is portraying Scrooge in the Goodspeed Opera House in 1925 just as the venue is scheduled to close.

Fact check: Gillette knew William Goodspeed, the shipping and banking magnate who founded the opera house, and was familiar with the theater. The opera house did, in reality, go dark in 1925.

“It was derelict for decades after that,” O’Flaherty says. “The first floor of it was used as a storage warehouse for snowplows; they took the front doors off and put garage doors on the front of the building. … It was a disaster. Then, in 1960, a foundation was created with Katharine Hepburn’s help, and they saved the opera house from demolition.”

As for the music in “A Connecticut Christmas Carol,” O’Flaherty says, “A lot of people keep asking me, ‘Well, it just is a bunch of Christmas carols, right?’ No, it’s not at all Christmas carols. It’s a complete composed musical theater score.”

That question is often followed by another: is the music of the era — i.e., 1925? O’Flaherty says it’s not.

“I wanted to write for the characters. I didn’t want to write for the period as much,” he says.

What he did was create an eclectic score that hearkens to the golden era of musical theater.

This “Christmas Carol,” it should be noted, has almost none of Dickens’ language in it. It’s the same story but, O’Flaherty says, it’s more modern and more fun. It’s not a morality tale. It’s fun, funny and uplifting, Fecho says.

Discussing the ongoing appeal of “A Christmas Carol,” Fecho says, “I really feel it’s just a story we are all so connected to. I think everybody has felt hopeless and then found hope. I just think the payoff at the end of ‘A Christmas Carol’ is always so strong.”

 

LJ Fecho, left, and Michael O’Flaherty created “A Connecticut Christmas Carol.” (Photo by Diane Sobelewski)
LJ Fecho, left, and Michael O’Flaherty created “A Connecticut Christmas Carol.” (Photo by Diane Sobelewski)
Robert Berson plays Tiny Tim, and Matt Gibson is Bob Cratchit in “A Connecticut Christmas Carol.”
(Photo by Diane Sobolewski)
Robert Berson plays Tiny Tim, and Matt Gibson is Bob Cratchit in “A Connecticut Christmas Carol.” (Photo by Diane Sobolewski)

If you go

What: “A Connecticut Christmas Carol” 

Where: The Terris Theatre, 33 North Main St., Chester

Where: Through Dec. 30; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wed., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 3 and 8 p.m. Sat., and 2 p.m. Sun.; also, selected Thursdays at 2 p.m. and select Sundays at 6:30 p.m.)

Tickets: Start at $49

Call: (860) 873-8668

 

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