A Christmas Carol: The Concert (2013)

This should be a short write-up, as the movie in question isn't actually a movie. Instead, this is a recorded performance of a concert version of A Christmas Carol. To be clear "concert" means this is written for a chorus, symphony, and a handful of actors playing multiple parts. The recorded version is from a 2013 staging recorded in Illinois. There are a few props and a minimalist set, but the focus is on the music. 

So let's start there. Fortunately, the score is quite good overall. The concert involves a number of different styles, though the bulk feels like a blend of rock opera and classical music. That's an interesting approach to the material, and it works well. The last song is less successful: it changes direction and goes for southern gospel. I understand the logic here, but it feels too different tonally to work with the rest of the music. I also think it clashes with the story in a way the rest of the music doesn't.

Note everything above references music, rather than songs. That's because I want to address the lyrics separately. I don't think these are bad, exactly, but they're definitely not on par with the score. Stylistically, these feel like what I'd expect from the lyrics to a musical theater production, and I don't think that meshes with either the music or the format. It's not a huge deal - frankly, the music affects the experience more than the words, so I'm glad the respective quality wasn't flipped. I actually think the lyrics would be well suited to a traditional stage musical, but they don't really stand up to the scrutiny this format places on them.

Let's move on to structure. In addition to the songs and dialogue, this uses a narrator, who reads substantial passages from the text. This allows them to include sections virtually impossible to include in normal stage productions, such as the procession of spirits outside Scrooge's window. Obviously, all this comes with the caveat that you're hearing about the action rather than seeing it.

The main character interactions, on the other hand, are acted out, complete with simple but effective costumes. Because the main cast is made up of only four actors (plus one guest spot for a chorus member playing Belle), this means you'll occasionally have an actor change role on stage, usually by adding or subtracting a coat and/or hat. For the most part, this works well enough, though the concert has the same actor playing Bob and Tiny Tim and the result is unintentionally funny. I know the logistics of bringing a child actor in for a couple scenes probably weren't feasible, but it would have made a world of difference.

By far the most successful scene was Marley's ghost: the costume, while still simple, conveyed the otherworldly tone, and - for my money, at least - the actor playing Marley (as well as all three spirits and a handful of other parts) was one of this performance's two biggest assets.

The actress playing the narrator is the other, incidentally. She simultaneously juggles telling the story while standing in for several minor characters. I think this is a huge misstep in the way the piece is written - it wouldn't have worked nearly as well with a less talented performer - but she salvages it through sheer skill. 

As far as the story is concerned, this version emphasizes the Past and Future while trimming down the present. Fred's party is cut entirely, which is surprising mainly because they also cut the part of the Cratchits' Christmas that overlaps thematically, namely the toast to Scrooge. The Cratchits were minimized in several respects, in fact, starting with Bob's scenes in the opening. They left the bit where he gets Christmas off, but took out everything beforehand, most notably the exchange about coal.

Even more strange, the concert greatly expands the sequence about Want and Ignorance, turning it into the Act 1 finale. I understand the need for something big to close out the act, but it neither works as an original idea or in the context of the source material. They're sort of turning Want and Ignorance into literal characters ignored by the rich, which... look, the best explanation I've heard of Want and Ignorance is that they're symbols of the threat of revolution feared by the rich in Victorian England. Trying to translate that into modern versions rarely works, even when focusing on the broader economic and political ideas. In general, I'm a believer they should be cut or at least glossed over - I've yet to see a version expand them in a way that feels effective.

Tonally, this leans into the "ghost story" aspect of A Christmas Carol, which is a bit surprising. I mean "surprising" in a good way here: the majority of musical adaptations aim for comedy. It's nice seeing one take itself a little seriously, rather than defaulting to camp. I'll add that the live recording featured a number of kids in the audience, and many seemed a little scared at times. Not terrified, of course, but they looked like they were being pulled into the story and moment, which is exactly what you want from this.

I don't have a great deal to add in terms of summary. This isn't a movie or even a filmed stage play (though it does have the camera work and editing you'd expect from a professionally filmed performance). The reason to see this is for the experience offered by the music, and - again - the music is good. Very good, in fact. At a glance, the music doesn't appear to be available on my preferred music streaming service, but if it were, I'd be incorporating several tracks into my holiday playlists.

I'll take it a step further: if anyone ever does do another big-budget Hollywood musical in the vein of the 1970 film, this would be an excellent version to license, at least for the songs (maybe replace that last number, though - it just doesn't fit).

Is that enough of a reason to track down this recording? Probably not, unless you're a huge fan of the story or PBS concerts. It's really well done, but my guess is most people would be happier watching one of the movie musicals, as opposed to the more cerebral experience of a concert. But if the idea of seeing an hour and a half version of A Christmas Carol adapted for a concert appeals to you, by all means check this out. It's a very good version of what it is and perhaps the best blueprint to date for how to musically modernize this story.