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'A Christmas Carol --The Concert' Revival Keeps on Giving for PBS
November 27, 2015  | By Tom Brinkmoeller

[Editor's note: The interviews for this story were done in 2013, prior to the PBS premiere of this production, for a story they author did for another website. Parts of that story also appear here.]

Despite its name, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol rarely has inspired a lot of song. Ebenezer Scrooge's grumpy demeanor prompts feelings of melodrama, not melody. Even so, A Christmas Carol --The Concert, an original musical that premiered on PBS in 2013, pulls off the feat with wonderful results. (This PBS holiday special is being released to PBS affiliate stations in early December to be shown if and when the stations wish. Check local listings.)

It's done on a stage in front of an audience. An orchestra and a chorus share the stage with the cast. Its spare use of props and scenery works perfectly, from the opening notes to the happy conclusion, the clever unfolding of the old story needs no extra assistance. Anyone looking for fresh and innovative holiday entertainment who hasn't seen this previously might want to look for it on upcoming PBS station TV schedules -- same good advice for those who caught its premiere two years ago and would like to see it again.

The concept and production was a collaboration of Bob Christianson and Alisa Hauser. He had an idea to present A Christmas Carol in concert form with actors, chorus and orchestra sharing the stage. Christianson wrote a score that is as fresh and memorable as one by Sondheim or Bernstein. His year-long collaboration with Hauser resulted in a work that is sure to make many Dickens fans smile with appreciation. And this isn't simply one observer's opinion. It was nominated for a prime-time Emmy and many copies of the DVD were sold through the PBS website.

Christianson and Hauser's work first appeared along with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2011. They explained, in a 2013 interview, that it wasn't part of a subscription series, but an added event at the end of the year that the orchestra slated for two performances. Promoted mostly by word-of-mouth, Christianson said, two-thirds of the seats for the first performance were sold; the second performance sold out.

The television production was shot in a suburban-Chicago theater in May 2013, and close-ups of the faces of attentive, delighted audience members, especially children, show what appeal this work has. The man who co-produced it for television, Scott Silberstein, noted in a separate interview that people didn't want to leave after it ended, but stayed around to talk with each other and members of the cast and crew.

Another impressed group included decision-makers at Chicago PBS station WTTW, which is the presenting station for the program. The edited version was shown to station executives not long after the taping. Christianson and his partners were a bit worried that the station might find a problem with the 90-minute cut, since one-hour shows are more the norm in the PBS prime-time schedule. As the screening ended, Silberstein said, a station executive turned to them and said, "Congratulations, guys. You just may have the next PBS perennial Christmas special." (Michael Aaron Lindner as Scrooge, left, top photo.)

A discussion over how it could be cut for time never happened. The package fits happily and comfortably in the time package they gave the station.

"There's not a wasted note in there," said Silberstein.

It was an interesting route they took to that final approval. Though Christianson and Hauser worked on this project for months, they seldom saw each other in person during the process. Using phone and email, they shared ideas, melodies and lyrics in ways Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Lowe couldn't have dreamed of.

He picked her as a partner, he said, because "I've always been really impressed with her lyrics." Though she had plenty of enthusiasm about the two of them working together, she wasn't an early supporter of the project. When he mentioned the Christmas Carol idea, she said her response was, "Really, aren't there so many (versions) already?"

Hauser admits she hadn't read the Dickens novel, but once she started reading. "I started getting ideas in the first 20 minutes."

Good ideas, it turned out. Christianson called her efforts "astounding" and "a total joy." "Her lyrics sing by themselves," he added.

The mother of a five-month-old when they started, the only time she normally had to write was between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., she said. "Sometimes my best lines I'd come up with happened while I was at the playground."

In addition to showings on PBS stations, Christianson hopes to bring the production to cities to perform with orchestras in upcoming years.

"Many orchestras are in trouble now." he said. "They need to attract new audiences." He believes this work will do that, especially attracting families.

And future Christianson-Hauser collaborations?

"We're looking for something," he said. They have discussed ideas, but aren't ready to announce anything.

"It has to be something you want to live with for the next few years," he added.
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