For 11 years in a row, one of the most lavish musicals on Broadway would unpack garlands of holly and ivy and transform the Theatre at Madison Square Garden into Victorian London for a brief, but joyous holiday season.
In the early 1990s Madison Square Garden approached composer Alan Menken to gauge his interest in writing a musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The production would play a limited holiday run at the Garden’s 5,500-seat Paramount Theatre, now known as the Theatre at Madison Square Garden.
Hot off his Academy Award wins for Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, Menken was given carte blanche to assemble a dream team of collaborators to work with on the project. His team included late British stage director Mike Ockrent and choreographer Susan Stroman, who were hot off their Broadway hit Crazy for You, and Tony-nominated Once on This Island lyricist Lynn Ahrens, who Menken knew from the BMI Workshop.
“I was upstate on a little vacation and the phone rang, and David Michael from MSG asked me if I wanted to do this project and said that Alan Menken had requested me,” Ahrens recalls. “My biggest concern was my partnership with Stephen [Flaherty], I didn’t want to jeopardize that. And I said, ‘I’d really like to do it, but I need to run it by him.’ And of course, Stephen said, ‘That sounds like a wonderful opportunity, do it.’”
“Alan was kind of the motivating factor for me being offered the musical,” says Ahrens. “I was so excited to do it because I was getting to work with Mike Ockrent and Susan Stroman, and [scenic designer] Tony Walton, and [costume designer] William Ivey Long all for the first time. I just thought, ‘This is an incredible opportunity to work with these geniuses.’
With a creative team assembled, Ahrens and Ockrent got to work hammering out a dramatic adaptation of Dickens’ Victorian ghost story that would appeal to audiences of all ages.
“Working with Mike, Lynn, and Stro on A Christmas Carol—they’re just workhorses,” Menken says. “It was no nonsense, and we just knocked it out. We had eight to ten intensive meetings, and we set out a very detailed blueprint of everything we wanted to do. Mike Ockrent had a very detailed mind.”
“One of the challenges for Mike and I as book writers was making a story that had a dramatic arc to it,” says Ahrens. “Even though the original Christmas Carol goes from this emotionally deprived man all the way to the end where his heart opens up—all the beats along the way are kind of formulaic with the three ghosts, which the audience expects. We had to find a way to make it feel fresh and dramatically satisfying, so I think that was a big challenge to adapt a famous novel that did honor to the novel, but gave a chance for other characters involved.”
One of the solutions was to open up A Christmas Carol to make London itself a character, and to highlight the rich and the poor, and everyone in between as they celebrated Christmas.
“There’s a wonderful song in A Christmas Carol that I love called ‘Christmas Together,’” explains Ahrens. “It’s this moment on Christmas Eve when everyone in London is celebrating Christmas in their own way. There are sailors coming into town and they’re going to have Christmas with the hookers down by the docks, and there are wealthy families and poor families. The wealthy families are beautiful and having concerts in their lovely homes, and the poor families are celebrating that they have an orange, or a small chicken. It’s this very epic number and it goes all around Christmas in London and the sets were magnificent and the costumes were magnificent, and it told such a story. I feel like that was something that was a wonderful challenge to try to accomplish and to show all of London celebrating and this poor man named Ebenezer Scrooge peering into windows and seeing how other people did it. That was a great moment for me.”
Menken reveals that the scores to A Christmas Carol and The Hunchback of Notre Dame share history: two key songs from their scores are forever linked.
“When you’re a kid and you’re a young writer, these songs just come bursting out of you from the heart, but I was beyond that point,” he says. “I had just got this new piano that I was playing with, and there were two pieces of music that sort of came pouring out of me, and both preceded the projects they wound up in. One was ‘Out There’ from Hunchback, and the other was Scrooge’s epiphany ’Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Today’ from A Christmas Carol that goes into the theme for ‘God Bless Us Everyone.’ That was the first piece of music I had written, and it became our central theme.”
“It’s very rare that I let music pour out of me without an idea and I don’t know what it’s for. Maybe it was that new piano, or maybe it was a moment that was meant to happen. Both of those songs are really special to me.”
The score to A Christmas Carol is reminiscent of Menken’s early work for Disney and was written during the years he was also composing Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Pocahontas. “I remember Michael Eisner came down to the theatre to see the show, and I got the greatest compliment from him. He was kind of angry, and he looked at me and said, ‘Why didn’t we do this?’”
One of the score’s treasures is the tender ballad “A Place Called Home,” which has personal meaning for Ahrens. “We needed to write something that was tender about Scrooge before he became ‘Scrooge’—when he was still able to love. And that song, ‘A Place Called Home,’ actually, is a lot about my house. I have a weekend place that I just love, and it has a red front door, and at Christmas it has a Christmas tree. I was envisioning that house when I wrote the lyrics because that house for me is really a place called home.”
A Christmas Carol premiered at the Paramount Theatre on December 1, 1994, featuring a cast of over 100, a wrap-around set of Victorian London designed by Walton that enveloped audiences on all sides, and a dizzying array of costumes by Long that ranged from the supernatural to the sublime.
“We did a real musical at Madison Square Garden, a legitimate musical in a 6,000-seat theatre. We were all really jazzed,” Menken says. The original cast featured newcomers and veterans including Emily Skinner, Robert Westenberg, Ken Jennings, Christopher Sieber, and Mary Stout.
Walter Charles was the first in a line of Scrooges that included F. Murray Abraham, Tim Curry, Frank Langella, Tony Roberts, Roger Daltrey, Roddy McDowall, Jim Dale, and Tony Randall in later iterations.
“Tony Randall was in his 90s at the time, and they would hold onto either arm in the chorus line and he would jump up and down. We did 15 shows a week and he never missed a show,” Ahrens remembers.
Each year, Ahrens, Menken, Ockrent, and Stroman would reunite to bring A Christmas Carol to life at Madison Square Garden, and the creative team became a family along the way—Ockrent and Stroman were married in 1996.
Ahrens and Menken both become emotional when they speak about Ockrent, who died December, 2 1999, at the age of 53—nearly five years to the day that A Christmas Carol opened.
“What a wonderful, blessing of a human being he was. He was brilliant, he was funny, he was so energized,” Ahrens says. “He never saw a problem that he didn’t love. He lit up a room when he walked in,” Ahrens says.
“When you create something with people and they’re really special and brilliant… and they’re gone… But the piece lives on, and every time you come back to it, it opens a portal,” says Menken. “Mike was such a really special person and kind of rare in our business.”
Ockrent’s vision for the production was inspired by the holiday pantomimes he saw as a child in North London. In his original director’s notes for A Christmas Carol, Ockrent writes, “I hope that kids and families will experience the same thrill I had all those years ago of enjoying the show and the wonderful reminder that nothing need remain the same, that within us all we have the capacity to share, communicate and love each other.”
“His concept for the show—for a theatre of that size—was an Advent calendar, and it was immersive,” Ahrens recalls. “Mike’s idea was to take the set and extend it up the aisles and all around the theatre so that there were rows of old London storefronts and all these little windows above them. Tony designed a store for everyone of us on the team. Alan and I had a music store, Susan Stroman had a school for dance. They were beautiful.
“At a certain point in the show, all these little windows would open all around the theatre, and in the windows were these angel choirs, and all of the company and the children would sing to Scrooge, ‘God Bless Us Everyone.’ It was sublime, it was so humane and inclusive.
“When he was in his last days, we were doing A Christmas Carol for the fifth year. He was in a hospital bed, but Madison Square Garden hooked up a closed circuit television in his room, and he was able to watch the show and give notes after,” Ahrens says. “We all held up signs that said, ‘We love you Mike.’ He died shortly thereafter, but his memory lives on and on and on.”
From 1994–2003 A Christmas Carol gave work to hundreds of theatre professionals during the holiday season. At the time of its premiere, the only major recurring holiday show in New York City was the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. The production model paved the way for recurring holiday shows on Broadway such as White Christmas, The Grinch, Elf, and A Christmas Story. To this day, A Christmas Carol holds the record as the longest-running holiday show in Broadway history.
As Ahrens says, “It was one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve had in theatre.”
The production had its London debut in 2013, and returned in concert this year with the London Musical Theatre Orchestra. It enjoys a robust life in stock and amateur production in the U.S. and abroad. An original 1994 cast album preserves the score and the 2004 television adaptation is available for streaming on BroadwayHD.com.