Charge it to the pandemic.
For its 47th edition, the Guthrie Theater has rebuilt its beloved holiday classic, "A Christmas Carol," from the ground up.
Opening Friday, the theater's first in-house production since it shut down in March 2020 has a new script by Chicago playwright Lavina Jadhwani, a nimble set by Matt Saunders of the Obie-winning group New Paradise Laboratories, fresh music by New York composer Jane Shaw, and all-new staging by artistic director Joseph Haj.
"We had so many terrible decisions we had to make due to COVID and I thought, 'When the Guthrie comes back, I don't want us creeping back with two-person shows for three years," said Haj, perhaps alluding to the small-scale touring production of "What the Constitution Means to Me" that opened the theater's comeback season this fall.
"I want us to come back looking like the Guthrie — with [big-scale] shows that are robust."
Haj's appetite for something new was whetted last year when he worked with filmmaker E.G. Bailey on an abbreviated streaming version of Scrooge's conversion from miserable misanthrope to cheerful humanitarian.
"Having been deeply immersed in the story and its dramaturgy, it made me think: Well, we're not going to be producing until next season anyway, let's go ahead and conceive a new production," Haj said.
For many years, the Guthrie used a "Carol" adapted in the 1970s by playwright Barbara Field, with periodic tweaks. Later, then-artistic director Joe Dowling tapped Kenya-born British playwright Crispin Whittell for the version that ran for a decade before the pandemic shutdown.
Jadhwani, a faithful and deft distiller of classic texts, had already begun working on her "Carol" years before the Guthrie asked to see it in January 2020. It's part of a personal project of revisiting classics that the Chicago-based theater artist has pursued for much of her career.
The Guthrie call couldn't have come at a more poignant time. The themes of the play intersected with what was going on in her life.
"I had just been exposed to and diagnosed with COVID, so ... my relationship to mortality spoke very loudly to me," Jadhwani said. "I'm pretty open about my relationship to my health, and am also a relatively young breast cancer survivor. [Charles] Dickens had many things on his mind when he wrote the novel."
Tinkering with a winning formula
Like the "Nutcracker" and Rockettes, "A Christmas Carol" is a holiday tradition that has become bankable for theaters across the country, bringing in families while ringing up big box-office numbers.
Understandably, companies are loath to change a winning formula. That's certainly true of the "Carol" that Jadhwani grew up on at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.
"That version is 43 years old, which is older than I am — 38," she said. "Often, adapters and translators say, 'Hey, these works should be revisited every 10 to 15 years.' And it's not just that it keeps people like me in business."
"Theater technology changes," Haj added. "We never want it to feel musty and taken out of mothballs. It wants to feel fresh and direct and using all of the tools of the theater that are at our disposal."
Still, Haj understands that changing up a tradition beloved by families is tricky business. "My thinking is that people love the story and we're making every effort to make sure that story is told beautifully," he said. "We're not rewriting that story. This isn't going to be the German expressionist version of 'A Christmas Carol' dropped from some great height. ...
"It's a little like James Taylor in concert. James Taylor can sing anything he wants to sing, any way he wants to sing it. But when it comes to 'Fire and Rain,' that thing had better sound a whole lot like it sounded the first time you heard it. And that's the same with 'Christmas Carol.' "
Haj, who joined the Guthrie acting company fresh out of graduate school in his mid-20s, has never acted in "Carol." But he remembers that some older members of the company were a touch jaded about the whole thing, saying it was a bear. He was excused from the show by then-director Garland Wright because he was playing Troilus in the following production.
"I was relieved to be recused, but then I go on opening night to support my colleagues and I remember weeping like a baby," Haj recalled. "This is the thing that we talk about wanting in theater — something that makes community and makes us bigger. And being in an audience with such a connection to the work is everything we dream of."
A revelation about Scrooge
Playwrights often take liberties when adapting classic texts, adding scenes and characters. Jadhwani is faithful to Dickens' novella.
That fidelity will be revealing, especially in how Scrooge, played at the Guthrie by Broadway actor Matthew Saldivar, is characterized. The crotchety miser often is portrayed as someone who is frightened into becoming a better person.
"But that's actually not how the novella works," Haj said. "Scrooge in the novella is an active agent in his own change. He wants what we all want — to be made better, to be redeemed. He's scared and doesn't know how and fights it in some ways along the way. But there's a lot of language in there where Scrooge says that he wants to change."
Jadhwani tries to capture that.
"This is a guy who, when the ghost of Christmas Past shows him what he was like, he starts crying," she said. "The thing that interests me about that moment is when the ghost says, 'Hey, what's that on your cheek?' Scrooge says, 'It's a pimple.' "
Haj said the production design is aimed at making the story flow seamlessly. Saunders' set has massive upper wall panels that can be lit and practical doors that allow for apertures. Things are moved around on a double turntable — a big center one and a doughnut around it. Both can move together or counter-directionally and at different speeds.
Thus, Scrooge and the other characters move through the journey of the play with almost cinematic transitions. "In film language, that's the wipe — getting this scene out and the next scene in," Haj said.
That efficiency matches the text, as well. After all, this story transpires over a night and helps to restore, at least for one man, faith in humanity.
"When Marley comes to Scrooge as the first apparition in the play, Scrooge is frightened and freaked out that his seven-years-dead partner shows up in his bedroom," Haj said. "At one point in their conversation, Scrooge says, 'You were always a good man of business,' and Marley says, 'Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business.'
"Every year, this play reminds us that the things that matter most are not to be sacrificed to the things that matter least. Those themes are as current now as ever."
'A Christmas Carol'
Who: Adapted by Lavina Jadhwani. Directed by Joseph Haj.
Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 2nd Av. S., Mpls.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 1 & 7 p.m. Sun., 6:30 p.m. Tue.-Wed. Ends Dec. 27.
Tickets: $29-$134. 612-377-2224 or guthrietheater.org.
Protocol: Proof of vaccination or negative COVID test. Masks required.