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Tony-winning scenic and costume designer Rob Howell discusses his nontraditional take on the holiday staple
When director Matthew Warchus approached his longtime collaborator, scenic and costume designer Rob Howell, about doing a theatrical adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, they only knew what they didn't want to see: a conventional Victorian set. Not that there's anything wrong with that. "I'm not against any of that, and I may well do that version in the future," says Howell, who's a master of verisimilitude -- his Tony-winning costumes and set for last season's The Ferryman overflowed with authentic details that enhanced the Irish family drama. But for A Christmas Carol, Warchus wasn't after realness. "He was reaching for something to do with community and sharing," says Howell. "There were a lot of early talks about handbells and clementines and mince pies, all of the stuff that had nothing to do with scenery or costumes. But I could tell the conversations were getting at something about enlightenment and emotion and Scrooge being trapped in a cage."
Howell translated those ideas into a set that's full of surprises, just like the overall production. You've never seen Ebenezer Scrooge's redemption tale staged like this. Metal doorframes pop up without warning, trapping the miser in a prison of his own making. His beloved money is stored in vaults that lock into the floor. Overhead, a canopy of glowing lanterns spills into the house, helping to erase the divide between the actors and the audience. At key moments snow falls and cast members cavort up and down the aisles, spreading cheer, ringing bells, handing out treats and even enlisting theatregoers in the action.
Now on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre, this Christmas Carol originated in 2017 at London's Old Vic Theatre, where Warchus serves as artistic director. With a script by Tony winner Jack Thorne that pumps up the politics and the psychology, and a small band of musicians playing Christmas carols, the production was a smash that's remounted seasonally. A New York transfer might seem like a no-brainer. However, while the holiday classic is frequently done Off-Off Broadway -- currently there's a one-man incarnation at a historic house, a musical for families, a modern-day iteration set in Harlem and a queer take, among others -- it's rarely seen on Broadway. In the '90s and '00s, Patrick Stewart performed his solo version for four seasons, and there was a flop musical adaptation starring Gregory Hines called Comin' Uptown in 1979. That's it.
Howell can't speak to the future prospects of A Christmas Carol on this side of the pond, but he believes it's "an amazingly profound tale that affects youngsters and adults as well." Some changes had to be made for Broadway. It's an all-new cast led by Campbell Scott as Scrooge (fun fact: he's the son of George C. Scott, who starred in the beloved 1984 TV adaptation of the tale), and Tony winners Andrea Martin and LaChanze as the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, respectively. At the Old Vic, it was performed in the round, so for the proscenium theatre bits of staging have been altered. And the mince pies actors handed out in London have been replaced by bags of mini chocolate chip cookies. "Us Brits, we were advised that you guys would prefer a Christmas cookie," says Howell with a laugh.
Yet "conceptually, it's the same," he insists. "Four doorframes, lanterns, Scrooge's material worth buried in the floor, and we're trusting the audience to fill in the gaps. That was a very liberating approach. We don't need a backdrop of Dickensian London. I'm trying to get in under your radar. When Scrooge's cage peels away, the doorframes fall down like the petals of a flower and light comes through the floorboards. That has an emotion to it."
This is Howell's seventh Broadway show with Warchus, and their collaborations have run the gamut from musicals (Matilda the Musical, which earned Howell his first Tony; Groundhog Day; Ghost the Musical), to dramas (True West), to comedies (The Norman Conquests, Boeing-Boeing). But A Christmas Carol is their first project that "came about through a question of clementine or Christmas cookie," Howell says. "These things don't normally arrive like that. In the early days, I think there was some expectation that our Christmas Carol would be something quote-unquote traditional, and it turned out to not be that. But it still delivers."
Top image: Campbell Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Photo by Joan Marcus.