Estella Scrooge is most wisely “A Christmas Carol” with a uniquely blended twist, comprised of theatre, film, and cutting-edge animation, streaming direct into our living rooms just in time for the holidays. The new holiday musical, starring Betsy Wolfe (Waitress) is a modern day Scrooge named Estella, a young Wall Street type tycoon who, like Ebenezer, has lost a connection to the spirit of Christmas. With a dastardly penchant for foreclosures, Estella returns to her hometown of Pickwick, Ohio, to personally, as she likes to do, lower the boom on a hotelier who has defaulted on his mortgage. Arriving at Harthouse, she discovers that the man at the center of this business and property is none other than her childhood sweetheart, Pip Nickleby, played by Clifton Duncan (The Play That Goes Wrong), a good and generous soul giving shelter to the sick, dispossessed, and homeless.If that wasn’t annoying enough, a sudden freak snowstorm forces Estella to take refuge there that night, and as it did with her ancestor Ebenezer, she is haunted by three visitations that very Christmas Eve, with the hope that Estella will see the light and the error of her humbug ways.
It’s a story we all know and love, and in this modern day version of Charles Dickens’ beloved 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol, Estella Scrooge inventively and wittily incorporates characters and plot lines from Dickens’ other great novels, Great Expectations, Little Dorrit and Bleak House, among others. With a book by John Caird (Les Misérables, Nicholas Nickleby) and Paul Gordon (Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice), who also wrote the music and lyrics, director John Caird has delivered on his holiday promise, filming all the actors, including Tony Award nominees; Lauren Patten (Jagged Little Pill), Patrick Page (Hadestown), and Danny Burstein (Moulin Rouge!) as Ebenezer Scrooge, individually in front of a green screen using strict social distancing practices, to give us this timely and meaningful gift during this strange yet festive season. They have creatively combined all of these filmed segments with hundreds of images, animations and digital environments, blending it together in post-production to deliver this dazzlingly cinematic musical theatre adventure magically to life for us all to stream in and enjoy.
One of those illustrious actors is the incredibly talented Carolee Carmello portraying Marla Havisham. She is a three-time Tony Award nominee and a 5-time Drama Desk nominee, winning the 1999 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Lucille Frank in Parade. Not only that, she has wow’d us on numerous Broadway occasions in 1992’s Falsettos as well as 1776, Mamma Mia!, The Addams Family, and Finding Neverland. Today, she has kindly joined me in conversation about the preparation, the process, and the finished product, Estella Scrooge: A Christmas Carol with a Twist, the first fully-realized musical to be planned, produced and digitally captured entirely during the pandemic.
Ross: Good day, Carolee, so tell me, how is it that you came to be involved with this show, and what excited you about it and the show’s vision?
Carolee Carmello: Hi, Ross! Well, I got a call back in August about the project and as soon as I heard that John Caird was involved, I was ready to jump in! I just think he’s so talented and kind and supportive and I was excited to have a chance to work with him again (after my very brief experience with him on the Les Miz National tour 30+ years ago).
Ross: Estella Scrooge is based on one of the most classic Christmas stories around. Tell me what you believe makes this new holiday musical “with a twist” so exciting? What is most intriguing about the unique spin your show is bringing to the Christmas table?
CC: Well, I think it’s very modern … characters that we can relate to in 2020 … some of them very successful, and some really struggling. It’s pretty universal, I suppose, which is why this Dickens story lives on and gets told over and over. And one of the interesting twists is the addition of other Dickens characters, like “Miss Havisham” (who I play) from ‘Great Expectations‘!
Ross: Tell me a bit more about your first exposure to the piece? That first reading…
CC: It was on Zoom, of course, and I remember being so impressed by the cast! What a group! Betsy Wolfe, Clifton Duncan, Danny Burstein, Patrick Page, Megan McGinnis and so many other talented people. It was thrilling to know that all of these great actors would be telling this story together (well, separate, but together).
Ross: What was it like to be involved in the creation of this new musical version? What is it like to step into something new, especially in this new way of telling a tale virtually?
CC: It was challenging! Learning music in my living room with a recording, rather than being together with Brad Haak (our great musical director). Saying lines to myself, rather than rehearsing with my scene partners … it’s hard to get used to, but I think everyone did an amazing job of rising to the challenge!
Ross: I was told that everyone was filmed individually in front of a green screen, and that post production work used hundreds of animations and digital effects to bring you all together in a scene. How was that experience?
CC: It was fascinating! I had never worked with green screen before. I really relied on the guidance of Tyler Milliron (our Director of Photography) who was in the room with me, and John Caird who was on a monitor from his home in England. They talked me through the movements and where I should focus, etc. Since there was no set or audience to ground me in the space, I really needed their help to figure out where to go and where to look so that in the final edit it would all make sense. Then I had to try to forget all that and just sing the song! It was tricky for sure!
Ross: What song(s) or moment(s) really speak to you?
CC: Oh, I had so much fun performing “Wall Street Baby Superstar!” The tune is great and the lyrics (both by the amazing Paul Gordon) are witty and playful. And as a ghost who can move around the space in supernatural ways, I felt really cool!
Ross: What’s been the most challenging part of this process for you?
CC: I really missed being able to look into the eyes and hear the voices of my fellow actors. That part was really hard because so much of acting is reacting, right? I had to imagine what they might do in order to play off of that.
Ross: The most rewarding?
CC: I guess the most rewarding part for me was seeing how it was all assembled by the amazing editors! They took individual performances and put us all together in a beautiful digital set with a fully orchestrated score … pretty fantastic!
Ross: What do you want the audience to get from watching this show, its unique new spin, and from your character?
CC: I hope people will feel a sense of being in a theater with this cast and even getting some close-up views that you might not get from the front mezz! (See what I did there? Hahaha)
Ross: Love it! So sweet. I’ve been a fan of yours for some time, ever since I saw you in the original Broadway cast of Falsettos, followed by Kiss Me, Kate and Urinetown. You’ve been involved in so many exciting Broadway and off-Broadway productions, from City of Angels to the lovely Tuck Everlasting. How has been throughout this crazy year to maintain your emotional connection to live theatre, musical theatre, and performing? I must say, that I miss the community and communal experience that theatre gives so much. How have you been doing through it all?
CC: It’s been a very difficult year. I’ve definitely had some dark days. I was so lucky to be playing “Dolly” on the tour of Hello, Dolly! when the shutdown happened. What a joyous show and role! I miss it a lot. I think most of all, though, I miss the people. I miss the actors and the stage managers and the dressers and the musicians and the crew and the audience! I just keep trying to see the big picture … this will be over (next year, I hope) and we’ll all gather together again and tell stories and sing songs and we’ll appreciate that more than we ever have before. Until then, one day at a time.
Ross: I, for one, couldn’t agree more. It is all about the big picture. And I can’t wait for that day as well, to sit in a theatre, and watch all you amazing people tell us some stories and sing us some songs once again. Thank you for your time and energy, Carolee Carmello. I’m looking forward to your take on Marla Havisham in Estella Scrooge: A Christmas Carol with a Twist.
The cast also includes Megan McGinnis (Little Women) as Betty Cratchit, Adam Halpin (Dear Evan Hansen) as Bob Cratchit, Sarah Litzsinger (Beauty and the Beast) as Sissy Jupe, Tom Nelis (The Visit) as Dedlock, Em Grosland (Emotional Creature) as Smike, Phoenix Best (Dear Evan Hansen) as Charity & Mercy, David Bryant (Original Marius in Broadway’s Les Misérables) as Mr. Podsnap, Gabrielle Reid (Beautiful: The Carol King Musical) as Mrs. Pumblechook, Samuel Lee Roberts (Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Spectacular) as Mr. Flopson, Michael Francis McBride (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater) as Mr. Dombey, Michele Lee (Nutcracker Rouge) as Mrs. Noggs, Kristen Faith Oei (The King and I) as Ms. Skiffins, Meg Gibson (The Gabriels) as Molly, William Youmans (Wicked) as Magwitch & Bagstock, Kevyn Morrow (Moulin Rouge!) as Jasper Jaggers, Joziyah Jean-Felix (The Lion King) as Young Pip, Brooklyn Shuck (“Evil”) as Young Essy and Willow McCarthy (The Ferryman) as Tiny Tammy. Serving on the creative team are musical supervisor Brad Haak, director of photography and editor Tyler Milliron, production art designer Zach Wilson, costume designer Somie Pak, hair and makeup designer Dena Olivieri, props designer by Katherine White, and choreographer Natalie Lomonte, with casting by Tara Rubin Casting.
Producers Michael Jackowitz of Witzend Productions, David Bryant and Michael Alden, in partnership with Streaming Musicals, are pleased to herald the arrival of this new holiday musical, the World Premiere of Estella Scrooge: A Christmas Carol with a Twist.