This week’s Playhouse Perspective blog is written by It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play cast member and Gulfshore Playhouse Associate Artistic Director Jeffrey Binder.
How do you tackle a “classic”? So often around this time of year, an advert for a play pops up touting ‘the story you remember retold!’ or our Christmas film season rolls in and there is invariable a ‘fresh modern take on the beloved classic [insert title here]”. How many Christmas Carols are there? How many versions of King Kong have we (mostly) suffered through? Greek myths have been adapted so many times in so many ways, we don’t even know what the original stories were. Even Shakespeare borrowed stories from his contemporaries (just compare Merchant of Venice with Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta). The fresh take on classical stories is as old as storytelling itself. We are always tinkering; we get inspired by a story and want to make it our own.
Which brings me to It’s a Wonderful Life. As a film, well, it’s pretty wonderful – there’s a heart in it that still beats for a modern audience to this day. You could make the argument (as our illustrious and pretty darned brilliant director Peter Amster noted) that It’s A Wonderful Life is the American Christmas Carol. Created in the post-World War II high when our nation had come into its own, and many believe it was a shining city on the hill, It’s a Wonderful Life is as American as apple pie. Sweet enough to get you teary and hungry for another bite, and just aw-gosh enough to make you feel patriotic doing it. But it explores some deeper themes – war, suffering, suicide? For a film from 1946, it doesn’t necessarily pull punches (even though they still couldn’t say ‘pregnant’ on film without the danger getting censored – instead George Bailey’s wife is ‘on the nest’. Har-de-har-har). It’s a David and Goliath story told in a uniquely small-town American way: quintessential American boy-done-good goes toe-to-toe against the greedy man who’ll stop at nothing to get everything (and how could that not have resonated with a post-Hitler audience). What’s not to like?
So why retell the tale? Why not just see the movie again? I believe the reason something becomes a classic is that it hits a fundamental human truth. These kinds of truths resonate with us so deeply that we will always remember that story unfolding before our eyes. It touches our soul in some way that’s not quite rational. Something about it is so fundamentally us that it stays with all of us, and we want to relive that ‘ah-ha-that’s-me!’ moment over and over again. But here’s the trap: in that reach to experience these classics again and again, it becomes an exercise of nostalgia almost more than a re-engagement of the fundamental emotional or spiritual thing that made it a classic in the first place. So while it still moves us on the third, fourth, tenth viewing, it moves us for very different reasons each time. We’re chasing the white rabbit to feel what we felt the first time.
With It’s A Wonderful Life, the message, the human experience, the American Christmas Carol, our story is still there. I don’t know a person who hasn’t questioned their choices, who hasn’t felt alone, faced hardship that made them wonder if any of it was worthwhile, or felt abandoned at just the worst moment. That’s what this story shows us, fundamentally. It reminds us we are loved and that we have meaning. As long as we work to ‘do the right thing’ by our fellow human, our lives have value in ways we may never fully comprehend. Wow! I want to see that story for the first time again! That’s what a good retelling of a ‘classic’ does: it brings us back to the fundamental ‘wow’ moments of that story and it tricks our brain into hearing the message again for the first time.
I hope when you come and see us, you’ll get that very feeling with our production of It’s a Wonderful Life. By presenting it as a radio broadcast in front of a live studio audience on Christmas Eve, Joe Landry (the adapter of the piece) brilliantly puts us all in a world where the most fundamental thing we’re all experiencing is listening! It’s radio! He immediately focuses us on the words of the story – literally opening the door for us to hear this tale unfold for the first time (along with some nifty bells and whistles in the way of sound effects to help life the imagination of the listener come alive). Our minds are not locked into the images we remember from the motion picture. That takes some craft and a deft touch that our director, Peter Amster, is perfectly suited for – he has a sixth-sense and knack for storytelling that is uncanny, and along with some really smart, funny fellow actors, the piece really comes to life in a new way that keeps the story of It’s a Wonderful Life alive. These artists respect the story enough to do Frank Capra and the original piece proud, but each of them has a desire to find the truth of each moment in a way that makes the story fresh and vibrant (and so much fun). Though it’s a radio play, Peter Amster’s production comes at us in full technicolor.
By dropping by and experiencing our current production of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, I think you’ll understand how a fresh retelling of a known classic exposes you to that ‘first time’ experience (wherever and whenever that first time happened to be), and why such a beautiful story deserves to be told and told again in whatever form that brings it to life for you and your family. Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!