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Dear Elizabeth: Introduction

“Sometimes it seems…as though only intelligent people are stupid enough to fall in love & only stupid people are intelligent enough to let themselves be loved.” – Elizabeth Bishop, from her notebook

Dream

I see a postman everywhere

Vanishing in thin blue air,

A mammoth letter in his hand.

Postmarked from a foreign land.

The postman’s uniform is blue.

The letter is of course from you

And I’d be able to read, I hope,

My own name on the envelope

But he has trouble with this letter

Which constantly grows bigger & bigger

And over and over with a stare,

He vanishes in blue, blue air. 

–Elizabeth Bishop, Uncollected Poems, Drafts and Fragments

“Elizabeth told me about Robert Lowell. She said, “He’s my best friend.” When I met him a few years later, I mentioned that I knew her and he said, “Oh, she’s my best friend.” It was nice to think that she and Lowell both thought of each other in the same way” (Thom Gunn, Remembering Elizabeth Bishop, 244.)

“While we were with her, she managed to finish ‘North Haven,’ the poem [or elegy] for Lowell. She read it to us and walked about with it in her hand. I found it very moving that she felt she could hardly bear to put it down, that it was part of her. She put it beside her plate at dinner” (Ilsa Barker, Remembering Elizabeth Bishop, 344)

“I can remember Cal’s carrying Elizabeth’s “Armadillo” poem around in his wallet everywhere, not the way you’d carry the picture of a grandson, but as you’d carry something to brace you and make you sure of how a poem ought to be.” (Richard Wilbur, Remembering Elizabeth Bishop, 108)


FORWARD 

The great poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell were great friends, and they wrote over eight hundred pages of letters to one other. When I was on bed-rest, pregnant with twins, a friend gave me their book of collected letters Words in Air: the complete correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. I already had a long-standing obsession with Elizabeth Bishop; my obsession with Lowell and their friendship now began. I could not put the letters down. I hungered to hear them read aloud; I particularly longed to hear letter number 157 read out loud. Number 157 is Lowell’s most confessional letter to Bishop, and I think, one of the most beautiful love letters ever written. In it, he says, about not asking Bishop to marry him: “Asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.” 

Reading these eight hundred pages, these strands of two lives, intersecting, rarely meeting–I thought: why do I find this narrative so compelling, even though theirs is not a story in the traditional sense? I was desperate to know how the “story” would come out—how each life would progress, how the relation would end. But I also loved how the letters resisted a sense of the usual literary “story”—how instead, the letters forced us to look at life as it is lived. Not neat. Not two glorious Greek arcs meeting in the center. Instead: a dialectic between the interior poetic life and the pear-shaped, particular, sudden, ordinary life-as-it-is-lived. 

Life intrudes, without warning. Elizabeth Bishop’s great love and partner Lota commits suicide without much warning. Bishop has multiple asthma attacks, and often needs to be hospitalized for alcoholism and depression. Robert Lowell dies suddenly of a heart attack in a taxi cab en route to see his ex-wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. As he died in the taxi he held a painting of his third wife, painted by her ex-husband, Lucian Freud. Lowell had bipolar disorder, and often found himself quite suddenly in a sanitarium. Bishop and Lowell’s carefully built, Platonic poetic worlds are intruded on constantly by the vagaries of life and the body. And through such sudden disturbances, their letters were like lanterns sent to one another across long distances. Bishop lived in Brazil most of her life, and Lowell lived in New York, Boston and London. Their friendship was lived largely on paper, though they met at crucial times in their lives. 

Bishop was in New York when Lota commited suicide, and she stayed at Hardwick and Lowell’s apartment. They paid for her ambulance ride through Central Park, a result of a bad fall she took, perhaps induced by too much drink, after Lota’s suicide. Bishop was plagued her whole life with alcoholism; at one point a friend eliminated all the liquor in her house and Bishop was reduced to drinking rubbing alcohol and ended up in the hospital. Lowell visited Bishop in South America and was hospitalized in Argentina for a manic episode. 

Their correspondence spans political epochs—coups in Brazil, the Vietnam war—personal epochs, and literary epochs. Bishop observes Lowell’s trajectory as he creates the confessional movement in poetry. I love, in the letters, the extraordinary dialectic between Lowell’s more confessional mode and Bishop’s formal restraint. Her disgust for the confessional, however, didn’t keep her from loving Lowell’s poetry. They both carried each other’s poems in their minds and in their pockets. Lowell carried Bishop’s Armadillo (a poems she dedicated to Lowell) in his wallet, a kind of talisman for how a poem ought to be. 

Lowell wrote Skunk Hour for Bishop, as well as many sonnets, and a poem called “Water”, about a seminal weekend the two of them spent in Maine. 

After Lowell divorced Jean Stafford in July of 1948, he visited Elizabeth Bishop in Maine. It’s a visit they would both return to again and again in their letters and in their poetry. It’s impossible to reconstruct exactly what happened; we know from letters and poems that they spent the weekend together, at one point standing waist high in water, and Bishop said to Lowell, “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.” Bishop wrote later that they were: “Swimming, or rather standing, numb to the waist in the freezing cold water, but continuing to talk. If I were to think of any Saint in his connection then it is St. Sebastian—he stood in a rocky basin of the freezing water, sloshing it over his handsome youthful body and I could almost see the arrows sticking out of him.” 

We know that shortly after that visit, Lowell told some friends he was going to marry Bishop. Soon after, they had a drunken weekend at Bard where many poets were gathered. Lowell was rumored to have proposed to her that weekend. Bishop wrote to another friend, “Saturday night was worst—a really drunken party, I’m afraid, with everyone behaving very much the way poets are supposed to.” In another account, Bishop remembers that she and Elizabeth Hardwick had helped a drunken Lowell back to his room, taken off his shoes and tie, loosened his shirt, upon which Hardwick said, “Why, he’s an Adonis!” and Bishop said “from then on I knew it was all over.” 

We also know from their friend Joseph Summers that at the end of the Bard weekend, “He and Elizabeth seemed to be very much in love that weekend. He was saying, ‘Now let me know when you are coming back.’ And she said, “I don’t know.’ “Let me know where you are,” and so on.” Another friend reports, “She told us at one point she loved Cal more than anybody she’d ever known, except for Lota, but that he would destroy her.” And from another friend: Lowell “was the one of the few people Bishop addressed in her poems. She said that he had proposed to her, and she had turned him down.” Apparently her greatest regret was not having a child, and she considered having one with Lowell early on, but worried about the history of mental illness in both of their families. 

The gaps between their letters, the mysterious interludes in which Lowell and Bishop actually saw each other, leaves much to the imagination. Their letters are so hyper-articulate that one almost has the impression that no bits of life were lived without been written down. These silences between the letters fascinated me as much as the letters themselves. But rather than invent dialogue for these interludes in which they actually met, it felt important to me to let Bishop and Lowell speak only in their own words. Bishop’s reserve, and her insistence on not mixing fact and fiction, was always with me as I arranged the letters. All the words from the play are taken from their letters and from their poetry. 

There are many ways to do this play. One can imagine the full spectacle I have suggested in the stage directions, complete with planets appearing and water rushing onto the stage, as in its premier at Yale Repertory Theater. I wanted to see the images in their letters made three- dimensional, to somehow see the reach of their imagery. But I’m also interested in how much the language can do all by itself. One can imagine, for example, a simple book club version. I saw pictures of one such event in Illinois and was very moved by the simplicity of non-actors who loved poetry reading the letters out loud to fellow travelers. One could also 

imagine doing the play in a library, at a poetry foundation, or even doing the play on the set for another play on its dark Monday night. You really need nothing more than a table and two chairs for two wonderful actors who could even read the letters straight from the page rather than memorizing them. You might then use someone to read stage directions rather than projecting subtitles. 

Regardless of how the play is performed, in a theater or in a room, when I first read the letters, I felt that they demanded to be read out loud, whether by actors or by lay-people. Bishop and Lowell had unerring, consummate ears, and they wrote poetry for a time when Lowell could command massive crowds in Madison Square Gardens, all gathered to hear him read his poems out loud. I offer this arrangement, then, in the spirit of a contemporary hunger to hear poetry out loud. I think we are starved for the sound of poetry. I wonder if Bishop and Lowell are among the last great people of letters to write out their lives in letter form. Their letters become almost a medieval church constructed in praise of friendship. It’s difficult to write about friendship. Our culture is inundated with the story of romantic love. We understand how romantic love begins, how it ends. We don’t understand, in neat narrative fashion, how friendship begins, how it endures. And yet life would be unbearable without friendship.

– Sarah Ruhl

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Creative

A Show of Titles Preview!

We can’t wait to have you join us for our presentation of Show of Titles, streaming from Sunday, June 13 at 7pm EST to Thursday, June 17 at 4pm EST.

We’ve created a Spotify playlist of some classic title songs you can expect to hear during the show. Check it out below!

Broadway’s Best Shows is proud to present Show of Titles, a musical extravaganza with dozens of Broadway stars performing the title songs from over 20 beloved musicals to benefit The Actors Fund.

With Performances by Annaleigh Ashford, Glenn Close, Len Cariou, Gavin Creel, Darren Criss, Santino Fontana, Kelsey Grammer, David Alan Grier, Jake Gyllenhaal, Isabelle Huppert, Norm Lewis, Patti LuPone, Rob McClure, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Melba Moore, Jessie Mueller, Eva Noblezada, Kelli O’Hara, Laura Osnes, Steven Pasquale, Michael Rupert, Ernie Sabella, Lea Salonga, Phillipa Soo, Will Swenson, Aaron Tveit, Leslie Uggams, Vanessa Williams, Patrick Wilson, and more!

And Special Appearances by Broadway Inspirational Voices, Candice Bergen, Danny Burstein, Bryan Cranston, Sheldon Harnick, John Kander, Angela Lansbury, John Leguizamo, John Lithgow, Lindsay Mendez, Phylicia Rashad, BD Wong & Florian Zeller.

Show of Titles premieres on Stellar at 7PM ET / 4PM PT on Sunday, June 13th and will be available for a limited time only.

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Creative

JUNE PROGRAMMING!

Show of Titles Ohio State Murders Dear Elizabeth

Show of Titles

Broadway’s Best Shows is proud to present Show of Titles, a musical extravaganza with dozens of Broadway stars performing the title songs from over 20 beloved musicals to benefit The Actors Fund.

With Performances by Annaleigh Ashford, Glenn Close, Len Cariou, Gavin Creel, Darren Criss, Santino Fontana, Kelsey Grammer, David Alan Grier, Jake Gyllenhaal, Isabelle Huppert, Norm Lewis, Patti LuPone, Rob McClure, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Melba Moore, Jessie Mueller, Eva Noblezada, Kelli O’Hara, Laura Osnes, Steven Pasquale, Michael Rupert, Ernie Sabella, Lea Salonga, Phillipa Soo, Will Swenson, Aaron Tveit, Leslie Uggams, Vanessa Williams, Patrick Wilson, and more!

And Special Appearances by Broadway Inspirational Voices, Candice Bergen, Danny Burstein, Bryan Cranston, Sheldon Harnick, John Kander, Angela Lansbury, John Leguizamo, John Lithgow, Lindsay Mendez, Phylicia Rashad, BD Wong & Florian Zeller.

Show of Titles premieres on Stellar at 7PM ET / 4PM PT on Sunday, June 13th and will be available for a limited time only.

Ohio State Murders

OHIO STATE MURDERS
By Adrienne Kennedy
Directed by Kenny Leon
Starring Audra McDonald, Warner Miller, Lizan Mitchell, Ben Rappaport

Ohio State Murders is an unusual look at the destructiveness of racism in the U.S.  When Suzanne Alexander, a fictional African American writer, returns to Ohio State University to talk about the violence in her writing, a dark mystery unravels.

Premieres Thursday, June 3rd, 2021 at 8:00PM ET – available to stream on demand for four days ONLY through Monday, June 7th at 6:00PM ET (date subject to change)

Dear Elizabeth

DEAR ELIZABETH
By Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Kate Whoriskey
Starring Kevin Kline and Meryl Streep

Based on the compiled letters between poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, Dear Elizabeth maps the relationship of the two poets from first meeting to an abbreviated affairand the turmoil of their lives in between.

Premieres Thursday, June 17th, 2021 at 8:00PM ET – available to stream on demand for four days ONLY through Monday, June 21st at 6:00PM ET (date subject to change)


The Actors Fund envisions a world in which individuals contributing to our country’s cultural vibrancy are supported, valued and economically secure.

The Actors Fund fosters stability and resiliency, and provides a safety net for performing arts and entertainment professionals over their lifespan.

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Creative Interviews

Sarna Lapine On Directing “Watch On The Rhine” for Spotlight on Plays

Sarna Lapine (Sofia Colvin)

You are probably familiar with the name Sarna Lapine, you know, the director of “Sunday In The Park With George,” “Madame Butterfly,” “Little Women,” “War Horse” and “Dirty Dancing,” just to name a few. Well, Lapine has decided to turn her focus to a new production and is doing a livestream of Lillian Hellman’s, “Watch On The Rhine”, as part of the “Spotlight on Plays” series to benefit The Actors Fund, Thursday, May 13th at 8pm, livestreaming on Stellar. Yes, this Thursday, Lapine and a global cast will mount this production after only a three-day period of reflection and rehearsal and give a riveting performance of the classic antifascism, Nazi-Germany drama, set in a wealthy home in the United States.

Lapine, discussing this project, explained that “it’s the first thing I’ve done in this particular way, with the livestream.” The original Broadway production, which won a New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1941, showed audiences 80 years ago, the depth of storytelling that Hellman was capable of. Reflecting on why she chose this play Lapine shared, “I think part of the reason I’ve had a diverse career is that my first love is reading and literature. I gravitate towards writers and stories that grab me by the throat. I had never seen or read this play and I was grabbed by it. It’s chilling because of how it resonates in this moment and time. One of the little handbooks I keep in my pocket is ‘On Tyranny Twenty lessons for the Twentieth Century’ by Timothy Snyder. I’m Jewish, so I have a close relationship to the history of WWII as a Jewish person. Because of my education in that, some of the things that Donald Trump and his party have stood for have frightened me, because there are echoes of Hitler and Nazism. Timothy Snyder’s book lays out lessons from history that can alert us to the rise of tyranny now. The last lesson is to be as courageous as you can. ‘If known of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny,’ page 115. What was also a discovery in thinking about this book in relationship to this play is he echoes Hamlet, ‘the time is out of joint’. In Lillian’s play, Kurt (the main character) says, ‘the world is out of shape.’ Hellman was living this history, traveling the world, she had a front row seat to see fascism. I was struck by the fact that it opened on stage in 1941. She’s writing in the crucible of this moment and watching how it’s taking shape in the minds and hearts of ordinary citizens. It’s not a piece about heroes and villains, it’s about ordinary citizens in Europe and American and the decisions we make every single day that tip the hand of history…The piece gets to the heart of the moral, ethical and modern realities of what happens to citizens who are faced with the threat of tyranny. 80 years later it’s a continuum.”

The message of this play could not possibly resonate more than it does today. “At it’s core it’s a conversation. In this country, whether or not we stand and choice democracy, this is a conversation that I want to be in, even with people who don’t see the world the way I do.”

Staying true to the original 1940s based play, without the benefit of sets, costumes and a physical theatre, Lapine focused on the bottomline, “Plays are language based. The language of the play is routed in the period in which it was written. One esthetic choice I made was editing all the footage in Black and White, which gives a nod to the 1940s period in which the film was made. There are very few stage directions presented as title cards.

Pondering the challenges of doing a livestream, Lapine remarked, “The challenge is the lack of physical interpersonal connection. The energy that comes from being in a room with an amazing group of artists. Time is out of joint when we can’t live through that moment together and have the luxury of time to do a deep dive into the material.” Considering audiences consumption of the production, Lapine suggests watching with friends, so that you can discuss it afterwards.

Lapine will be directing an outstanding cast including Ellen Burstyn; Alan Cox; Sasha Diamond; Alfred Enoch; Carla Gugino; Luca Padovan; Mary Beth Peil; Gabriella Pizzolo; Neel Sethi and Jeremy Shamos. “This pandemic has been so devastating to our theater community. I almost have no words and still feel very much in that space. It’s a lot that has been lost and I think to make any contribution to this community is the least I can do. I want to work towards not only healing, but reimagining how we can rebuild ourselves in a healthier form, more sustainable and reflective of the world so many of us want to live in.”

Spotlight on Plays is presented by Broadway’s Best Shows. You can purchase individual tickets to Watch on the Rhine (May 13-17) at Stellar Tickets. All proceeds go to benefit The Actors Fund.


Linda Armstrong is a theatre critic with the New York Amsterdam News, Theatre Editor for Neworldreview.net, A&E Editor for Harlem News Group and has written for Playbill Online, had a Theatre column “On The Aisle” for Our Time Press, Network Journal Magazine, Show Business Weekly Newspaper, Headline Magazine, Theatre Week Magazine, Black Masks Magazine, and the New York Daily News. Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library interviewed her for their “Critical Perspectives” series, and she was cited on the Jeanne Parnell Radio Show in March 2021 as a Woman Making History.

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Creative

ARMIE HAMMER WITHDRAWS FROM THE MINUTES ON BROADWAY

PRODUCTION STILL ON TRACK FOR 2021-2022 SEASON

(New York, NY) Armie Hammer has withdrawn from the production of The Minutes for personal reasons.  

“I have loved every single second of working on The Minutes with the family I made from Steppenwolf. But right now I need to focus on myself and my health for the sake of my family. Consequently, I will not be returning to Broadway with the production.” – Armie Hammer

“Armie remains a valued colleague to all of us who have worked with him onstage and offstage on The Minutes. We wish only the best for him and respect his decision.” – A statement from The Minutes

As previously announced, Steppenwolf’s production of The Minutes by Tracy Letts, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, will return to Broadway in the 2021-2022 season.

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Creative

Spotlight on Plays

Broadway’s Best Shows is proud to present Spotlight on Plays, a starry series of livestream readings of Broadway’s best plays to benefit The Actors Fund.

With Debbie Allen, Ellen Burstyn, Bobby Cannavale, Kathryn Hahn, Kevin Kline, Eric McCormack, Audra McDonald, Mary-Louise Parker, Phylicia Rashad, Keanu Reeves, Heidi Schreck, Alia Shawkat, Heather Alicia Simms, Alicia Stith, Meryl Streep, and many more. 

The “Spotlight on Plays” presentations premiere on Stellar at 8PM ET / 5PM PT. Following the live premiere, presentations will be available to watch anytime on-demand for four days ONLY after its premiere.

THE THANKSGIVING PLAY
By Larissa FastHorse
Directed By Leigh Silverman
Starring Bobby Cannavale, Keanu Reeves, Heidi Schreck and Alia Shawkat

Premieres Thursday, March 25th, 2021 at 8:00PM ET – available to stream on demand for four days ONLY through Monday, March 29th at 6:00PM ET

Larissa FastHorse’s wickedly funny comedy finds a troupe of terminally “woke” teaching artists scrambling to create a pageant that manages to celebrate both Turkey Day and Native American Heritage Month. “A delicious roasting” (NY Times) of the politics of entertainment and political correctness, The Thanksgiving Play puts the American origin story in the comedy-crosshairs.

ANGRY, RAUCOUS AND SHAMELESSLY GORGEOUS
By Pearl Cleage
Directed By Camille A. Brown
Starring Debbie Allen, Phylicia Rashad, Heather Alicia Simms, and Alicia Stith

Premieres Thursday, April 8th, 2021 at 8:00PM ET – available to stream on demand for four days ONLY through Monday, April 12th at 6:00PM ET

Pearl Cleage’s “funny and hopeful” (Georgia Magazine) comedy is all about aging gracefully and gorgeously. Anna Campbell, now 65, sparked controversy when she bared it all on stage years ago. When a theatre festival asks to re-stage the work with a younger actress in her role, dramatic and comic fireworks ensue.

THE BALTIMORE WALTZ
by Paula Vogel
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Starring Mary-Louise Parker, Eric McCormack, and Brandon Burton

A comic and dramatic fantasia based on the love and adventures of a brother and sister, one of whom has a fatal disease.   Winner of the 1992 Obie Award for Best New American Play.

Premieres Thursday, April 29th, 2021 at 8:00PM ET – available to stream on demand for four days ONLY through Monday, May 3rd at 6:00PM ET (date subject to change)

WATCH ON THE RHINE
By Lillian Hellman
Directed by Sarna Lapine
Starring Ellen Burstyn and Carla Gugino

Written and set during the rise of Hitler’s Germany, Watch on the Rhine is a play about an American family, suddenly awakened to the danger threatening its liberty.  Hellman’s powerful drama won the 1941 New York Drama Critics Circle Award.

Premieres Thursday, May 13th, 2021 at 8:00PM ET – available to stream on demand for four days ONLY through Monday, May 17th at 6:00PM ET (date subject to change)

THE SISTERS ROSENSWEIG
By Wendy Wasserstein
Directed by Anna D. Shapiro
Starring Kathryn Hahn

Three very different sisters reunite after a lengthy separation and discover humanity, respect, and love in this definitive serious comedy about sisterhood. 

Premieres Thursday, May 20th, 2021 at 8:00PM ET – available to stream on demand for four days ONLY through Monday, May 24th at 6:00PM ET (date subject to change)

OHIO STATE MURDERS
By Adrienne Kennedy
Directed by Kenny Leon
Starring Audra McDonald

Ohio State Murders is an unusual look at the destructiveness of racism in the U.S.  When Suzanne Alexander, a fictional African American writer, returns to Ohio State University to talk about the violence in her writing, a dark mystery unravels.

Premieres Thursday, June 3rd, 2021 at 8:00PM ET – available to stream on demand for four days ONLY through Monday, June 7th at 6:00PM ET (date subject to change)

DEAR ELIZABETH
By Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Kate Whoriskey
Starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline

Based on the compiled letters between poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, Dear Elizabeth maps the relationship of the two poets from first meeting to an abbreviated affairand the turmoil of their lives in between.

Premieres Thursday, June 17th, 2021 at 8:00PM ET – available to stream on demand for four days ONLY through Monday, June 21st at 6:00PM ET (date subject to change)


The Actors Fund envisions a world in which individuals contributing to our country’s cultural vibrancy are supported, valued and economically secure.

The Actors Fund fosters stability and resiliency, and provides a safety net for performing arts and entertainment professionals over their lifespan.

Categories
Creative

PIAF. . . Her Story. . . Her Songs

Broadways Best Shows and The Actors Fund present Raquel Bitton’s acclaimed musical event “PIAF… Her Story… Her Songs.” All proceeds from suggested donations will benefit The Actors Fund.

Available for streaming on Broadway’s Best Shows Youtube channel and The Actors Fund Youtube channel beginning Monday, February 15 at 7:30PM ET. The concert will be available for four days through Thursday, February 18.

Part documentary, part stage performance, “PIAF… Her Story… Her Songs” is a “powerful, emotional and mesmerizing” (San Francisco Chronicle) look at French chanteuse Edith Piaf as she tells her story through a theatrical presentation by singer Raquel Bitton. Bitton literally becomes Piaf while singing, but steps back and tells her story – in English – between the mostly French songs. Archival photos of Piaf illustrate her life of lucky breaks and tragedy. Some of the evening’s best moments are of Bitton and Piaf’s friends, lovers, composers happily discussing Piaf over food and wine at a Paris bistro. The event features 16 songs performed with a full orchestra, including “La Vie En Rose,” “No Regrets” and “Hymn to Love.”

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Creative Long Form

Bah Humbug!: Finding the Comedy in A Christmas Carol

You’re gearing up for the holidays, and your boss starts to wax poetic about how Christmas is more of a nuisance than a celebration.  Later in the evening, when some eccentric guests show up at the office party, he complains that they may be products of his indigestion, and says he’d rather be getting a good night’s rest than chit-chatting.  Soon, the familiar music comes in.  And no, it’s not the brass tuba and mandolin plucking of the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” theme, but rather the joyful sounds of carols – A Christmas Carol, to be exact.  

Patrick Stewart in A Christmas Carol

Scholars have speculated that Charles Dickens’ 1843 holiday classic may be the “most adapted” text in the English language.  And indeed, A Christmas Carol was the subject of Dickens’ first “public reading,” a practice he would continue annually during the holidays until his death in 1870.  Perhaps this is one of the many reasons why A Christmas Carol seems to have a very special relationship with theatricality – it’s been adapted hundreds of times in the 20th and 21st centuries: there were the “story theatre” style productions that began in the 70’s; the large-scale Broadway musical performed at Madison Square Garden until 2003; Patrick Stewart’s famous one-man version; traditional productions mounted annually at regional theatres across the country; modern-day spinoffs like A Christmas Carol in Harlem or 3 Ghosts, a steam-punk adaptation – and everything in between.  Basically: if you can imagine an iteration of A Christmas Carol, it’s undoubtedly been done somewhere in the world.  

A Christmas Carol in Harlem

Most scholars agree on the importance of the character Scrooge when considering the theatrical and literary legacy of A Christmas Carol.  He’s the heart and (blackened) soul of the original text, and one of the major reasons why it’s been adapted within an inch of its life.  Not unlike the great white whales of Shakespeare’s oeuvre, characters like Lear and Richard III, Scrooge has been played by some of the all-time greats of theatre and film, including Patrick Stewart (as discussed above), Michael Caine, Jim Carrey, Lionel Barrymore, Kelsey Grammer, Albert Finney, and Jefferson Mays – in a one-man version that opened at the Geffen Playhouse in 2018 and was re-recorded to be streamed for holiday audiences this season.  

Michael Arden, director of Mays’ one-man version of Christmas Carol, agreed that Scrooge is the ultimate, and one of the first, anti-heroes, in the tradition of Lucifer or Faust.  Though he’s undoubtedly evil, bitter, and miserly, Arden described him as the “heart” and “center” of the piece.  For these very reasons, it’s one of the most difficult roles to interpret.  Actors find themselves asking: how “mean” does Scrooge have to be in order to give the show, and his transformation, appropriate stakes?  

Estella Scrooge The Musical

There are easy pitfalls.  Ben Brantley wrote of Walter Charles’ portrayal, for example, “…you can forget for long patches that A Christmas Carol is about [Scrooge’s] conversion to goodness.  Perhaps so as not to frighten younger spectators, he’s largely a benign scoundrel.”  And Alexis Soloski wrote that Anthony Vaughn Merchant’s recent Scrooge “didn’t seem that mean” – rather that he just went “for laughs.”  

“Humor” and “wit” were two of the first qualities Arden named in describing Scrooge.  I, too, in re-reading various adaptations of the play, was struck by how funny Scrooge can be.  Between his complaints about the unrealistic expectations of Christmas, loud carolers, over-indulgent writing and speech, indigestion, lack of sleep, teenagers generally, love generally, and work generally, it can feel more like reading an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” than the first act of A Christmas Carol.  Any actor playing Scrooge must walk that knife’s edge between frightening darkness and a sense of humor to rival Larry David.

Jefferson Mays in A Christmas Carol

And the Scrooge-Larry David parallels don’t stop there: Scrooge is a man of a certain age, who lives alone and seems generally mystified by current social mores.  You could easily see an episode of Curb focusing on Larry’s annoyance with Christmas carolers who are too loud, or Larry being flummoxed by the tradition of giving gifts to your employees in addition to what you already pay them.  In many adaptations, when Scrooge is first warned of the appearance of three ghosts he asks, “I think I’d rather not…couldn’t I take them all at once and be over with it?”  You could easily see Larry David wagering with a fearsome ghost in the same way.  And the famous expletives Larry uses when confronted with teens who are “too old to dress up for Halloween,” coffee he believes isn’t hot enough, and a crush who voted for George W. Bush – to name just a few – can be seen as direct descendants of Scrooge’s “Bah Humbug.”

But given how funny Scrooge can be at the beginning of A Christmas Carol, it’s not hard to see how the good, earnest, transformed version we encounter at the end of the play could end up feeling like a wet blanket.  Arden disagreed.  He reminded me that Scrooge is still funny at the end of the play – it’s just a different kind of humor.  “At the beginning of [A Christmas Carol],” Arden explained, “Scrooge uses [humor] as a defense.  In the end when he’s playing the practical joke on Bob Cratchitt – it’s humor with a different motivation.  He wants to have fun.  He wants to make up for lost time and use humor to do that.”

Michael Cain in A Christmas Carol

While “Scrooge” (and “being a Scrooge”) has become synonymous over the years with malice, bitterness, and greed, the comedy in the character should not be underestimated.  “It’s what makes [Scrooge] likeable even though he’s horrible,” Arden explained. “You [as an audience member] get that there’s hope there, and it’s identifiable.”  Ben Brantley underscored this point in his rave review of Campbell Scott’s most recent interpretation: “…he’s probably a lot like many New Yorkers you know.  And those who have already had your fill of premature Christmas music may find yourself rooting for Scrooge as he dismisses the carolers who gather outside his house.”  

Larry David and the success of shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm has made it clear that characters today can be mean-spirited AND funny.  Written and portrayed in a certain way, a cynical and jaundiced view of the world can fuel laughs.  Moreover, as Arden argued, we root for characters who are funny, because, even if they appear cynical and closed on the outside, a great sense of humor indicates the humanity within.  And Arden said, too, what’s ultimately important is that an audience identifies with Scrooge – he is our surrogate and our window into the play, the reason it’s been adapted again and again, and the character in which we see ourselves, for better or for worse – or more to the point, for better AND worse. “Dickens was trying to put the reader in Scrooge’s shoes,” Arden explained.  “In some senses [he’s] a bit ridiculous and cartoonish, but the more you get into him, the more we start to see ourselves in Scrooge, even in small ways.  That’s why he travels through so many different past experiences…we have to understand him as ourselves…”  Put another way, Scrooge’s story “has always been – and remains – our own,” as Brantley has said.  

Campbell Scott in A Christmas Carol

Larry David owes a great deal to Dickens’ leading man.  Ebenezer Scrooge was the first to prove that a miserly, cranky and even seemingly nasty middle-aged man can be the emotional center of a show with the capacity to change – one that is “prett-ay, prett-ay, prett-ay good,” even to this day.


Katie Birenboim is a NYC-based actor, director, and writer. She developed and hosted a weekly live interview show entitled “Theatre Book Club” for Berkshire Theatre Group, and she’s performed and directed at Classic Stage Company, Berkshire Theatre Group, Barrington Stage, City Center Encores!, The Davenport Theatre, and Ancram Opera House, to name a few.  She is a proud graduate of Princeton University and member of Actors’ Equity.

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Creative

Spotlight on Plays

Broadway’s Best Shows is proud to present Spotlight on Plays, a starry series of livestream readings of Broadway’s best plays to benefit The Actors Fund


Spotlight on Plays presents

7 Great Plays by 7 Great Playwrights

ANGRY, RAUCOUS AND SHAMELESSLY GORGEOUS 

by Pearl Cleage

THE THANKSGIVING PLAY 

by Larissa FastHorse

WATCH ON THE RHINE 

by Lillian Hellman

THE OHIO STATE MURDERS 

by Adrienne Kennedy

DEAR ELIZABETH 

by Sarah Ruhl 

THE BALTIMORE WALTZ 

by Paula Vogel 

THE SISTERS ROSENSWEIG 

by Wendy Wasserstein

COMING SPRING 2021


The Actors Fund envisions a world in which individuals contributing to our country’s cultural vibrancy are supported, valued and economically secure.

Mission: The Actors Fund fosters stability and resiliency, and provides a safety net for performing arts and entertainment professionals over their lifespan.

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Creative Video

Before the Show Goes On, We All Need to Take a Moment to PAUSE

With Stars Of Hamilton, The Band’s Visit, and Fiddler On The Roof 

Based in Jewish tradition, Shabbat — and its teaching that spending meaningful time connecting with friends and family — is for everyone. Much like yoga or meditation can be, Shabbat is an act of peaceful rebellion against a constantly moving world. When this isolating global pandemic took hold, OneTable was looking for a way to keep the magic of Friday night Shabbat going, and for a way for people to mark time when every day feels the same. 

They landed on PAUSE, a new video series collaboration between OneTable and Broadway’s Adam Kantor. Initially conceptualized as a one night special, OneTable and the production team behind Saturday Night Seder were stuck on the fact that the beauty of Shabbat comes from its unfaltering arrival every single week. The series is designed to build on the ritual of Shabbat, to take a moment — a pause — and ask big questions. Each video melds tradition with innovation, asking and answering the question how might we imagine the world not as it is, but as it could be? 

“Since Broadway has shut down, I’ve been missing the joys of collaborating with artists who inspire me on the daily,” Kantor said. For the series debut, OneTable and Kantor collaborated with dancer/choreographer Jesse Kovarsky (The Band’s Visit, Fiddler On The Roof, Sleep No More). “Jesse is one of my favorite artists and collaborators on Broadway,” Kantor said. “We first met during Fiddler On The Roof, in which he played the titular role, and then we had the good fortune of working together again on The Band’s Visit, in which he was the associate choreographer.” Filmed in his own NYC apartment, Kavarsky explores his interpretation of receiving traditional Shabbat candles in the mail from his parents, and figuring out how to make them his own — delving into the question, “What do we do with the things we inherit?” 

The second installment (Friday, November 6) features Daniel Watts (Hamilton, Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, In the Heights, Tina) and Kelly Hall-Tompkins (the fiddler violin soloist in the recent Broadway revival of Fiddler On The Roof), wrestling with the concept of making the ancient new, through music and spoken word poetry. The remaining ten episodes of the series (co-produced by Eric Kuhn and production agency Gesundheit Media) will debut on each of the first Fridays of the month, culminating on Friday, September 3, 2021. 

You can watch the first video above, and stay tuned at @onetableshabbat or onetable.org/pause on the first Friday of each month at 5pm Eastern as featured artists offer their personal interpretation of the traditions, intentions, and contemporary applications of Shabbat ritual through digital performance art, spoken word, dance, song, humor, meditation and more.