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The Making of Music and Lighting in Jack Thorne’s 'A Christmas Carol'

The Making the of Music and Lighting Design

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A Christmas Carol

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L-R: Bradley Whitford, Kate Burton, and Evan Harrington in 'A Christmas Carol.' Photo by Joan Marcus.

Jack Thorne’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol is staged unlike any other version of this story before it. The critically acclaimed, Tony Award®-winning production, originally conceived and directed by Matthew Warchus, is as beautiful and enchanting as you would expect a holiday extravaganza to be. Warchus wanted to transform this iteration of A Christmas Carol into an opulent immersive experience. This traditional story comes to life with Rob Howell’s shadowy set and costume designs, and from the first ring of the handbell woven delicately into the music composition created by Christopher Nightingale and accentuated by Simon Baker’s illustrious sound design to the orange hues bursting from multiple small lanterns hung across the ceiling fashioned by lighting designer, Hugh Vanstone, this production of a beloved holiday tale has taken on an identity and dark beauty of its own.

When one imagines the perfect Christmas story, lights and music are abundant and finely intertwined. Both Nightingale and Vanstone worked together with Warchus to create a version of this production that was both opulent and true to its legacy, yet particularly minimalistic and unconventional. “Scrooge doesn’t even have a bed,” Vanstone says of the set’s more stripped-down nature. Vanstone, who builds lighting design concepts after reading a script, was able to create an atmosphere with lights in order to compensate for what needed to be pulled away from Howell’s creatively bare set design. “We all know Scrooge is a dark story, because it's about confronting your demons. Matthew had said at the very beginning that we've got to bear that in mind,” he explains. “And of course, he wanted also to delineate the three ghosts, and for them to have different worlds. Immediately, it's a story from dark to light.” This production’s array of colors used in Vanstone’s lighting design serves the eyes luxury and grandeur that enhances a rather dark stage. “For the scene with the Fezziwigs, it's all about warmth and open-hearted behavior. When something is warm and makes you feel good, then I create a warm, softer light from a firelight angle,” Vanstone explains of his design. “Then when Marley arrives, that's full-on horror story. It’s your worst nightmare. I created more of that cold, green-y blue that makes people think of misery, dank, and nasty places.”

Vanstone has a long history with A Christmas Carol that goes far beyond this production. He developed lighting inspiration for this play from A Christmas Carol pop-up book he read as a child, and rediscovered when he first received the call for this project. “All these scenes came out of the page. I can't tell you how atmospheric that book is. The memory of that [book] and getting it out again was a big influence,” he expressed. Vanstone also worked on, and drew inspiration from a production of Scrooge: The Musical, written by Leslie Bricusse. “That one had lots of magic effects, and flying in it, and all sorts of stuff. But I had a trial run with that one. In a way, I was saying, ‘Well, it's not that one. So, what's the simplest version of it I can create.’" Though Vanstone designed a more pulled back version of that 1992 musical, this production’s lighting design is anything but simple.

In the case of Nightingale, he created most of the score during the play’s early developmental process and then fine-tuned the music during the show’s rehearsal period. “In the first readthroughs you get a flavor of a production and a smell of it and how stylistically it should sound,” he said. “Early on I knew I wanted the score to sound like very old-fashioned chamber music and have a folk element, which is why the orchestration includes a piano, a violin, a clarinet, and a cello.” He does admit it did get quite complicated to create music for the more emotional parts of this play. “The hardest bit [to create] was the big scene in the second act, when Scrooge and his coffin come on, and he goes to the Ghost of Christmas Future and sees his destiny and what's going to become of him if he carries on the way he is,” he details. “Bob comes up to the coffin and Belle comes up and they all talk so sadly about him and he suddenly realizes what is happening. And then young Ebenezer jumps on the coffin and there's a scene where he looks at Scrooge and looks at what he could have been. It’s a very complex scene and I found that it was quite daunting to write and particularly scary, because, I didn’t want to screw up such beautiful writing.” Though both men admittingly found it to be a task to create a new experience for a legendary holiday show, under the direction of Warchus, this production swept the play design categories at the 74th Annual Tony Awards. A Christmas Carol won five awards including, Best Original Score, Best Scenic Design, Best Costume Design, Best Lighting Design and Best Sound Design, and that is no Christmas miracle.

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