A review of “A Mannheim Steamroller Christmas” with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

A review of “A Mannheim Steamroller Christmas” with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
 
 
            My wife and I went to Powell Symphony Hall to watch the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra perform “Mannheim Steamroller Christmas” on December 14, 2013.
            A college roommate introduced me to Mannheim Steamroller in 1982, one year after the release of their “Fresh Air IV” album. I was hooked.
            They combined classical music (particularly baroque) with jazz and rock into a light-progressive instrumental style. It featured Chip Davis, the founder, on drums, Jackson Berkey on the various keyboards – from piano to pipe organ to, particularly, harpsichord, and Eric Hanson on bass guitar.
            Their music avoids labeling – it has been called everything from New Age to Baroque-and-Roll (this label was first used on the group “The Left Bank” – a proto prog-pop band from the mid-1960s). The band does not embrace the New Age label, nor do most New Age enthusiasts embrace their inclusion into the genre.
             I am the exception. In the late 1980s and early 1990s I hosted “A New Age” at my local NPR station on Sunday nights. I happily included Mannheim’s music in addition to other artists outside the genre – Ravi Shankar, Isao Tomita and Blue Chip Orchesta along with stalwarts Kitaro, David Arkenstone and Enya. By this time there were surprisingly good so-called New Age music from the likes of even John Tesh and Barbie Benton.
            “Fresh Aire IV” combined medieval instruments on pop and rock arrangements of damnably catchy melodies. Ancient instruments playing tightly structured songs but with enough obtuse and unexpected variations on the melody to keep me listening.
            Four more “Fresh Aire” albums were to come – each album with a “theme”: the excellent “V” (a trip to the moon), “VI” (Greek Mythology), “7” (themes involving the number 7 – 7 seas, 7 chakras, Sunday, and “8” (infinity) – these last two reaching Number Two on the newly-created New Age charts; the only chart their music would seemingly fit.
            In 1984 Mannheim Steamroller released a Christmas album. For this ensemble known for its quirkiness and undefinability to enter the realm of Perry Como, Johnny Mathis and Percy Faith was the last thing one would expect – so of course it was a natural thing to do!
            Jazz musicians have released Christmas songs for decades, and there have been Christmas versions of electronic music; but for a still-obscure musical group to release a Christmas album was a substantial financial risk. Would those who enjoy traditional Christmas fare buy an album from this eclectic group? Would fans of this eclectic group buy an album of traditional Christmas fare?
            Fortunately for Mannheim Steamroller, both groups did. That first album “Mannheim Steamroller Christmas” was done in their unique style while still respecting the traditions of Yule. It spawned twelve other holiday albums with tunes ranging from original compositions to “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch”. They have sold in the millions and over the past thirty years the songs are considered Christmas classics.
            I saw Chip Davis and company perform their Christmas and Fresh Aire tunes in Chicago in 1987 on their first tour. They’ve toured at Christmastime regularly ever since – the band now down to Chip Davis, various session men and orchestras big and small.
           
            In October I was looking at what was happening in St. Louis during the Christmas season – perhaps we could see “A Christmas Carol” being performed, or a madrigal or a special concert. Perhaps the Nutcracker.
            “Elf” was playing at the Fox. Nah. No special individual Christmas shows were announced yet – not even Trans-Siberian Orchestra (another eclectic group – although firmly ensconced in the rock idiom – that had taken some of the thunder from Mannheim’s Christmas popularity). The St. Louis Symphony was going to perform a Gospel Messiah during the week of December 7th and their traditional Christmas program on the 21st. But the weekend of the 14thwas set for the Music of Mannheim Steamroller Christmas.
            I misread it at first and thought it was Mannheim Steamroller performing with the Symphony. Stop right there. We have a winner. My wife was excited too – especially since there were still front row seats available.
            A closer look shows it was not Mannheim Steamroller themselves (or himself – the “group” is now solely Chip Davis’s baby) but the St. LouisSymphony performing its music.
            Fine by me; fine with my wife, too. Would I like to go see one of the best symphony orchestras perform some of my favorite holiday music from one of my favorite performers from the front row? Sure, what the hell…
           
            The conductor/arranger of the concert program was Arnie Roth, the orchestral arranger for Mannheim Steamroller for many decades; so there was at least a connection with Chip Davis. He was there in spirit.
            I was interested in seeing how the orchestra would handle some of Steamroller’s electronic doodlings: the synthesizer intro to “Deck the Halls”, the mechanics of “Little Drummer Boy”, the swirling ending of “Silent Night”. 
            I needn’t have worried – the strings (cello and bass violin in particular) handled the “Deck the Halls” intro, for example. We sat right in front of the violins. I was enraptured by their ability and talents. Throughout the concert the violins played in the quiet, serene background. When they took the lead of a song – they were majestic and moving.
            There are no bad seats at Powell, but one unfortunate side effect of the front row is we could watch the violinists play masterfully at the cost of not seeing anyone else. The brass, percussion, harp and piano/harpsichord were heard but not seen. I could spot one trumpeter between the legs and feet of the viola section, but that was it. And unfortunately the brass, percussion, harp and piano/harpsichord were the main instruments in the concert. From the intro of “Hark the Herald Trumpets Sing” I knew I was missing watching professionals playing excellent music. I didn’t mind though – I got to observe the entire violin section. I have been tinkering with the violin for many years and, as with guitarists, I loved watching their playing techniques.
            So next time we’ll sit a little further back.
            There were only a few sour notes – twice from the brass section. A missed note and an early intro; I have already forgotten which songs because frankly, I didn’t care. The drummer did an excellent job keeping the beat, but there were times he lagged behind the rest of the orchestra; I think it was during “Joy to the World”. Again, who cares? It did not distract from a superb show!
The set list:
Hark Fanfare
Hark the Herald Angels Sing
Do You Hear What I Hear
Traditions of Christmas (an original Chip Daviscomposition)
The Little Drummer Boy
Greensleeves
We Three Kings
Cantique de Noel
Carol of the Bells
Hallelujah (a highlight of the concert)
Intermission
Deck the Halls
Pat-a-Pan/Fum Fum Fum Medley (another highlight)
Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming
Joy to the World
Renaissance Suite: (my favorite part of the concert, a personal highlight)
            Gagliarda
            Il duci jubilo
            Wassail, Wassail
            Carol of the Birds
            I Saw Three Ships
            God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman
Silent Night
encore Angels We have Heard on High
            During the 1987 concert, Mannheim performed the Renaissance version of “God Rest Ye …” and broke into “The William Tell Overture” between lines. I was hoping for the same here, but they did not. The smiles in this concert came not from humor but from enjoying superb musicianship playing superb arrangements.
           
            Here is another review of the concert from a classical radio station in St. Louis – another interesting view that touches on the differences between this orchestral performance and the original arrangements: http://kdhx.org/music/reviews/st-louis-symphony-a-mannheim-steamroller-christmas
            My wife and I enjoyed our evening at Powell very much! During the intermission the line to the rest rooms were in the dozens. I told my wife I would chance it and miss the beginning of “Deck the Halls”. Don’t worry, I said, we’ll hear it on the radio on the way home.
            Over the years the various Mannheim Steamroller Christmas albums have not been played on my stereo. They are played on the radio at Christmastime – a lot. A lot. But this concert gave me a new appreciation of the music from the albums and their quirky arrangements. Here we heard these quirky arrangements done in a very traditional way with a fine, fine orchestra. Loving this concert made me love the original arrangements as well. I even dug out my old Fresh Aire CDs to play in my car and in the 5-CD changer in the living room.
            Welcome back to the rotation, my friend. I had forgotten how much I missed you.
Copyright 2013 Michael G Curry
             


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The Ten Worst Christmas Songs of All Time

The Ten Worst Christmas Songs of All Time

                I finished my list of the best Christmas songs of all time (see prior blog). It is only natural to follow up with the worst Christmas songs of all time. My jaw is already clenching thinking about these overblown, overplayed and overdramatic pieces of tripe.
                Funny that, with a few exceptions, this list isn’t composed of individual performances but the songs in general – or at least in the way they are usually performed. So you won’t see individually bad tunes by New Kids on the Block (“Funky Christmas”), John Denver (“Daddy Please Don’t Get Drunk for Christmas”) or the Clay Aiken masterpiece of drivel “Merry Christmas with Love” on the list. And besides, those don’t get much airplay anyway.
                I’m sorry if you like any of the songs on this list. I am truly sorry. I am sorry for you and for the people sitting next to you as you play the tunes and sing along.
 
                These are in no particular order:
 
1.       Little Drummer Boy. What!? Two versions of this song made my Top Ten Best Christmas Songs. True. How then can the song also make my Top Ten Worst Christmas Songs list?  Excellent question. With two exceptions (the Crosby-Bowie duet and the Vince Guaraldi version) this song is performed in the most over-produced and pompous way possible: thick orchestration and operatic voices. Diana Ross’ version is particularly annoying. Even the iconic version by the Harry Simeone Choirale is overwrought at times – although the choir sings it softly and quietly, the “brum-brum” male singers in the background get a bit carried away. The story: a child plays his drum to the baby king. He didn’t bring gold or lavish him with other gifts. He played his drum for him. He played his best for him. It’s the widow’s mite story; it’s the sinful woman from the Book of Luke washing Jesus’ feet with her hair. A humble story should not have full orchestra and choir. Imagine watching a love scene in a movie and the theme from “Jaws” starts playing; or “Psycho” (I’ve been in situations where that is appropriate, though); or “Rocky” (ditto, I am proud to say…). But you get my point here. Pretention has no place in this song. That’s the point of the song.
2.       The Twelve Days of Christmas. The rock-concert-drum-solo of Christmas songs. When the song is on the radio or on a TV special it is a good time for a bathroom break or to go get a snack in the kitchen or vacuum the rugs or go visit a friend or head to the office or take a weekend vacation. It’ll be just wrapping up when you get back. Over long and the “five gold rings” part is usually over-dramatic. Not even the Muppets could salvage this one. Ray Conniff has a good version of the song – if only because his singers race through it and finish it in just under two hours, rather than the standard six. It’s the German opera of Christmas songs.
3.       Christmas Shoes. Things are looking up as to this tear-jerker and garment-render – some stations make a point of saying they will NOT play the song. If the boycott boosts their ratings enough we may never have to hear it broadcast again! The people who poo-poo the derision with arguments that it is a lovely story and shows the real meaning of the holiday are missing the point. Yes it is a wonderful story, but the rest of us think it is as melodramatic as a nineteenth-century vaudeville drama. The kid buying the shoes might as well cross a raging river on patches of ice. With hound dogs chasing him. And his mother’s cancer portrayed by a guy wearing a top hat twirling a long mustache. Videos of the song may as well come with placards telling us when to “Boo” and “Hiss”. Yet every year people talk about how bad the song is and yet every year it is played over and over. All I can say when it comes on the radio is “Curses! Foiled again!”
4.       Mary Did You Know. This isn’t played very often on commercial stations and not very often nowadays even on Christian stations, but it was played and played a lot a decade ago or so. Another song that is usually done with a high level of pomposity and over-production. It doesn’t even have the saving grace of “Christmas Shoes” by being a lovely story. “And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary; for thou has found favour with God. And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David. And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and his kingdom there shall be no end.” Luke 1: 30-33; King James Version – the only real version of the Bible, or as I like to put it, the version Jesus wrote. “Mary Did You Know”? “Yes, yes, I did. But thanks for asking…”
5.       Any Christmas Spoof. This is more of a category of songs rather than one in particular. And I’m talking spoofs, not novelty songs. “The Chipmunk Song”, “…Two Front Teeth” “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” – these are novelty songs (although most novelty songs belong on this list too). Spoofs are pre-existing songs with different lyrics – presumably knee-slappingly hilarious lyrics. The most famous of which is “Jingle Bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg …” Two reasons this makes the list – with rare exception spoofs are 1) too long and 2) not that funny. Usually after the first line we get it. The secret to humor is not only surprise but brevity. The aforesaid “Batman smells” is a good example: four lines and done. But most spoofs go on with verse, chorus, verse, chorus. The reactions are as follows: “Ha! Ha! That’s hilarious!” (second verse) “Heh, heh! That’s great!” (second chorus) “Hmm-hmm, that’s funny.” (third verse) “Do you have any big plans for New Year’s Eve?” (third chorus) “Is that song still playing?” There are lots of spoofs to the tune of “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer” and “The Christmas Song” but the most popular song spoofed is “Twelve Days of Christmas”. It’s the perfect example of why spoofs generally suck: a song that goes on too long being made into a spoof that goes on too long.
6.        Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer. And speaking of novelty songs. This inbred ditty usually makes most Top Ten Worst Christmas Songs lists and yet it still constantly airs during the season. Yes, when it came out everyone hyucked it up, whistled between their missing teeth and tapped their web-toed feet. But after the first listen and the first (and last) laugh it is time to stop wallowing so gleefully in its ignorance.
7.       Baby it’s Cold Outside. Or as I like to call it, “The Date Rape Song”. The song has nothing to do with Christmas. Of course, neither does “Jingle Bells”. But then “Jingle Bells” isn’t a song about a misogynist who slips Zolpidem into a lady’s drink and traps her in his house during a winter storm. The song is performed as a dialog between the victim and the rapist, with the victim singing first. Some verses left out of the original version: “Uncuff me at once; Baby it’s cold outside. I’m not going down there; Baby it’s cold outside. Is that a pit?; Baby it’s cold outside. I’m dialing nine-one {whack}{thud}; Baby it’s cold outside…”
8.       Santa Baby is the flip side to “Baby it’s Cold Outside”. A gold digger seduces Santa into giving her diamonds and minks. Even Eartha Kitt’s version comes off as slutty. The male back-up singers sound like those old Warner Brothers’ cartoons where men turn into wolves and drool over pretty women. After the song airs I feel like I need a shot of penicillin. It reminds me of the cartoon character Jessica Rabbit – it’s not a bad song, it’s just written that way.
9.       Grown Up Christmas List is not as pompous as “Mary Did You Know” or as overproduced as “Little Drummer Boy” nor is it as laughably melodramatic as “Christmas Shoes”, but it combines the three into a canny and boring song. “But it’s a wonderful sentiment!” Ho-hum, let’s move onto the next song. It’s even bad at being a bad song.
10.   Wonderful Christmastime. Oh how it pains me to put any song by Paul McCartney on a “worst” list, but let’s face it, the lyrics are banal and the music is awful. McCartney was experimenting with synthesizers at the time (late 1970s) and this was his first attempt at a structured song. He would get MUCH better at it (the following album “McCartney II” with the hits “Coming Up” and “Waterfalls”). The telling factor here is listening to the remakes. They are not very good either. After 45 seconds the song is done and we have to listen to it repeated four or five more times – usually with lots of cheering in between by the back-up singers. “…a wonderful Christmastime.” {gleeful cheers) “Yea! The song it done! Oh, nope, here’s another reprise … the moon is right, the spirit’s up…”
11.   Oh what the heck, one more, after all, it’s Christmas. This Christmas. When it was only done by Wham, it could be duly ignored, but I’ve heard people remake this lame-o tune.  Listen to the lyrics, I mean listen to them. What the heck does this have to do with Christmas? Nothing! If the song included something about “why this time of year” or “being Christmas makes our break-up especially sad”, the song would … well, it would still suck, but it wouldn’t have made the list. There is one line about his love wrapped up and sent. But that connection to Christmas is pretty thin. Try this experiment: next time you hear this song, substitute the word “Christmas” with “Wednesday”. Has the song changed in any way? No.
 
                After listing these I now have to do something to lower my blood pressure. I know, I can go back and read my Top Ten Best Christmas Songs list. Ahhhh … that’s better.
Copyright 2013 Michael G Curry


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The Ten Best Christmas Songs of All Time

The Ten Best  Christmas Songs of All Time
 
                Despite what retailers have been telling you since before Halloween, the Christmas season begins the day after Thanksgiving.
                Now that has passed and the Christmas season is in full swing.  Some radio stations are playing holiday tunes 24/7. As is usual with radio broadcasting in its current state (see my prior blog titled “I Finally Bury a Long-Dead Friend”), you will likely hear the same ten songs over and over instead of a wide variety of cuts.
                Some songs you will undoubted be sick of by December 25th; some songs you are still sick of from all the airplay last year. Some songs will make you smile. And there are some songs you’d wish they play even just once.
                I used to say the holiday season doesn’t really commence until I hear two specific songs: “Happy Christmas (War is Over)” by John Lennon and “Snoopy’s Christmas” by the Royal Guardsmen.  The latter was hard to catch on the radio, if it was played at all; but now thanks to Youtube I can listen to the tune even on a hot August day.  Those two are on the list, by the way.
                I’m listing individual tracks. I could do another list just on general songs that I enjoy (although some versions are grating): “Holly & Ivy”, “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabelle” and “I Saw Three Ships” would make that list.
                These are the songs that transcend the genre: the “He Stopped Loving Her Today” or “Layla” of holiday music. And these are in no particular order.
                I’d love to know YOUR list of favorites:

1.       Joy to the World by Percy Faith. The opening fanfare of this song makes you rise from your seat. It makes you want to march out in the snow with arms stretched outward and shout “Ho! Ho! Ho!” Listening to this makes you picture a bustling city street seen through swirling snow. This should be played when the Ghost of Christmas Present is showing Scrooge Christmas morning in Old London. It’s as majestic as it is iconic. It is the opening song of “A Christmas Story”.  It should be the first song played at the start of the season.
2.       Ring Those Christmas Bells by Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians. I’ll bet you’ve not heard this one. If you have, you know how strange this song is – especially since it was produced in the 1950s. It has an early 1970s post-psychedelic feel to it. It starts off with the singers talking merrily and then break into a chorus of Jingle Bells. Someone chants “Merry Merry Christmas” and it is repeated by the singers as a mantra. That segues into “Ring Those Christmas Bells”; a song whose tune sounds vaguely like the theme to “Green Acres”. At the end the “Merry Merry Christmas” mantra returns. It’s a bizarre tune. I love it! It is on Youtube.
3.       Silent Night by Mannheim Steamroller. The first two tunes on the list are upbeat songs of celebration. This is a very quiet song, appropriately. You listen to this song sitting on the couch in the evening drinking hot cocoa and watching the snow fall. Being Mannheim Steamroller, this version of the song is filled with electronics tweets and whistles and notes that don’t quite sound like they fit, but eventually do. And the end is beautiful; a swelling crescendo followed by a wisp of the first four notes played as if by a child on a toy piano. Absolutely beautiful.
4.       All I Want for Christmas is You by Mariah Carey. A fun romping song that sounds like it came off of a Phil Spector Christmas album. Mariah has the chops to pull off the vocal acrobatics of the song and the sex-kittenish sensuality of the lyrics and her delivery (especially the introduction) makes the song a favorite. Ignore the remakes and stick to the original. You’ll thank me. The song is alluring, and not in the creepy sexiness of a “Santa Baby”. Whereas the latter requires a shot of penicillin after every listen, “All I Want …” is a wonderful upbeat happy song for the holidays. This song sometimes makes lists of worst Christmas songs, and there are some remakes that are pretty bad, but I like the original.
5.       Happy Christmas (War is Over) by John Lennon. I used to joke, “You know it is Christmastime when you hear Bing Crosby and Yoko Ono on the radio”.  Yoko sings the middle eight of this sweet song. Like “Imagine”, this is likened unto a children’s song. However, I always found it a sad song. Not only because Lennon was murdered in the month of December and this song was on the playlists at the time; but also because I hear the lyrics as an accusation or condemnation. A man looking at himself in the mirror – “so this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over, a new one just begun…” Another year passed with unfulfilled expectations.
6.       Snoopy’s Christmas by the Royal Guardsmen. The band hit big in 1966 with “Snoopy vs The Red Baron” and this is a sequel from 1967. Our man Snoopy is once again called upon to fight his arch enemy.  Without giving away the ending, I wonder if the band knew this is similar to an actual event – the Christmas Truce.  In 1914 German and British soldiers exchanged greeting and songs across “no man’s land” – even exchanging gifts such as food and souvenirs. At the end the opposing troops sang carols together and played football (that’s soccer for you mouth-breathers…).  But soon the unofficial truce was over and such fraternization was banned by the so-called superior officers and both sides went back to slaughtering each other over the next four years.
7.       My Little Drum by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. It’s a shame that Vince Guaraldi will be known for only his work on the Charlie Brown cartoons, as he should be remembered for the piano-playing genius he was. We are lucky we have his soundtrack to “Charlie Brown Christmas” available on CD. Every song on the album could be included in a Top Ten, but “My Little Drum” is a unique take on the traditional song (that being “Little Drummer Boy”). Once you hear it, you’ll want to hit the back button and listen to it again. Minor and major notes are hit on the beat and off; and the children singing and humming and prrrrr-ump-ump-ing make a sweet counterpoint to the jazzy beatnik arrangement. It’s the cat’s meow, man. One of the best songs from one of the best holiday albums of all time.
8.       Must Be Santa by Bob Dylan. Even at his best Dylan’s vocal “style” is an acquired taste. Now that he is older and his voice is scorched from too many tours, he sounds the way an oak tree would sound it if could sing. “Someone is vivisecting a wildebeest!” “No, it’s Dylan’s latest album.”  BUT, his voice fits this genuinely great, great version of the Christmas song. It sounds like a rollicking good party was going on while recording it (and the video accompanying the song plays that out to great effect. Mordant bleu, Bob Dylan dances in the video – dances!!). The song is a chestnut of Mitch Miller’s Christmas song chest, but here Dylan made the song fun without quite pushing it into novelty territory.
9.       Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth by Bing Crosby and David Bowie. The 1977 Christmas special from which this song aired is available on DVD. It is strange watching Crosby introduce the video of Bowie’s “Heroes” standing behind a Christmas trees and twinkling lights. The legend says that Bowie hated “Drummer” and did not want to sing it as a duet with der Bingle. So the writers whipped up “Peace on Earth” to act as a descant to “Little Drummer Boy” and also a middle eight for Bing and Bowie to duet. It worked. Bowie’s high vocals paired beautifully with Crosby’s baritone. Crosby sang the main song quietly. This is important. “Little Drummer Boy” is usually performed as a big production filled with artificial melodrama in complete contrast to the ideals within the song. Here the song is quiet and respectful – a small child presenting the only gift he could give to the infant king. Plus I like Crosby’s vocals in his later years. His voice deepened and rumbled. Water glasses vibrated when he sang. It’s a lovely song. And it was Crosby’s last Christmas single. That lends a sadness to it that it otherwise might not have.
10.   Jingle Jingle Jingle by Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer soundtrack. I have not heard anyone remake this song, but it is one of my favorite Christmas songs, perhaps THE favorite. Clocking in at just over two minutes, it is sung by Santa in a deep baritone. A predictable song of ascending and descending notes with staccato trumpets and strings. A simple song for children that captures the season in their eyes. A sweet and lovable song.
11.   OK, one more, what the heck, it’s Christmas. Plus, this list is pretty bare as far as Bing Crosby – only one? You might think I’m building up to “White Christmas” – the song is so iconic and I think the past two generations have forgotten how tremendously HUGE that song was and is. But I want to go with another song by Bing that brings a holiday smile – Melaka Leke Maka. I love singing along and imitating Bing’s low rumble. He sounds like he’s having a fun time with it too. The song is so much fun the Andrews Sisters tolerated each other long enough to sing backing vocals.  And by the way, “Melaka Leke Maka” is NOT the Hawaiian term for “Merry Christmas” – it is the phonetic spelling of a Hawaiian native trying to SAY “Merry Christmas”.

                And there we have the ten best individual songs! Are any of these already stuck in your head? Lucky you…

Thanks for reminiscing with me!
Copyright 2013 Michael G Curry


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Three Scrooges, Part 3: Song and Dance Men

Three Scrooges, Part 3: Song and Dance Men
Thought of the Blog: Dickens says that Bob Cratchet had only met Scrooge’s nephew once (this was in Stave Four in the future: “Mr. Scrooge’s nephew, whon he had scarcely seen but once” – an odd way of putting it if they had met more often than once). This was when Fred visited Scrooge at his counting house and invited him to Christmas dinner.
                This implies one of two things – either this is the first time Fred had come to Scrooge’s counting house for any reason, let along to invite him to his party (Stave Three says he WILL go by year after year but not necessarily HAS in the past); or, if Fred HAS been inviting Scrooge year after year, Cratchet has only been working for Scrooge over the past 364 days at MOST. When Scrooge says, “You’ll want all day tomorrow…” was this the FIRST time he asked this to Cratchet, or was this an annual conversation. It seems to imply this has happened before – getting all day off – perhaps Scrooge comes to expect this from his clerks.
                If Cratchet has only been at his job less than a year – what of the other clerks?  How many has Scrooge had over the years? Can you imagine the job interview? Where had Cratchet worked before? Was he that bad of a clerk this was the only position available? I would think not many people would recommend Scrooge and Marley as an ideal work environment…
WELL KNOWN SCROOGES
                In the late 1960s the Hollywood Musical* as a genre was on its last great gasp. In the 1970s they were as rare as a Jennifer Aniston blockbuster – for every “Cabaret” there were ten “Mame”s.  The theaters were dominated by big-budget wide-screen epics including “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Oliver!”  A Dickens tale as a musical? Sure, and if it worked once…
                *Note that “Scrooge” was filmed and produced in Englandand therefore not, literally, a Hollywood Musical, but it snuggled nicely into the genre.
                “Scrooge” was released in 1970 and starred Albert Finney in the title role. It received four Oscar nominations and Finney won a Golden Globe. It was well received critically.
                Several things differentiate this version of the tale – not least of which is the music. Most “Christmas Carols” contain music – usually brass band versions of old Christmas songs, a small choir singing carols, Tiny Tim’s Peter-Brady-like-cringe-worthy renditions of various tunes; and the occasional song during Fezziwig’s and Fred’s parties. But this was a Musical with a capital “M” – the songs had little to do with the holiday and more to do with reflecting the mood and emotion of the moment: teasing children belt out “Father Christmas”.  “December the 25th”is a fun tune at Fezziwig’s party but not the kind that would become a Christmas classic. There is the genuinely sad “You … you” during which we see the exact moment when the adult Scrooge shut himself off from the world and when his older self realized what he had become. Most people remember the unbelievably catchy “Thank You Very Much” sung twice during the movie. You’ll be humming it all day now.
               Its unique moments are what stand out – seeing the face of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come and the scenes set in hell – no other version of the tale has this (“Disney’s Christmas Carol shows a vague face and a coffin deep in the glowing earth, so it is close). In fact, it’s not in the novel at all. But I don’t mind that – if I want a faithful rendition of the novel I would hardly expect it from a musical.
                And it is always fun to see Alec Guinness try to sing. Being of my generation, I did not realize Alec Guinness was Marley until after I had seen him in that OTHER movie he was in. Therefore, I will always associate him with that OTHER movie first. Put another way, every time I see “Scrooge” and the ghost of Marley enters I expect him to say, “Go to Dagobah, Ebenezer, and learn from Yoda…”
RARE SCROOGES
                Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962). WHAT!? This classic is put in the “rare” category!? Yes, in the 1970s it was on TV quite a bit, but it went decades without rebroadcasting. Maybe where you live some local station aired it, but not in my market. Not even the cable channels. It has come back to television recently though – TiVo has helped me find it. This cartoon is usually at the top of most favorites list, so I suspect the show has aired elsewhere annually or I just missed it. For twenty years. … Hmm, I stand by its rarity.
                Now this Magoo isn’t the doddering racist from the weekly cartoon; this is the Magoo from the 1950s UPA shorts – still blind as a bat but painting, hunting, camping as if nothing is remiss. Unfortunately most of those shorts are long gone.
                It presents itself as a musical – hence its inclusion here. The titles bring the tunes to mind – which is a good indication of their longevity – Lord’s Bright Blessing, Ringle Ringle, etc.  The songs were written by the same team that wrote the tunes to “Funny Girl” – which explains why the songs rank so high in retention.
                Jim Backus does the definitive voice of Magoo, the immortal Paul Frees also provides voices. So does Morey Amsterdam – immortal in his own way as Buddy Sorrell (remember him stealing the show on the Christmas episode of Dick Van Dyke? Or for that matter … of every episode of Dick Van Dyke?).
             Its unique moments:
1.       It begins and ends with Magoo and the other characters preparing to perform Carol on stage. In between acts the curtain closes to begin the commercial break. We are watching a cartoon pretending to be a stage production of “A Christmas Carol”.
2.       Gerald McBoingboing speaks!?
3.       This was the first holiday cartoon produced specifically for television. It paved the way for Charlie Brown, Rudolph and all the other animated “Christmas Carols”.
4.       The ghosts were out of order! The Ghost of Christmas Present was first! I have always remembered that: this was one of my first (not THE first – that was the 1969 cartoon) exposure to “Christmas Carol” and I always wondered why “later” versions had the ghosts appear out of order.
UNSEEN SCROOGES (version I have not seen but will review anyway, oh like that’s never been done by professional critics…)
                Near the end of NBC’s reign as the #1 broadcast network, it collected some of its stars to be in a musical version of “A Christmas Carol: The Musical” in 2004. It was based on an earlier stage musical.
                Kelsey Grammer took a break from Frazier to play Scrooge. Other NBC stars such as Law & Order’s Jesse L. Martin and Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander was Marley.
                I tried watching it, I really did. But I lost interest quickly and turned the channel. The musical numbers were not that catchy and I found it kind of boring.  To me it added nothing unique to the tale.
                It was fun watching Martin and Alexander sing and dance. Seinfeld fans are usually shocked to know Alexander is quite different from his shlub-counterpart George Costanza. Likewise Martin – given his and L&O partner Jerry Orbach’s legendary musical theater background it is too bad the two of them never did anything else together.
                I watched it when it was broadcast. I tried watching it again the next year during a repeat with the same feeling of ennui. I’ve yet to see it all the way through. Maybe it picks up at the end. I doubt it…
NEXT: The Sounds of Silence
Copyright 2012 Michael G. Curry