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How to Produce "It's a Wonderful Life" for the Stage

by Tony Palermo


It's A Wonderful Life stage play script, SFX and music adapted for the stage from Frank Capra's film by Tony Palermo

        Visit It's A Wonderful Life stage play webpage for info on performance rights and a free, downloadable "Wonderful Life" script--in PDF format--including several scenes and a truncated version of the 30-page appendix.

Contact me at   and tell me about your intended production. Performance rights vary according to the venue and length of the run. I accept credit cards via the free and secure www.Paypal.com service.  Once payment is received, the full script is delivered via e-mail as a PDF file. You can have the script, music and sound effects in your hands within hours.

 

Writer/Director’s notes for “It’s A Wonderful Life”

By Tony Palermo (www.ruyasonic.com)

My adaptation of It's A Wonderful Life brings this beloved tale to the stage--as a particularly imaginative theatrical production. It began as a radio-on-stage adaptation and then I remodeled it to work as a traditional stage piece, with sets, costumes and props. I kept the extensive sound design from the radio version—which saves troupes from having to reinvent these wheels.

I also offer pre-recorded music tracks--featuring a period-correct theatre organ, upright piano and accordion (and jazz-combo for one scene)--to provide a 1940s style underscoring. However, if you have a live accompanist, they can listen to the tracks and learn to duplicate the style for the many musical bridges, stings and beds called for in the script. (Currently no printed sheet music is available for the show, but we look to offer one in 2010.)

While several playwrights offer radio and stage versions of Wonderful Life , I am not just a playwright, but a professional radio dramatist and performer who brings the experience of doing over 1600 radio shows (on-air and on-stage) to my adaptation. My experience is particularly useful here, since I wrote and produced the hit radio-on-stage Wonderful Life adaptation for a 6-week run at the 680-seat Pasadena Playhouse in 2005. Our cast included such stars as Michael Richards, Joe Mantegna, Alfred Molina, Stephanie Zimbalist, Sharon Lawrence, Jamie Farr, Tony Schaloub, Fred Willard, Orson Bean, Susan Sullivan and others.

With this in mind, I've created a traditional stage version that is both faithful and fresh. Rather than merely present "the film, cloned for the stage”, my adaptation fully explores the themes in Capra’s original, but also features theatrical hijinx that audiences so enjoy.

The dialogue is not word-for-word from the film, but has been sharpened and tweaked to underline psychological shadings that reinforce Frank Capra's themes. Please consider my intentions when producing this script.

Thematic Approach

In order to present this play as something deeper than a nostalgia trip or mere rerun of Frank Capra's film, you must understand the themes working beneath the surface. While my adaptation abounds in exuberance and comedy, it is tempered with a thorough plumbing of the depths of sorrow, regret, sacrifice and redemption undergirding the story. Take note as I explain the subtext of the story and how my adaptation uses it to make the drama come alive.

George Bailey's Rise and Fall (and Rise)

It's a Wonderful Life is an Americanized version of Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol--only here, it is George Bailey's kindly Bob Cratchit-like character who meets the otherworldly visitor that re-educates him via a frightful "Christmas Yet To Come." If you can see how Frank Capra echoes Dickens, you can make the story resonate with audiences better—and come off as an engaging theatrical experience. So, if Wonderful Life seems to be a delightful 1940s romp, a “trials and tribulations of George Bailey,” dig a bit deeper to find Dickens’ Carol beneath the Americana. While the miserly Mr. Potter is the obvious Scrooge stand-in here, it is George Bailey who takes on many Scrooge-isms as the story progresses.

For example: George was a dreamy youth, as was the young Scrooge, who was fascinated by the exotic worlds of Robinson Crusoe and Ali Baba. But for all George's longing for adventure, he--like Scrooge--winds up a money-lender. Both are tormented by desire and fear. For George, his deepest esire is to escape the humdrum life of Bedford Falls and see the big world out there. George’s greatest fear is of being trapped in small town America forever.

But the more George sacrifices his dreams, the more frustrated and resentful he becomes, finally cracking under the pressure of the missing $8000, which would mean prison--a horrible fate for wanderlust-y George. After a lifetime of sacrifice, George decides to sacrifice no more. He snaps, becoming a monster who abuses his family and friends, strangers and even leads him to contemplate suicide, the ultimate selfish act. He has given in completely to his dark side.

Mr. Potter, George's Evil Twin

George is unconsciously similar to his nemesis, Mr. Potter--someone George can't stand--but whom fate has shackled him to, because there's a lesson here for George. He and Potter are ambitious, imaginative men, but both have been frustrated by life. Potter is physically crippled, while George is crippled by circumstance. George can no more run away from Bedford Falls than can Mr. Potter in his wheelchair. Potter lives for money and George finds himself wishing to die for money--the insurance payout that will cover the $8000 shortfall. Both are shrewd businessmen--neither losing his head in the bank panic, but both really love being in control--of their own lives and controlling/aiding the lives of their fellow citizens.

This doppelganger aspect is important--and I underline it in my adaptation--with Potter thoroughly understanding George's fears and desires--and stating them bluntly to George. But Potter is mistaken in his cynicism. His way of greed and control will never alleviate his suffering or fear of being out of control. In the story, Potter functions like the ghost of Jacob Marley in Dickens' Carol--he shows the hero where he'll end up--unloved, damned in a personal Hell--if he gives in to selfishness.

Throughout my script, Potter recognizes himself in George and seeks to tempt George to the dark side of money and power. Their many confrontations are actually George arguing with his own dark self. George thinks he can defy his "inner-Mr. Potter," but it is only when he fully gives into it, that he can transcend Potter's fate. The fascinating irony of Wonderful Life is that George's road to Heaven must first go through Potter's Inferno. Dante's Divine Comedy is a similar tale of a mortal man on a fantastical journey through an allegorical darkness full of grotesques, yet who finally emerges into the light of humility and selflessness.

I would urge that Mr. Potter be played as a shrewd business man—and tempter--and not just a “mean old guy.” The more interesting the villain, the more interesting the story. Potter is George’s shadow-self, his own worst fear of his failings. George must confront his own monstrousness in order to move beyond it. Make the temptation believable. Have George waver.

 One reason the Capra film has such an emotional effect upon people is that George’s dilemma resonates so fully with themes that are central to Western culture.

George's Dark Night of the Soul

In Wonderful Life, George’s journey is led by Clarence, the apprentice angel, who, ironically, one-ups Mr. Potter's temptations by granting George's most selfish desire--to escape from Bedford Falls--by having never been born. George attempts suicide, but Clarence actually makes it “happen”, drawing his inspiration from Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer--where a dream-chasing adventurer with big plans decides to fake his death and thus, see Aunt Polly and everyone in town mourn him at his funeral. Capra didn't have Clarence quote from Tom Sawyer, but the themes are threaded throughout Wonderful Life. George is both Tom Sawyer and Ebenezer Scrooge--the American Everyman at a crisis point.

George gets his death-wish, but the funeral he sees is for everyone he ever loved! His non-existence transforms the quiet little Bedford Falls into a nightmarish "Pottersville"--awash in insanity, passion, violence, greed, treachery, sickness and old age. Pottersville is a fallen world of broken marriages, broken dreams, strip joints, bars, prizefights, tough cops and rampant vice. George gets to experience what his hometown would be without him. He sees that the life he led--the one of dreams denied and tribulations, the one he was never fully happy with--made a big difference to those around him.

This dystopia sequence was the entirety of the Philip Van Doren Stern short story "The Greatest Gift,"-- the source material that Frank Capra and his writers reworked into the very different It's a Wonderful Life. However, both Van Doren Stern's and Frank Capra's nightmare scenarios are clearly derived from Dickens' "Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come" sequence in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In Wonderful Life, we see a collection of Dickensian lowlifes--from Nick's Bar, to a rum-head Mr. Gower, to a nasty Violet being rousted for jack-rolling a sailor—but both stories turn on a soul-shattering graveyard revelation.

In the alternate universe of Pottersville, several characters are dead because George wasn't around to save or aid them. I handle this by having Clarence tour George through Pottersville's cemetery--what would have been the "Bailey Park" housing development. This is a tender moment--a change of pace between George's rough handling at Nick's Bar and the upcoming lynch mob scene. This haunted moment—right out of Dickens’ Carol— is full of the supernatural aspect, but it’s purpose is to drive home the point of how much George actually matters to the world.

Amidst the crumbling tombstones, an incredulous George asks, "Cemetery...? Where are the houses? The people I knew?" Clarence replies gently, "Oh... they're here. George. They're here... The little Blaine girl... Martini... your father... and over here... Harry Bailey"—whose death brings with it the death of hundreds on a troop transport that Harry had saved in WW II. Ironically, George's long wished-for escape from Bedford Falls comes at a great cost to not only his town, but to America, and the World. Those troops--and Harry--died for George's sin--of selfishness. Harry is George's own "Tiny Tim" and it is Harry’s death--echoed in the deaths of the troops--that is the real turning point for George.

It is here that George is faced with the horror of his selfishness in wanting to have never been born. The other things he’s seen in Pottersville seem to be mistakes or misunderstandings, but not what he sees in the cemetery. While the harshness exhibited by the Pottersville versions of Nick, Bert, Violet, Ernie and even George's mother are just attitudes--something that could be changed if George could reason with them--the needless deaths seen in the cemetery scene plunge George into confronting what his selfishness has wrought. It's the pivotal moment in George's salvation--and oddly, this is a scene that is missing entirely or merely whisked through in other adaptations of Wonderful Life. The film version has visuals of desolation and windy snow, but  the other play versions don't sufficiently marshal theatre’s dramatic arsenal of words, music, and sound to give this scene the gravitas, sorrow, and bitter irony that it deserves.

However, this cemetery scene is not the final straw for George. He must see one more "death" attributable to his selfishness. Trying to escape the sad realization of the graveyard, he seeks shelter in his greatest joy from his old Bedford Falls life. George must see what's become of Mary in Pottersville. Unfortunately, here, she's a timid and stunted old maid, working at the library--where she only reads about life, but doesn't live it (Fittingly, she's a sad parody of George's own frustrated life before he married her.) Desperate for one last thread to hang onto, George accosts Mary outside the library, pleading with her to recognize him--and give him refuge from the immense guilt he's now feeling.

But Mary doesn't know him and panics, calling in a crowd of bystanders that quickly become a lynch mob chasing after George. Having given up living his own life, George is now running for his life, being pursued by the mob and shot at by Bert, the Cop. Pottersville can no more abide George than he can abide it.

Eluding the mob, George once again finds himself standing at the bridge--where it would seem the only way for him to escape Pottersville is to commit suicide. I have Clarence ask him if he's going to really kill himself this time, but George has been chastened by the intense suffering. He has learned his lesson: "Don't despair! Life could be worse!" But what's more, he learns that suffering is a necessary step on the road to happiness. It is there to purge him of ego and selfishness. Sacrifice isn't something to avoid or resent--it must be embraced!

This aura of necessary sacrifice permeated American culture during World War II--and may find new resonance with modern audiences since we are again plagued by war and economic hardship. This willful surrender to aiding your fellow man is also a deeply philosophical paradox and I address it dramatically in my adaptation.


 

The Frank Capra Hero

In many of Frank Capra's films, there is a Christ figure--and a crucifixion. You can see this hero in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, Meet John Doe, and of course, It's a Wonderful Life. These martyrs must suffer before they can find salvation. Capra was a Catholic and the theme of Christ suffering on the cross is as central to Capra's art as the plucky optimism of his wisecracking, down-home characters. On the Cross, as long as Christ held onto his mortal side--the fear of pain and death, the desire to escape his fate--he writhed and suffered. But at a pivotal point in his ordeal, Christ lets go of his resistance to his fate and gives himself up to his duty: sacrificing himself for mankind. This decision to surrender himself willingly is what allows Christ to transcend his mortal self and become one with the Divine. His humility is key. And that lesson permeates Capra’s films.

In Wonderful Life, George has been writhing on his own cross--from his frustrations at being "trapped" in Bedford Falls, to fear of bankruptcy and prison over the missing $8000, to the incredible guilt engendered by the visit to Pottersville.

Throughout my adaptation, I emphasize George's suffering by having him boast of his dreams and then immediately see them dashed--to better set up his later turn to darkness. In Capra's film, James Stewart brought this out through a very emotional performance--desperation in his eyes, kicking chairs, grabbing people, etc. Here, I've built George's descent into despair as part of the slimmed-down text, so a variety of actors playing George can hit the "right notes" without directly quoting Stewart's portrayal.

George has suffered throughout the story--because he's always seen Paradise as being somewhere "over the rainbow"--in traveling; in building bridges or skyscrapers; in doing "something big." George's heaven was always somewhere else.

On the Bedford Falls toll-bridge, I have Clarence quote a bit of gospel, telling George, "The kingdom of Heaven is spread upon the Earth ...and men do not see it." George realizes that his Heaven was Bedford Falls all along! It was there, amidst the frustrations and troubles and his serving his family and community. Now, conscious of his life's real adventure--selfless service--George is willing to embrace both the joys AND the sorrows of his previously "unbearable" life. George must let go of his dream of finding happiness "somewhere else" and learn to participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world he is in. And with that realization, George is reborn--resurrected--and with his attitude changed, his life becomes truly wonderful.

This is precisely what happened to Dickens’ Scrooge character after his graveyard conversion. He becomes as giddy as a schoolboy and as generous as he'd been miserly--before his salvation. Both Scrooge and George are now joyful lunatics, running through town, shouting "Merry Christmas" to one and all. George now says "yes" to everything--to the reporters, the sheriff, the bank examiner, prison, etc. And at this point, the universe reciprocates George's willingness by having the money rain down like manna from Heaven--in the contributions of his friends to the rescue fund. While the bushels of money may seem crass and materialistic, they are actually tokens of love and thanks and goodwill--earned fully by George for his lifetime of service and sacrifice.

As much as Wonderful Life echoes the patriotic lessons of World War II, it is also as profoundly a spiritual tale of death and resurrection as Dante's Divine Comedy, or Christ's story or Dickens' Christmas Carol.

These psychological, philosophical, and religious undercurrents are threaded through Capra's film and I have explored them in my adaptation—but not as overtly as in this essay. Metaphor and language and character are employed artfully in the script to “feather in” the theme of this battle for George Bailey’s soul. And it is the dramatic battle that lifts my Wonderful Life adaptation beyond a mere nostalgia-trip for fans of the film. The play must work on its own as drama in order to truly reach a live theatre audience, emotionally and symbolically through playing the subtext and not just the dialogue, sound effects, and music. Otherwise, one could merely show the film version.

That being said, my adaptation is still comical and full of invention in exploiting the stage medium as Capra's film, while also paying attention the themes and emotional nuances of the story.

Music

In drama, blocking and sound effects are motion and music is e-motion. Effective underscoring has a powerful effect on audiences. In scoring Wonderful Life, my accompanist/composer, Jonathan Green played a theatre-style organ--employing the unique registrations (organ drawbar settings) that made 1930s-1940s radio dramas so distinctive. Most of the show consists of bridge cues that shuttle us between Heaven and Bedford Falls, while commenting on the drama. These cues immediately make it clear where we are in the story--which is important with so many scene changes. They let the audience know that time and tone have changed--from Mr. Gower's store to the old Granville House to Ernie's cab to George emotional state as he loses his last chance at college or is peering into the oblivion of the river. In Martini's Tavern, an Italian accordion plays while George prays for help. In several cues, Jonathan employs a beat-up upright piano to render young Janie's shaky practicing and the bluesy barrelhouse atmosphere of Nick's Bar. In the finale, "Auld Lang Syne" is played on Janie's piano and then on the organ as an encore sing-along for the cast and audience.

SPECIAL NOTE: I’ve provided two different music cues of “Auld Lang Syne” to accompany the cast singing in the final scene; One is young Janie Bailey’s shaky, but passable version of the tune. To me, having Janie accompany the others—badly—and their singing along, regardless of the quality, is an affirmation of making due with life’s circumstances. However, I also provide a well-played version of the accompaniment, so you can choose between them.

Troupes that wish to have their own accompanist perform live can listen to the pre-recorded music tracks (available for a fee—contact Sales@RuyaSonic.com) and learn how to play in the style. The script even includes a listing of the organ registrations (drawbar settings) that your keyboardist could use to reproduce the correct timbre of theater organs--if they are using a Hammond organ or some simulator. Currently, we do not offer a printed musical score, but may do so in the future.

Sound Effects

Bells are central to this story and I use plenty of them as sound effects. The bells serve as punctuation and as a metaphorical "wake up call" to George--who's been lost in his dreams--and later his nightmares. The bell sound effects work their way through the many phone calls, door bells, cash register ka-chings, and finally to Zuzu's little Christmas tree bell as Clarence finally gets his wings.

There is also a great deal of background crowd sounds (also known as walla-walla) to paint the ice pond, boardroom, bank run, bars, crowds and party. In many scenes, the sound effects, voices, and music are layered together in a complex pattern that enhances the storytelling.

For example: In the courtship scene, Mary plays a noisy 78 RPM novelty record of "Buffalo Gals" that must compete with the telephone ringing, Mary's mother calling out, and George and Mary bickering. As the tension mounts and the courtship unravels, the cacophony heightens the drama--and when the two lovers break up, George noisily scratches the record in anger, as he tries to escape. This approach differs markedly from Capra’s film version, but the tension contributed by the layering of voices, music, and SFX echo the turbulence going on within George and Mary—and for all the noise, the scene ends with Mary whispering “I know...”. The sonic contrast underlines the peace and quiet that the lovers find in each other. Sound Effects are not merely noises to represent the reality of ice ponds and cars and crickets. They can serve to produce dramatic effects, as they do throughout my adaptation.

Similarly, the use of "Jimmy the Bird" (a repeated squawking voice in tandem with a bird-in-a-cage) lends humor to the establishment of Carter, the bank examiner--a scene that could have just been dull plot mechanics. (Try to create a bird puppet—or stick-driven marionette to squawk along with an unseen actor delivering Jimmy’s lines.)

Another bit is to the use of an off-stage mic (mimicking the sound of a telephone voice) for Sam Wainwright, Mrs. Hatch, Mr. Potter and—most absurdly—Mary’s burbling call to George, urging him to come home to their new house. (See the Sound Design Notes section of the Sound Effects appendix for a variety of ways to render this telephone voice effect.)

Sounds such as doors and dinner dishes, footsteps, the scratching record, cracking ice, and champagne toast will be produced by the off-stage SFX artist. Other sounds such as wind, Clarence's river splashing, cars, and harp glissandos are triggered from pre-recorded SFX tracks. I offer my own professionally designed SFX tracks for a one-time-fee. They (and the music tracks) can be downloaded as MP3 files.

Directorial Approach

Please be conscious that there is a ritual aspect to the production of Wonderful Life. I've seen theater audiences in tears as George despairs while trapped in Pottersville. His plea to live again is a highly emotional peak for the star and audience. I milk his subsequent joy at getting to “live again” by having him address his humble thanks and “Merry Christmases” to a Bedford Falls townscape situated out in the audience.

There are a number of metaphors I use in my interpretation of this material to fully evoke this ritual of sacrifice, death and rebirth and you should consider them in setting a tone for your production. First, I suggest you seek to convey an edge-of-the-seat quality by urging a vigorous delivery and slightly fast tempo.

Thematically, a fast tempo also has a purpose. This is a Christmas-themed show, of course. And Christmas celebrates the pending birth of a child and always carries anticipation and mystery, as does the unwrapping of a Christmas gift, and so too, the best ghost stories--which is what Wonderful Life really is. With that in mind, there should be surprise everywhere and you should endeavor to keep the audience always guessing “what’s next,” even though the storyline is familiar.

The second metaphor to pursue is the contrast of delight amidst awfulness--the bustling crowds despite the repeated crises—especially the use of walla-walla. The more exuberant and noisy—but at a controlled volume level—the better. Thematically again, there’s a defiant mysticism about celebrating life on the shortest day of the year. The idea that hope can spring from such bleak surroundings is at the heart of Christmas--and Capra’s fable.

Lastly, try to impart a gusto from the many "little people" of Bedford Falls and their grotesque counterparts in Pottersville. The actors will enjoy being able to portray characters who are sweet and then later sour. Have them do so with urgency—to underline the contrasting worlds on display here. George’s loony joy at the end seems that much higher for all the frustration and suffering that preceded it.

Encourage cast and crew to dive headlong into their roles and leave behind the film's familiar portrayals. This adaptation is a re-invention of the film for the stage and as a stand-alone dramatic experience.

Preparation

The only other advice I could give regarding producing the program would be to have the director and crew watch Frank Capra's’ original film--to refresh their memories as to what is going on--but to avoid letting any of the cast watch the film. Replicating the portrayals and delivery of the film actors will only serve to distract audiences from experiencing the drama you are presenting. The idea here is to explore the script in front of you and make it your own--to have your own "wonderful life" bloom on-stage.  You need to earn your OWN wings.

 

Happy Landings!

 

Tony Palermo

 

(NOTE: This essay is also part of the production and technical info appendix to the Wonderful Life script itself. You don't need to print it out from this webpage.)

 


TONY PALERMO is an audio theatre producer, performer, and educator living in Los Angeles, California.
He performs professionally, conducts workshops, and produces programs for hire.
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