Writer/Director’s notes for “It’s A Wonderful
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
(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.)