How to Produce 'It's a Wonderful Life!' as a Radio Drama
Tony Palermo's 2005 radio-on-stage production of Wonderful Life with Sharon Lawrence,
Jamie Farr and Fred Willard. Tony's doing live & pre-recorded SFX at far left.
I am a professional radio drama playwright and sound effects artist. I have
done over 2500 radio shows since 1996. Below, are the excerpted writer's/director's notes from
the 60-page appendix to my radio play adaptation of 'It's a Wonderful Life!' If you appreciate my insights on how to
approach the material thematically, and how to produce it as a radio-on-stage show, take a look at my full
'Wonderful Life' page, featuring my script, music tracks,
sheet-music, and sound effects--both live and pre-recorded.
In the appendix to the script, I cover such nuts & bolts radio drama info as how to work a mic, casting monologues, blocking, doubling of roles,
partial-costuming, coordinating live SFX and actors, audio gear, art direction
options for radio-on-stage shows, and more.
Excerpt from the 60-page appendix to Tony Palermo's 'It's a Wonderful Life!' radio
play (found on page 57 of the truncated sample script above)
Writer/Director notes for Producing 'WL!' as a radio-on-stage show
My adaptation of It's A Wonderful Life! brings this beloved tale to
the stage--as a particularly imaginative 1940s style radio-on-stage production. While
you can merely perform the show in a
recording or broadcast studio, my adaptation is designed as a live theater crowd-pleaser, with the pizzazz and
delight of such golden era live radio shows as the Lux Radio Theater or
Theater Guild on the Air.
This style of production features a stage full of
actors reading from authentically-formatted radio scripts in front of microphones, while live sound effects
artists accompany them with the doors, bells, fights, etc. My script includes an
extensive SFX "cookbook" explaining how to make or find the live sound effects
(doors, slaps, champagne cork, ice breaking, car door, etc.) In keeping with
1940s radio dramas, some sounds (crickets, windows breaking, jumping in the river,
cars, clocks, etc.) are rendered as pre-recorded tracks--which I provide as downloadable
I also offer pre-recorded music tracks--featuring a period-correct
radio-theatre organ, upright piano and accordion--to provide the classic radio
underscoring. However, if you have a live accompanist, they can work from the
sheet music to composer Jonathan Green's original score--covering the
musical bridges, stings and "beds" called for in the script.
While several stage-playwrights offer versions of Wonderful Life!
as a radio play, I am not just a playwright, but a professional radio
dramatist and performer who brings to my adaptation experience garnered from
2500+ radio shows
(on-air, in-studio, on-stage, and on-iTunes/Audible). My experience is particularly useful
here, since I wrote and produced the Pasadena Playhouse's hit radio-on-stage
production of Wonderful Life! in 2005. Our cast included such stars as Michael Richards, Joe Mantegna, Alfred Molina,
Stephanie Zimbalist, Sharon Lawrence, Jamie Farr, Orson Bean, Susan Sullivan and
others. In 2011, the Geffen Theater in Los Angeles tossed out a different 'WL!' adaptation (Joe Landry's) once they saw mine. The
Geffen hired me to perform live sound effects for a sold-out series of show featuring Peter Gallagher, Annette Bening, Bryan Cranston and Shirley Jones.
If you are looking for a proven and authentic radio play adaptation of
Wonderful Life!, look no further.
With this in mind, I've created a version
that is both faithful and fresh. Rather than merely present "the film
cloned for the stage," my adaptation features the radio drama hijinx that
live theater audiences enjoy. There are plenty of opportunities for the audience to
marvel at the tricks used to convey the frozen pond, the board meeting, one- and
two-sided phone calls, George
getting punched out, walking in the snow, cash registers, knitting needles, Jimmy the bird, etc.
The dialogue is not word-for-word from the film, but has been sharpened for
the radio medium and tweaked to underline
psychological shadings that reinforce
Frank Capra's themes. This fantastical story is particularly well-suited to the medium of radio--where
the audience's imagination provides an unlimited special
effects budget. Please take note of my intentions when
producing this script.
THEME - George Bailey's Rise and Fall (and Rise)
In order to present this play as something deeper than a nostalgia trip
or mere repeat 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.
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." While the miserly Mr. Potter is
the obvious Scrooge stand-in here, George takes on many Scrooge-isms as the
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 desire to escape the humdrum life of Bedford Falls and his fear of being trapped in it.
But the more George sacrifices his dreams, the more 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, friends, and strangers,
leading him to attempt suicide, the ultimate selfish act. George has given in
completely to his dark side.
Mr. Potter, George's Evil Twin
I see George as being 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 seemingly 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.
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 leads to
a sick soul. 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
Throughout my script, Potter recognizes himself in George and seeks to tempt George to
the dark side of money and power. Their
confrontations are really George arguing with his 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. George's road to Heaven leads 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, who finally
emerges into the light
George's Dark Night of the Soul
In Wonderful Life!, this 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 "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
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 clubs, 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
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 Capra's nightmare scenarios are clearly
derived from Dickens' "Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come" sequence in 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--plus the soul-shattering graveyard revelation.
In this alternate universe, 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 is necessary for the supernatural aspect, but also to drive home the point of how much
George 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"--which brings with it the death of
hundreds on a troop transport that Harry had saved. Ironically, George's
long wished-for escape
from Bedford Falls comes at a great cost to not only his town, but to America, and
by extension, the World. Those troops--and Harry--died for George's sin--of selfishness.
Harry is George's own "Tiny Tim" and it is his death--echoed in the deaths
of the troops--that is the real turning point for George.
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 other radio and radio-on-stage
versions don't sufficiently marshal radio'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. George must see what's
become of Mary in Pottersville. Here, she's a timid and
stunted old maid, working at the library--where she only reads about life,
but doesn't live it (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. In my
adaptation, the mob pursuing George is frightening--and ugly--and an
evocative use of radio drama's walla-walla crowd sound effect.
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
but George has been chastened by the intense suffering. He has learned his lesson: "Don't despair! Life could be
But what's more, he learns that suffering is a necessary step on the road to
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.
Similarly, George has been writhing on his own cross--from
his frustrations at being "trapped" in Bedford Falls, to fear
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, and grabbing people. Here, I've
built George's descent into despair as part of the slimmed-down text, so
that in the many productions around the world, the actors
playing George can hit the "right notes" without directly quoting Stewart's
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 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 now 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 his life becomes truly wonderful.
This is precisely
what happened to Scrooge 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'
These psychological, philosophical, and religious undercurrents are
threaded through Capra's film and I have explored them in my adaptation.
And it is this dramatic battle for George's soul 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 radio-on-stage medium as Capra's film, while also paying
respect to the themes and emotional nuances of the story.
Using Music dramatically and structurally in 'It's a Wonderful Life!'
In radio drama, sound effects are motion and music is e-motion, and effective
underscoring has a powerful effect on audiences. My adaptation of Wonderful
Life!, comes with pre-recorded music tracks. Composer Jonathan Green played a radio theatre-style
organ--employing the unique registrations (organ drawbar settings) that made
1930s-1940s radio dramas so distinctive. This is no synthesizer, but the
authentic sound and style used in radio drama's heyday. 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 uses a broken down 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.
In addition to the
pre-recorded music tracks, I also offer sheet music that matches those
tracks. This would allow a single keyboardist to accompany your show, LIVE.
The instrumentation consists of organ and piano. The score is made
available available as a downloadable PDF document. NOTE: The accordion and
jazz-combo cues would be heard via two pre-recorded tracks—included when you
purchase the sheet music. ALSO: Many troupes find it useful to purchase
both the sheet music AND the pre-recorded music tracks—since this allows the
actors and crew to rehearse the full show without having the accompanist
present at every rehearsal.
Using Live & Pre-Recorded Sound Effects in 'It's A Wonderful Life!' as a radio play
Part of the fun of seeing a radio-on-stage production is to witness the
inventive ways that sound effects are produced. My script includes an extensive
"SFX Cookbook" that details what you must find or make to produce the
sounds required and how to play the live and pre-recorded sounds for maximum
crowd-pleasing effect. In addition to being a radio writer and director, I'm a
world-renowned radio sound effects artist, whose mentors worked with Orson
Welles and Jack Benny. As such, I utilize SFX extensively in the script to bring
both realism and magic to the production.
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 begin with heavenly chimes and work their way through the many
phone calls, door bells, cash register bells, and finally, Zuzu's little Christmas tree bell as Clarence finally
gets his wings.
There is also a great deal of background walla walla to
paint the ice pond, boardroom, bank run, bars, mobs 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.
Similarly, the sound effects of "Jimmy the bird" (a repeated squawking voice
and a small umbrella being "flapped") lend humor to the establishment of Carter,
the bank examiner--a scene that could have just been dull plot mechanics.
There's even a silent sound effects gag, where Mary is knitting in
bed--which the SFX artist "performs", as the audience looks on in bewilderment
at the silence of knitting--only to be delighted when, as Mary informs George
that she's expecting, the SFX artist raises the knitting needles to reveal a
blue baby bootie.
Sounds such as doors and dinner dishes,
footsteps, the scratching record, cracking ice, and champagne toast will be produced by the on-stage
SFX crew. Other
sounds such as wind, clock ticking, Clarence's river splashing,
cars, and harp glissandos can be rendered by the live sound effects team or
triggered from pre-recorded SFX tracks. I offer my own professionally designed
tracks for a one-time fee—which can be downloaded as MP3 files.
There is a ritual aspect to the production of Wonderful Life!. I've
seen 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. There are a number
of metaphors I use in my interpretation
of this material to fully evoke this ritual of sacrifice, death and rebirth. First, I seek to convey an
edge-of-the-seat quality by urging a vigorous delivery and
slightly fast tempo. 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 is surprise everywhere and I endeavor to keep the audience always
guessing “what’s next,” even though this material is familiar.
The second metaphor I pursue is the contrast of delight
amidst awfulness--the bustling crowds despite the repeated
crises; 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, I seek a gusto from the many "little people," George’s loony joy at the end seems that much higher
for all the fright and suffering that preceded it.
I hope to 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 radio-on-stage and as a stand-alone dramatic experience.
Preparation for 'Wonderful Life!' crew and cast
The only other advice I could give regarding producing
the program would be to have only the director and crew watch Frank Capra's’ original
1946 film--to refresh
memories as to what is going on. Avoid letting the cast watch the film. Replicating the delivery of
the film's actors will only serve to distract audiences from experiencing the drama before
them. The idea here is to explore the material and
make it your own--to have your own "wonderful life" bloom on-stage.
NOTE: This essay is also part of the Wonderful Life script itself.
You don't need to print it out from this webpage.