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Last updated: October 30, 2018

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,
Joe Mantegna, 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.

You can view more of my detailed "how-to" information in this SAMPLE-RADIO-SCRIPT - 'It's A Wonderful Life! - (TRUNCATED) [PDF]

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 MP3 files.

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 doing 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 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 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.

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 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 to selfishness.

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 of selflessness.

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 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 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 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 film. 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 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. 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 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, 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 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 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' Christmas Carol.

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 SFX tracks for a one-time fee—which can be downloaded as MP3 files. 

Directorial Approach

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 their 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.

Learn more about Tony Palermo's radio play adaptation of 'It's A Wonderful Life!'


TONY PALERMO is a radio playwright, professional sound effects artist, radio director, composer, and educator based in Los Angeles, California.

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