TO ORDER MY SCRIPT, SCORE & SFX TRACKS: 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
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
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-play, with sets, costumes and props. I kept the extensive sound design
from the radio version, which saves troupes from having to reinvent these
I also offer pre-recorded music tracks--featuring a 1940's theatre organ,
upright piano, and accordion (plus a jazz-combo for a "Pottersville" scene)--to
provide an authentic '40s-style underscoring. However, if you have a live
accompanist, printed sheet music is available for the show.
While several playwrights offer radio and stage-play versions of Wonderful Life,
I am not just a playwright, but a professional radio dramatist and performer who
brings the experience of doing over 2500 radio shows (on-air, on-stage, and
in-studio) 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. Subsequent productions featured Annette Bening, Bryan
Cranston, Peter Gallagher and Shirley Jones.
With this in mind, I've created a traditional stage-play version that is both
faithful and fresh. Rather than merely present "the film, cloned for the stage,
my adaptation fully explores the themes in Frank Capras original, but also
features theatrical hijinx that audiences so enjoy.
In my script, the dialogue is not word-for-word from the film. It has been
sharpened to underline psychological shadings that reinforce Capra's themes.
Please consider my intentions when producing my script.
In order to present this play as something deeper than a nostalgia trip or mere
rerun of Frank Capra's 1946 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
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 desire is to escape
the humdrum life of Bedford Falls and see the big world out there. Georges
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 Bailey'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 businessman--and tempter--and
not just a mean old guy. The more interesting the villain, the more interesting
the story. Potter is Georges 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
Georges dilemma resonates so fully with themes that are central to Western
George Bailey's Dark Night of the Soul
In Wonderful Life, Georges 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's
un-published 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 Frank 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 Bick 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 its
purpose is to drive home the point of how much George actually matters to the
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 Harrys
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 theatres dramatic arsenal of words, music,
and sound to give this scene the gravitas, sorrow, and bitter irony that it
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
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
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
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
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 for 'It's A Wonderful Life'
In drama, blocking and sound effects are motion and music is e-motion. Effective
underscoring has a powerful effect on audiences.
I offer a
pre-recorded musical score--which can be used with any version of the 'WL!' story. 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 Baileys 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 lifes circumstances. However, I also provide a well-played version of
the accompaniment, so you can choose between them.
For troupes that wish to have their own accompanist perform live, I DO offer a printed musical score. 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
Sound Effects for 'It's A Wonderful Life'
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 'WL!' sound effects tracks for a one-time-fee. They (and the music tracks) can be
downloaded as MP3 files.
Directorial Approach to 'It's A Wonderful Life'
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
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
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. Georges loony joy
at the end seems that much higher for all the frustration and suffering that
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.
The only other advice I could give regarding producing the program would be to
have the director and crew watch Frank Capra's original 1946 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.
Tony "Sparx" Palermo
(NOTE: This essay is just a small part of the production and technical info
appendix to my It's A Wonderful Life! script itself. If you are producing my
script, you don't need to print the information out from this webpage.)