On Christmas Eve the iconic character Ebenezer Scrooge is dragged through a ghost-filled journey to redemption. But this year Charles Dickens' transformation story isn't permitted to unfold on stages in front of live audiences.
“A Christmas Carol” has been a nearly 30-year holiday tradition at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverley where David Coffee has embodied Scrooge for 26 seasons. With 2020's run of performances canceled, we wanted to find out how the upbeat actor is connecting with the grumpy miser's message this most unprecedented year.
Instead of traveling to Massachusetts, as he usually does each winter, Coffee is home in Arlington, Texas. The actor said he really misses being a part of the North Shore Music Theatre's production.
“It's the whole experience,” Coffee explained, “the getting together of our company, it's like a family reunion.”
I saw that for myself in 2015 when I was working on this story about how Coffee transforms himself into Scrooge. It wasn't just the cast that revelled in the popular musical production — the theater was packed to the rafters with families and fans who erupted into cheers at the end of a matinee. On stage, Coffee glowed with elation, which he said he always does after every performance.
Coffee has been acting for 52 years and told me his theatrical relationship to Ebenezer began in high school in the 1970s. “I always related to Scrooge,” he said. “I don't know what that says about me, but, you know, but I always did.”
That soft spot for such a prickly, greedy and seemingly heartless character endures because Scrooge is a complex human being with a tragic backstory. “This is a man who has experienced a lot of loss in his life,” Coffee said, “He's an injured soul.”
While Coffee isn't able to channel Scrooge's pain and eventual transformation for live audiences in 2020, the actor is still finding ways to commune with the character. He's been watching a few of new, pandemic-inspired interpretations that other shuttered theaters are streaming online, including the Geffen Playhouse's one-man “A Christmas Carol” starring Jefferson Mays and the “In Camera: A Christmas Carol” produced by the Old Vic in London.
“It's fascinating to me,” Coffee said of those reimaginings and the many others that have come before. "Through the years, different things will be emphasized in the story depending upon what's going on in the world at the time.”
The actor is also revisiting some of the old movies that helped shaped his views of Scrooge. Coffee said he — like many of us — have known Dickens' tale our whole lives. “Mr. Magoo, I think, was the first version I ever saw of the story,” he recalled.
It's safe to say Coffee is not alone in remembering that animated, 1962 holiday television special where Magoo's Scrooge counts his gold coins while giddily singing “Ringle, Ringle."
Coffee loves how the slew of film adaptations delve differently into Scrooge's persona and psychology, from 1992's “The Muppet Christmas Carol” to the 1951 retelling starring Alastair Sim.
But it was 1935's “A Christmas Carol” that inspires Coffee's unique delivery of Scrooge's most famous utterance. That film features British actor Sir Seymour Hicks.
“He would literally say, 'bah' and 'humbug,” Coffee explained, “But for me, that just doesn't sound natural.” So he dropped the “bah” and instead developed more of a dismissive grunt or growl before saying “humbug.”
Hicks actually performed in the 1913 silent version of "A Christmas Carol" and Coffee said it's the earliest Scrooge rendition on record.
Coffee happily shared some of Scrooge's other well-known gripes, including the line you can see in a short video message posted on the North Shore Music Theatre's website.
“Every idiot who goes about 'Merry Christmas' on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart,” the actor repeated during our interview, with zest, for the umpteenth time in his career.
But Coffee's favorite phrase arrives at the end of the North Shore Music Theatre's production after Scrooge's life-changing night with the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. The character is bewildered to find himself back home, and asks his housekeeper what day it is. When she replies that it's Christmas Day, Coffee as Scrooge marvels at his good fortune. “And I turn, and I look out the window, I look up towards the sky, and I say, 'I haven't missed it.'”
There are plenty of people who feel like they're missing Christmas because of the pandemic, but Coffee thinks there's solace to be found in Scrooge's message. “That there's hope,” he said, “for change.”
The professional actor has his own wishes for 2021.
“Oh, my hope is to get that vaccine,” he said with a laugh, “and be back to work next year.”
Coffee's been unemployed for most of 2020 and said he stands to lose his health coverage in March. Even so, the 63-year-old feels lucky. He described how many of his friends lost their theater and restaurant jobs in New York City and had to leave. Other people in his life have died from COVID-19. Coffee mused he might not be back on stage until next Christmas.
But — as he's apt to do — the actor who loves Scrooge is putting things into perspective, which he believes Dickens' “A Christmas Carol” can help us all do.
“When you see this show, or if you read the book, it just allows you to stop,” Coffee said. “And the pandemic has helped this too — in some instances — to just stop, lean back, take a breath and take note of where you are in your life, and [ask] how can you make the world better both for you and for everybody else?”
Coffee has faith we can all find some glee — as he does — in Ebenezer Scrooge's experience of discovering his own humanity. And the actor shared the moment where his beloved character explodes with passionate, profound gratitude.
“I don't know what to do! I'm as happy as an angel, I'm as merry as a schoolboy, and I'm as giddy as a drunken man! A happy new year to all the world!"
This segment aired on December 24, 2020.