In Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge has a series of dreams that show him what life was, is and could be. Joel Mercier also had a dream. His dream was to make the fabled story his own. But this dream took a little longer than one Christmas eve.
While attending the Hartt School in Connecticut, Mercier majored in musical theater and aspired to become an actor. The conservatory was very demanding and there was little time for a minor. But Mercier wanted more exposure and experience with other aspects of music. So he worked with the head of the music program within the theater division of the school. He did independent studies. One of his projects was to write an original musical.
Mercier had some experience writing children’s musicals from his years growing up in New Hampshire. But he had never attempted a full-length musical before. Not having a book writer, or the time to find a perfect collaborator, he decided to work with an already known story. He chose A Christmas Carol because he believed it was recognizable enough that even if he took some chances and came up short, people would know enough about the story to understand what he was trying to do. He started writing seven years ago.
After college Mercier began his career as an actor and his musical was put on hold. In 2007, he was on a national tour and it was about to end. He knew he would have about a month and a half of free time and he was going to go home and visit with family and friends. He figured while at home he might as well go back to his musical. He hoped to stage a live reading.
“I was in some place strange like Mississippi, calling people on the phone trying to get a place to hold my live reading,” Mercier said. “I am an alumnus of Pinkerton Academy so they kindly let me use the Stockbridge Theatre for almost no charge.” When Mercier returned home he realized he had to quickly write the last three songs to the musical, which he did in a whirl of creativity. He said without asking, local community theaters lent him talent and facilities for rehearsal.
“The generosity was amazing,” Mercier said.
The staged reading had 22 actors and was a big success, as about 100 people turned out to watch. Mercier had it professionally taped so he could go back and see what worked and what failed.
But once again life took over and the script was not fully realized until a year and a half later when Mercier returned to New Hampshire to work as the resident music director of the New London Barn Playhouse, a professional summer stock theater.
“As I was working there year-round it really helped to live in New Hampshire,” Mercier said.
He re-connected with local theater companies, and the Concord Community Players pushed to perform A Christmas Carol: The Musical Ghost Story. It took Mercier about a year to warm up to the idea, but eventually he felt his musical was ready for production.
Once the piece was accepted a new challenge arose: putting a staff together.
“It had been years since I had been involved in the New Hampshire scene,” Mercier said. “A lot of the faces had changed. We really wanted to have the best actors and producers associated with our musical. We think we did that.”
Mercier said his time as a professional actor makes him attuned to talent. He said the cast for A Christmas Carol: The Musical Ghost Story is talented.
“The difference between a professional and a community theater actor isn’t talent,” Mercier said. “Both are talented. It is the professional’s dedication to putting in the effort to give up on other things while getting the credentials to become a professional. This is the same for any vocation whether it be an electrician or a businessman.”
Sixty people auditioned for the musical, according to Mercier, who said many community theater programs have trouble getting 20 to 30 people to audition. The cast includes 36 people. Mercier said those involved are excited about the direction he has taken the musical.
“I am trying to really emphasize that this is a unique, almost Tim Burton-esque show,” Mercier said. “It definitely explores the darker side. That doesn’t mean it isn’t family-friendly. This musical will appeal to someone who is sick and tired of the same old A Christmas Carol but also to a Dickens-lover.”
Mercier said much of the dialogue is the same but he has taken the emotional aspects to a higher level. He said Scrooge shut out the world because he didn’t want to feel hurt, loss or rejection. As a result he shut out the positives as well. Then one fateful night, under frightening circumstances, he went on a psychological journey where he was shown the points in his life where everything went wrong.
“When you look at it like that, it is much more than the holiday fable we have made it,” Mercier said. “Mickey Mouse doesn’t quite do it justice.”
Still all the classic elements like Tiny Tim remain. “I love the classic story,” Mercier said. “There are things I would be disappointed with if they weren’t in there.”
One important thing about any holiday classic is to capture the spirit of the season. That is why the Concord Community Players are encouraging everyone who attends the show to donate a non-perishable food item to the Friendly Kitchen. The Players will donate $1 per item for the first 250 items donated. More than that, the Players have performed for the patrons of the Friendly Kitchen, according to Bob Sanders of the Players.
“We sang songs from the musical,” Sanders said. “We’re just trying to lift people’s spirits.”
“It’s a little early for A Christmas Carol,” Mercier said. “But we’re saying it is a great way to start off the season and get everyone into the spirit of Christmas.”