It’s a Wonderful Life, is a Christmas tradition. To many families, watching the Christmas classic is a highlight of their Christmas celebration. The1946 black and white movie is described as an American Christmas fantasy comedy-drama film set in the small imaginary town of Bedford Falls. Produced and directed by Frank Capra, the memorable movie stars a young James Stewart as George Bailey, a man who gave up his dreams to help others. An equally young Donna Reed plays his wife Mary. George Bailey’s guardian angel, Clarence Odbody, played by Henry Travers, guides the story’s hero to realize how one single life can positively touch an entire town. Although colorized versions have come out over the years, the original film is considered one of the most loved movies in American cinema, and has become established viewing during the Christmas season. The American Film Institute voted the ageless Christmas story as the “Number One Inspirational Film of All Time.”
At Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, the musical adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life is rapidly becoming another tradition for families visiting the 1890’s themed park. Although several musical versions of It’s a Wonderful Life tour the country, Silver Dollar City’s Brad Schroeder, Vice-President of Events & Entertainment, started from scratch to create a production custom-tailored to Silver Dollar City’s audiences. He originally wrote the script, thinking it would replace another park classic, A Dickens’ Christmas Carol, now running for the twelfth year at Silver Dollar City’s Old Time Christmas Festival. Schroeder pitched his idea for It’s a Wonderful Life to the owners and the City’s management staff. They loved the story, but did not want to replace Dickens’ long run in the Opera House.
The park’s other option for a large-scaled production is the Red-Gold Heritage Hall. The entertainment staff had never staged a multi-scene production in the large exhibition hall. However, Schroeder took up the challenge, investing five years in writing the script and selecting the scenes and music to fit into 60 minutes. “It was a project—more like a hobby,” he claims. “I would hear something on the radio, read something in print, or even overhear a conversation that would give me an idea. For example, I wanted to use the song, “From a Distance” in the finale. I wished for a Christmas version. Then one day, I listened to the radio and there was Bette Midler singing one! I shook my head. I could not have dreamed that up!”
Schroeder came up with the idea of using 100-foot background projections to create the 13 scenes—or locations—for the story line. “It’s a different artistic approach—more abstract,” he says. “In Dickens’, the sets are defined, detailed, and realistic. But It’s a Wonderful Life was first known to audiences as a movie, so people seem to relate to the more impressionistic style.”
In selecting scenes, Schroeder decided to script the angel Joseph and the prospective angel, Clarence, like a Greek chorus—filling in the blanks of past events and moving the story from scene to scene. “We took liberties in selecting the scenes,” he says. “There’s no Uncle Billy misplacing the Building and Loan Association’s money; there’s no little daughter Zuzu remembering aloud that every time a bell chimes an angel earns his wings. In fact, there are no children performing in the production. All of those scenes in the story line are mere allusions.
“We took other liberties,” he continues. “For instance, when George Bailey is in the luggage shop picking out a suitcase for his worldwide travel, we produce a ‘fantasy’ that we call ‘The Landmark Ladies.’ A series of exotically costumed dancers enter the stage—much like the Ziegfeld Follies—depicting culture, dress, and customs of the lands George Bailey dreams of visiting.”
Schroeder says he always starts with the story and writes the script. Then he picks out songs that advance the plot, selecting from different Broadway shows, musicals, and recordings. For example, he chose “Journey to the Past” from Anastasia, but many people in the audiences do not realize the song is from the 1997 American animated musical fantasy-drama film.
Schroeder hands a sketch of what he wants for music to a musical director, who makes his home in California. The director writes the arrangements and sends Schroeder what is called a piano click in the musical production business. Next, the director adds other tracks. Schroeder says recordings are done in studios in Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Indiana, and sometimes on the director’s computer at his mother’s kitchen table in Pennsylvania. When it all comes together, the sound track goes into the computer in Red-Gold Heritage Hall and enhances the production. Schroeder explains that It’s a Wonderful Life uses the recorded sound track while A Dickens’ Christmas Carol incorporates some tracks in addition to a three-piece orchestra for its stage show. However, Schroeder emphasizes: “There are never any recorded vocals in our productions.”
Schroeder talks about the outstanding pool of entertainers Silver Dollar City has to cast both It’s a Wonderful Life and A Dickens’ Christmas Carol. “Each cast member brings to the stage vocals, dancing, and acting,” he says. “I tell them constantly that each performance has to be fresh. And it is. Not only from season to season, but from day to day while in production.
“I was sitting in the audience for Dickens’ recently and a guest seated in front of me said: “There are lots of comments about shows in Branson being Broadway-quality. And this is it!”
It’s a Wonderful Life mounted three years ago in the Red-Gold Heritage Hall. A Dickens’ Christmas Carol plays in the Opera House on the opposite side of the park. Each production is different in eras, locations, costuming, and artistic presentation, but equally endearing to guests attending Silver Dollar City’s Old Time Christmas Festival. New traditions are evolving from timeless stories and the characters who bring them to life. Indeed, It’s a Wonderful Life at Silver Dollar City during Christmastime.
Traveling in their motorhome several months each year, Arline and her photographer husband, Lee Smith, make their permanent home in Heber Springs, Arkansas. She currently is a presenter for Workamper Rendezvous, sponsored by Workamper News. Arline has dozens of magazine articles published, as well as five books: “Road Work: The Ultimate RVing Adventure” (now available on Kindle); “Road Work II: The RVer’s Ultimate Income Resource Guide”; “Truly Zula; When Heads & Hearts Collide”; and “The Heart of Branson”, a history of the families who started the entertainment town and those who sustain it today. Visit Arline’s personal blog at ArlineChandler.Blogspot.com