Uplifting as it ultimately is, It’s a Wonderful Life has a dark underbelly, with Frank Capra’s tale of a big-dreaming everyman from Bedford Falls filled with lost opportunities and serious life regrets.
What makes the main character of George Bailey so fascinating is he spends years unable to see all that he has, his endless trials leading him to that fabled sequence on the bridge where suicide seems the only way out.
Bailey is a man pushed to the point where he ends up in bar fights, kicks the furniture around in front of his kids, yells at his wife, and generally wakes up convinced he’s missed every boat that’s ever sailed from the crummy little town that he’s spent his life in.
Flawed? Absolutely, which is what makes him, and the movie, so captivating. On some level there’s a bit of George Bailey in all of us—a guy doing the best he can in a world where things seldom go according to plan.
And it’s that relatability that Vancouver’s Peter Jorgensen first picked up on when he set about reimagining Capra’s sprawling classic as a musical.
“We’ve been talking about this in rehearsals—he’s full of flaws,” the writer and director says from Saskatoon, where he’s also juggling a Prairie production of Fiddler on the Roof. “But that’s what makes the story so great. He’s not this perfect hero. He’s really an everyday guy with all sorts of everyday stress. He’s not the perfect family man, and he’s not the perfect person, yet he still manages to do incredible kindnesses for the people around him and the people that he loves. He makes the world a better place in all the small ways that he takes for granted.”
Jorgensen isn’t the first playwright to give It’s a Wonderful Life the musical treatment—in fact, he even acted in a musical production of it during his younger years. When it came time to create his own version, he was determined to do things differently than past outings, one of his biggest challenges being to capture the many dramatic peaks of the film.
“We’re dealing with human emotions that can be really hard to put your finger on,” says Jorgensen, who’s also co–artistic producer of Vancouver’s musical-happy Patrick Street Productions. “And music can help you get beyond words into a deeper meaning and a deeper expression. That’s what we’ve tried to employ here.”
To accomplish that, Jorgensen’s production—which he first staged in Chemainus to great reviews a few years back—leans heavily on songs from the ’20, ’30s, and ’40s, with Christmas standards sprinkled throughout and arrangements and orchestrations by Nico Rhodes.
“I had to strip down the dialogue from the film quite significantly,” he says. “The screenplay was written at a time when people liked people talking a lot in films, so there was a lot of redundancy, people making the same point over and over again. So it wasn’t too hard compressing the dialogue. Our adaptation is a few minutes shorter than the movie while still making space for the songs. And I didn’t want blocks of songs, so we arranged them in a way—as we always try to do with musicals—that they flow naturally out of the dialogue. Sometimes we hear a verse or two and it flows back into the scene so that the emotional ride follows the lives of the characters.”
As all obsessives know, the town of Bedford Falls looms just as large in It’s a Wonderful Life as George Bailey, Uncle Billy, and Old Man Potter do. The film wouldn’t be the same without the phonograph-powered chicken roasting on the fire at the drafty Old Granville House or angels getting their “wings” at a raucous Nick’s Bar in the alternative universe known as Pottersville.
Jorgensen is well aware of that, and the look of his It’s a Wonderful Life is almost as important as the script and the music.
“It’s a beautiful set by Brian Ball, and I’m really, really happy with it,” he says. “It manages to incorporate both the city of Bedford Falls as well as a bridge unit that also has the feeling of the inside of the house—there’s a stairway coming down from the bridge that becomes the staircase in the Old Granville House. We’ve tried to pull all of the flavours of all of those things into the piece. We’ve got all the moments, like the loose knob on the banister. I tried to keep as many signature moments from the movie as possible in the show—the ones that people stop for when they’re wrapping presents and watching the movie.”
Count Jorgensen as a fan. He admits he discovered It’s a Wonderful Life in adulthood, finally watching the movie after landing a part in the adaptation he starred in 15 years ago.
“I remember the first time I watched it, thinking, ‘I wonder where this is all going to go?’ ” Jorgensen says. “Then it’s such a big, emotional ending, and I think that’s the strength of the story. Once you’ve sat down and invested in the life of George Bailey, you get this huge, emotional payoff.”
Yes, despite the dark periods, George Bailey (played here by Nick Fontaine) eventually comes to appreciate what he does have instead of what he doesn’t. And that’s a lesson that’s just as important today as it was in 1946, when It’s a Wonderful Life began its long journey to becoming a holiday classic.
It’s a Wonderful Life plays at the Gateway Theatre from next Thursday (December 6) to December 31.