On Dec. 2, Jeffrey Sanzel will play Ebenezer Scrooge for the 1,500th time. So he’s used to being asked “Who is Scrooge?”
“I’ve been answering that question for 30 years,” says Sanzel, who has played the misanthropic character from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” since he was 22. All but a couple of the performances have been in the annual production at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson, which runs from Nov. 12 to Dec. 30. Sanzel, the theater’s artistic director since 1989, could talk for hours about Scrooge, but the essence, he says, is that the character is “a symbol of the ability to change … if Scrooge can become a better person, then so can we. Scrooge gives us the idea that we can make a difference in the world.”
The Dickens classic is ubiquitous this time of the year, performed traditionally by The Minstrel Players in Northport Dec. 9-11, or in one of many adaptations. Along with the one Sanzel has written and directed, two musical versions are scheduled on Long Island this season — Gateway’s “A Christmas Carol, the Musical” by Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid”) Dec. 16-28, and “Scrooge: The Musical” (based on the 1970 Albert Finney film) at Manes Studio Theatre in Lindenhurst Nov. 18-Dec. 18.
“I wish I knew why this story has endured,” says Sanzel, “why there are not hundreds but thousands of adaptations,” including a Broadway edition which runs through Jan. 1 and features Jefferson Mays playing all the parts, and the Apple TV+ musical “Spirited” which premieres Nov. 18 and stars Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell.
WHAT “A Christmas Carol” adapted by Jeffrey Sanzel
WHEN | WHERE Nov. 12-Dec. 30, Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson
INFO $20-$35; 631-928-9100, theatrethree.com
WHAT “Scrooge: The Musical”
WHEN | WHERE Nov. 18-Dec. 18, Manes Studio Theatre, 141 S. Wellwood Ave., Lindenhurst
INFO $20-$25; 631-226-8400, studiotheatrelongisland.com
WHAT “A Christmas Carol”
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Dec. 9-10 and 3 p.m. Dec. 11, Houghton Hall, Trinity Episcopal Church, 130 Main St., Northport
INFO $20, $15 age 60 and older and 17 and younger; 516-361-7232, firstname.lastname@example.org
WHAT “A Christmas Carol: The Musical”
WHEN | WHERE Dec. 16-28, Patchogue Theatre, 71 E. Main St.
INFO $29.50-$89; 631-286-1133, thegateway.org
FINDING SCROOGE’S HUMANITY
Sanzel has had years to explore the character whose name has become synonymous with greed, but Scott Earle of “Scrooge: The Musical” is a newbie to the role. Working on developing the character, Earle says he’s always thought of Scrooge as a terrible, miserly person. “But I’m finding a lot of humanity in him,” says Earle, noting that Scrooge has suffered tragedies in his life that are to blame for making him cold and distant. “I’m trying to make him less of a caricature and show him more as a misguided and misunderstood person.”
At Gateway, director David Ruttura, a Setauket native, hasn’t found his Scrooge yet, but he says he’s looking for an actor who will bring a new perspective to the role. “We want somebody who can be gruff,” he says, “but also vulnerable.” Plus he’ll have to be able to sell the Menken score. The show originally played Madison Square Garden, says Ruttura, so it “has a grand scale to it, a lot of razzle-dazzle.”
Paul Graf, who’s doing the role for the sixth time in the Minstrel Players production, thinks Dickens describes Scrooge best, calling him a “covetous old sinner.” That’s who Scrooge is at the beginning of the show, says the St. James resident, who has appeared in the Northport group’s annual production since 2012, starting out as Scrooge’s hapless clerk Bob Cratchit. As the show continues, says Graf, Scrooge “gets a look at the world through the eyes of the people he’s hurt and comes to realize all the damage he’s done.”
A TIMELESS AND TIMELY STORY
While the book is more than 175 years old, everyone involved with these productions believes the play is of the moment. “It’s about love and community around the holidays,” says Earle, “a time to come together and put everything in the past and enjoy each other.”
Graf reflects on how the world has suffered significant loss in the last couple of years, similar to losses Scrooge endured. “It’s all about possibility,” says Graf. “We want the audience to leave with the possibility of joy.”
“I think Scrooge represents the worst of us and the best of us,” says Ruttura. “In today’s world, which is constantly tumultuous…it’s always important to find humanity.”
For Sanzel, the character has evolved. “At 22, we’re kind of invincible,” he says. “We think we know everything, then we find out we know nothing.”
Reflecting on the great personal joys and losses he has experienced informs the way he plays the part, says Sanzel, especially since he is now about the age Scrooge would have been.
“I bring more understanding of what it is to have people in your life,” he says, “to lose people, to make good choices. And to make bad choices.”