Erin Aberle-Palm and Nick Fontaine in It's A Wonderful Life. Photo by David Cooper.
Erin Aberle-Palm and Nick Fontaine in It's A Wonderful Life. Photo by David Cooper.

A staple for many during the holidays is a trip to Bedford Falls via a television viewing of Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s A Wonderful Life. For those who can’t get enough of this uplifting story, Richmond’s Gateway Theatre is set to present a musical stage adaptation of this classic movie in December.

Adapted and directed by Vancouver theatre artist Peter Jorgenson, the production will feature a ten-piece orchestra interpreting holiday favourites and Broadway classics from the film’s era, from some of the greatest songwriters of the period.

From the Gershwin brothers to Kurt Weill, Jorgenson has taken his passion for the music of the 1920s through 1940s to underscore this tale of George Bailey’s redemption.

In this Q&A we find out more from a wonderfully effusive Jorgenson.

This interview has been edited.

What compelled you to do a new adaptation of this classic piece?

I was asked to direct a production of It’s a Wonderful Life for the Chemainus Theatre Festival back in 2013. I love the story, but I didn’t love any of the stage adaptations that were available, and artistic director Mark Dumez really wanted it to be a musical. At some point the idea struck to use songs from the era for the score.

So I floated the idea past Mark and he was interested but concerned about time as it was already spring of 2013. I whipped up a treatment of the first half of the story, and we did a little reading of it. We all agreed that we were onto something and that led to the premier production in Chemainus in December 2013, followed by a revised version for Saskatoon’s Persephone Theatre in 2014, a further revised edition for Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton and now, what is really I think, the final version that will be presented at Gateway.

In a traditional musical the songs are in place of dialogue, in particular the emotional life of the characters. Did you cut some of the text to insert songs?

Yeah, a lot.  But it wasn’t hard. The Capra script is fantastic. But I found that often the same things were being said two or three times. So I took my red pencil to it and cut it way back, but didn’t really lose any of the narrative at all. I cut a couple of scenes, and conflated some other scenes together, but I really tried to keep all of the signature moments from the film present in the adaptation while still trying to give the audience a new experience.  In the end, the musical is actually a little shorter than the film if you don’t count intermission.

"I hope people get swept up in the life of George Bailey in a new way." - Peter Jorgenson
“I hope people get swept up in the life of George Bailey in a new way.” – Peter Jorgenson

You are using a traditional and classic songs. What was your process in selecting pieces for the show?

Right off the bat there were a few songs that I already knew that seemed perfect. I’m a musical theatre junkie, and for a while I was really obsessed with that classic era of musical theatre of the 1920s and 30s. There is a duet “Isn’t it a Pity” the Gershwins wrote for the stage musical Pardon My English. I knew that was going to be sung by George and Mary. In Pardon My English it’s part of a very convoluted plot about a character who suffers from sporadic bouts of amnesia, but I knew I could use it as a flirtatious duet between the two young lovers on their way home, and the refrain of, “Isn’t it a pity we never, never met before,” would then be turned on it’s head in act two when Clarence gives George the gift of seeing what life would be like had he never been born.

There were other songs that I knew that just fell into the piece right away: “Progress” – is a song for Potter and his Goon, “Love Me As Though There Were No Tomorrow” is just one of the prettiest ballads ever, full of longing and love and Mary sings it to George when he comes to the Old Granville House for their honeymoon, and “One Life to Live” was just the perfect song to reflect George’s aspirations to get out of Bedford Falls and make something of his life.

I had to work to find other songs though. I read probably thousands of song lyrics in my hunt for the right content, and even then I sometimes struggled. I struck on the notion of using the Gershwins’ “Nice Work if You Can Get It” as a kind of song and dance routine for Uncle Billy as he leads George to see Mary Bailey.  Jeff Hyslop was our original Uncle Billy – in this production we have the utterly charming Jim Hibbard playing the part – and I wanted to feature him. The song said all the perfect things in keeping with the ideas of the show, “The man who only lives for making money, lives a life that isn’t necessarily sunny. Likewise, a man who works for fame, there’s no guarantee that time won’t erase his name.” I mean – it could have been written for this exact story.  Anyway, I struggled with the choice because it’s almost too well known. But ultimately, it was so perfect that I used it, and I love the way we worked it into the storytelling.

I also knew that I wanted a piece of music for the “run on the bank” scene… I looked at every depression era song, and nothing fit. At all. Then I was listening to “Rhapsody in Blue” and it has this amazing agitato section close to the end, full of tension and darkness and I suddenly started seeing a movement piece to express the anxiety and panic of that moment. I love that number too.

Another piece I struggled with was something that helped tell the story of World War II and how that factored into George’s life. The movie has this very striking war montage that is very stirring. I wanted to use music to express that. Again, I researched and listened to all the songs about the war, but I ended up cheating a little by using “Keep the Home Fires Burning” a World War I song by Ivor Novello. Again, it was the right content for the story. George couldn’t go off to fight in the war, like his younger brother Harry, so he stayed in Bedford Falls and literally kept the home fires burning til the boys came home, as the song goes.

Finally, in considering songs for the show I decided to also look at some Christmas carols since the show is such a Christmas favourite. We use “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” right off the top as the prayer that George’s friends and family are saying for him. It is also the song that introduces Clarence the Angel, and his quest for his wings – so lyrics like “from Angels bending near the earth” were a good fit for that. And also the third verse:

And ye beneath life’s crushing load whose forms are bending low
Who toil along the climbing road with painful steps, and slow
Look now! For glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing
Now rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.

It couldn’t be more perfect a sentiment for the town to be sending out to George in his moment of greatest despair.

And I use “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” to bookend act two. I looked very closely at Christmas carols that referenced angels and bells – and that one has a heart rending third verse that is sung by poor Uncle Billy at his lowest point in the story, but the final two verses are full of hope and a message that we all need to hear right now: “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail with peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

Sorry that was a lot. So the short answer to the question is a lot of research, a lot of thought, a lot of care. And ultimately, it was finding the right content in each song that made it stick.

Was there a song you loved but could not fit in the show or that you had to cut?

Sure. I had Young Mary coming into Gower’s Drug store singing “I am just a little girl, who’s looking for a little boy who’s looking for a girl to love…” It would have been the most winning moment ever, but it slowed down the story too much because we really need to get to adult George as quickly as possible.

In the first production I had a number I love called, “I’d Rather Charleston” It was introduced by Fred and Adele Astaire in the 1920 Gershwin musical, Lady, Be Good and I used it in George’s going away party as a song between George and Harry. It perfectly expressed the relationship between an older, responsible sibling, and a younger, more carefree sibling. And it was a Charleston, which I really wanted to include in the show as an homage to the dance in the gym from the film. But it was also very early in the show, and I needed an “I want” song for George. Something that helped us connect with him and understand his aspirations. So I cut “I’d Rather Charleston” and I moved “One Life to Live” in its place. And then Nico and I just came up with a musical arrangement for the dance break that gave the song the Charleston groove.

We also had Violet singing an absolute stunner of a Cole Porter number called “Love For Sale”.  In the film, George simply sees a police officer putting Violet into a police car, and there’s a little direction in the screenplay that says simply, “she is a tart.” So, without the social safety net that is built in the community by George and the Bailey Building and Loan we are led to believe that Violet fell on desperate times. I magnified that by making Violet a ‘dance hall’ girl in Nick’s bar in the ‘alternate universe’ of Bedford Falls. So Violet came out and sang that song, and George saw her and that ends up being the first sign that life is not what it was.

But again, it was too much. Violet is really a tertiary character in the story. And I felt it was too big a song for a character that had only had a handful of lines in the show.  So we changed it to a reprise of “Nice Work” and burlesqued it up a bit. I prefer the way it is now, but I did love that other song.

What do you want the audience to experience? Why should they come?

The musical theatre geek in me wants to give people a chance to enjoy the story of It’s a Wonderful Life in a whole new way. I always feel that if you’re going to adapt something for the stage, then you have to really re-imagine it; you have to capitalize on what we do well in the theatre, and not just try to plop the source material on stage and expect it to work. So, I hope people get swept up in the life of George Bailey in a new way.

The politically socialist part of me wants people to recognize that investing in people is more important than investing in profits.

And most importantly, the simple human part of me wants everyone to be reminded that it’s the people in our life that make it truly wonderful, and perhaps that each of us makes life wonderful for someone else.

It’s A Wonderful Life plays Richmond’s Gateway Theatre December 6-31. Visit gatewaytheatre.com for tickets and information.