After nearly two decades, Hartford Stage’s holiday perennial A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas is getting a new Ebenezer Scrooge.
Michael Preston, who has been playing the role of Mr. Marvel for the last five years, is succeeding Bill Raymond in the lead role in Michael Wilson’s stage version of the Charles Dickens classic. The new production plays Nov. 24 to Dec. 30.
“When I was a young actor in New York I wanted to be the kind of actor that Bill Raymond was, who was then performing in Mabou Mines [the avant garde theatre company],” Preston says over coffee recently in Hartford. “Then I went off to circus land.”
Preston is referring to his years from 1991 to 2000 with The Flying Karamazov Brothers, the vaudeville troupe of comedy, juggling and cirque skills that played internationally, including Broadway.
Preston’s hope of working with Raymond on stage came about when Preston became associate professor of dance and theater at Trinity College and he joined the Christmas Carol cast.
“He was funny, really funny,” Preston says of Raymond, who ended his 17-year run as Scrooge last year. “That physical training and sense of physical comedy is something that we share.”
Preston shares his thoughts on the classic character, how the play relates to modern times, and if he’ll find a way to work in his juggling skills.
And what will your Scrooge be like?
It’s not Hamlet, and yet it’s a profound role for actors who play it. I think I’ll bring a certain darkness and a mischievousness, even a meanness at times. But there are some highly comic moments, too. I never found those extremes to be against each other. With Bill [Raymond] you always wanted Scrooge to learn something. For me, it’s also giving the audience the feeling that I might learn — but also that I might not.
At a lean six feet, you’re a taller Scrooge.
I’m different physically from Bill and that comes with a different energy. I also want to be a little terrifying. What will be interesting to see is how all the relationships that we’ve come to know will find with all those other players — with actors like Alan [Rust, who plays the Ghost of Christmas Present] and Bob [Davis, as Bob Cratchit].
I’m thinking about his physical journey as I start to go into rehearsals. I think Scrooge is literally physically shut down until he receives that joyful freedom at the end when he actually senses his body again and his body is liberated and he’s going around touching people all over the place.
Do you have real-life models for Scrooge?
For some reason I’ve been looking at Sid Caesar [television star and king of comedy in the ’50s].
And as far as the look? Does the goatee stay or go?
I’m a little fearful of cutting it off but now I’m thinking about letting it grow longer, so it’s a little wild and out of control. That might be a nice touch. I also sweat a huge amount, so wigs are problematic for me — but we’ll see.
I have to remind Rachel [Alderman, director of the production] to leave lots of props around for me to play with. There might be a moment when it will work.
Do you have a favorite Scrooge — Bill Raymond excluded?
Probably Alastair Sim [in the 1951 film version]. I was watching him again the other day and he’s very human, very hurt. Even in the beginning when he’s telling people off, he’s obviously so deeply unhappy and damaged in the ways he’s been brought up and treated. I just find him very sympathetic.
I couldn’t have cared less about George Scott’s [TV] version. I would have been happy if Marley just took him away.
And Mr. Magoo’s 1962 animated special?
I love Mr. Magoo but I don’t think I ever saw that version.
Does the show have special relevance now?
Without naming names, I think it totally speaks to our times with the ideas of redemption and of having somebody finally recognize what’s really going on and who finds a generous spirit, it’s even more powerful now.
At 59, will your Scrooge be different than if you played it when you were younger?
Yes, it’s not the same. I had a heart attack five years ago. So now I can contemplate these mortal issues — and finding at the end of it is a choice toward total life. There’s nothing better than being on stage for that ending with his realization of utter joy.
Knowing it’s a marathon performance, do you have to prepare like an athlete?
I’m fairly healthy these days. I can’t stand running but I’m walking a lot and trying to get my stamina built up with this epic role in mind.
Is there a Scrooge workout program?