BWW Interview: Hunter Foster, Director of A CONNECTICUT CHRISTMAS CAROL at Goodspeed's Terris Theatre
What happens when you take a holiday classic like Charles Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL, set it in Connecticut and include Connecticut historical figures such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, P.T. Barnum, and Mark Twain as the Christmas ghosts? You get A CONNECTICUT CHRISTMAS CAROL, an all-new musical take on the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, with a book by LJ Fecho and a score by Michael O'Flaherty that begins performances at Goodspeed's Terris Theatre on November 17. Directing this premiere musical production is Broadway actor and director, Hunter Foster, who returns to the Goodspeed to bring to life this exciting new take on the classic tale. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Hunter to talk about the show, what it's like working on a new production like this, and his directing style.
BWW: Tell us a little about A CONNECTICUT CHRISTMAS CAROL. What's the show about?
Hunter Foster: It is the classic Christmas story that we all know and love, but the twist on it is that it embraces very specific characters and things from Connecticut and especially the Goodspeed Opera House. Mr. Goodspeed, who the opera house is named after, is even in the show (playing Fezziwig). The ghosts of Christmas past, present and future are all iconic figures from Connecticut - Harriet Beecher Stowe, P.T. Barnum and Mark Twain. And then J.P. Morgan, who is also from Connecticut, is the Marley character. So we've taken these iconic characters and put them into the CHRISTMAS CAROL story. Also, the show has a brand new score that Michael O'Flaherty, who has been the long time musical director at Goodspeed, has composed. So, even though it's the classic tale, it has a bunch of brand new elements to it.
With characters like Mark Twain and P.T. Barnum, would you describe it as a bit of a comedy?
Definitely! All three of the ghosts have amazing quotes. One of the things that Larry [Fecho] has done such a good job with is incorporating those quotes into the show. Barnum is the most logical character to embrace the comedy, but Larry has also found a way to do that with Stowe and Twain as well. It is also interesting to see these historical figures that you know as the ghosts. Especially since they are all from Connecticut. And William Gillette, who was made famous doing Sherlock Holmes, appears as well.
Did you personally know much about the Connecticut historical setting before joining the show?
I didn't really know a lot. I've lived in New York for twenty years or so, and I have learned a lot about New York, but I didn't know a lot about Connecticut. I have learned an awful lot doing this show.
And you have been at the Goodspeed before with SUMMER OF '42 and THE CIRCUS IN WINTER. What has it been like coming back?
I went back to New York on Monday and was hit in the face with how busy everything is and the energy of it all. Up here it is so relaxed and laid back. It's Fall which is the perfect time to be in this area. It has always made everything a little bit easier to work. I feel like it is hard sometimes when you have distractions, but up here they go away and you can just focus on the work you are doing. I've always felt that this is a place where you can really think and create. It's an environment that they have done such a great job creating. I have also been up here as a writer for the writer's retreat. It has always been a place where I have felt creative.
As a different take on the classic Dickens tale, what's familiar, what's different?
Well, it does take place in 1925 so it's a little more modern. It takes place in East Haddam and in Hartford, so it is obviously not the classic Dickens with mutton chops and things like that. There are a few liberties that we take to create a few new story points. The classic signposts are all therem though, and they have been able to do some other things in between those signposts, to create a whole new show. There are so many different versions of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, but they have made it their own. It doesn't fee like any of the others. I feel like it is a brand new show.
How would you describe Michael O'Flaherty's score for the show?
I think what Michael has done nicely is to create something that feels contemporary but not out of place. I think he has found a unified voice. All the songs feel like they are from the same world. It all feels like it fits, even though it is not really music from the time period. It feels like it belongs. He has made a hybrid of songs that we can relate to in 2017 but it still belongs in the place in which they are singing it. That is not an easy thing to do. He has made a classic musical theatre score with a little bit of a contemporary flair to it, but rooted in the time.
What has the creative process been like, considering this is a new work?
As writers, you have a certain vision for your show, and then a director and a choreographer come on and they have a vision. I want to make sure I am executing their vision, but there are certain limitations with staging and scenically. You make adjustments. Even with casting. We had to make an adjustment because the person we cast did not fit the description. The most important thing is to tell a story and sometimes you can do that with script, and sometimes with staging, and sometimes you can tell story with actors and tension. So, if, all of a sudden, we are telling a story with action on stage, maybe we don't need that line to tell the same story, so you cut it. I may make a suggestion and Larry and Michael might not see it that way, so we come to some agreement. The key to any good collaboration is to listen to each other. What usually happens is a really great compromise.
How is it different directing a new piece like this show vs. directing an established property?
I think you have to approach them very differently. I directed GUYS AND DOLLS this summer which is a steadfast and true show that you don't need to do a lot with. A show like this has never been staged so there is no prior knowledge or record to refer to, so you are figuring it out as you go along. You have to approach it differently. With a new piece you have to be flexible. New pieces are like living beings so you have to continue to shape them and fix them as you go along.
Do you have a favorite song/moment in the show so far?
I think it would be the song "Carry On." It's a great song that Michael has written for Bob Cratchit to sing to his kids. Every time I direct a show, I try and find one word to describe what the show is about. There are so many words you could use for this. In this day and age, when it feels like the world is falling apart and the majority of the country feels like there is so much bad news - a show like this is important because it inspires hope. So that is the word I use. "Carry On" is all about hope. Keep moving forward because there is hope that tomorrow will be a better day. So I think that is my favorite song and the real heart of the show.
How would you describe your directing style?
The reason that I wanted to start directing is because I saw it as a way to create a positive creative atmosphere in the room. I had several un-creative and negative experiences as an actor and I thought there has got to be another way. My style is to get everyone invested in what we are doing. It is like buying stock into the company. I try to make sure everyone in the cast has some little piece that they own, as opposed to just coming in and telling everyone what to do and how to play it. I want everyone to create in the room. The way to do that is to create a positive environment and help people get to the place but let them do the work to get there as opposed to me telling them. We work as a team. When I powwow with actors I do it as an actor. They take that in a much more positive way. We are all working on this together. I think that has resulted in happier companies because I've allowed them to feel invested in what they do. It actually helps sustain the run of a show because you never feel like you are going through the motions, but that you truly care about the show.
Is there anything else you would like audiences to know about A CONNECTICUT CHRISTMAS CAROL?
I just want to reiterate that it is not the same old A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Even though it is set in the 1920's, it has a fresh new take on it. That is the most exciting part. It feels like I am seeing A CHRISTMAS CAROL anew.
A CONNECTICUT CHRISTMAS CAROL runs at the Goodspeed's Terris Theatre at 33 North Main Street, Chester, Connecticut November 17 - December 24. Curtain times are Wednesdays at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm, Thursdays at 7:30 pm (select dates at 2:00 pm), Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm (select dates at 6:30 pm). Tickets are available through the Box Office (860.873.8668), open seven days a week, or online at goodspeed.org. THANKSGIVING WEEK PERFORMANCES: Monday, Nov. 20 at 7:30pm; Friday, Nov. 24 at 2:00 and 8:00 pm; Saturday, Nov. 25 at 3:00 and 8:00 pm; and Sunday, Nov. 26 at 2:00 and 6:30 pm
Top Photo: Lenny Wolpe as Scrooge in A CONNECTICUT CHRISTMAS CAROL Photo by Diane Sobolewski