Interview: A COUNTRY CHRISTMAS CAROL, ON AIR at Audio Stages

James A. Rocco and Jayme McDaniel believe #NothingCanStopLiveTheatre

By: Dec. 19, 2020

Interview: A COUNTRY CHRISTMAS CAROL, ON AIR at Audio Stages

James A. Rocco is not one to sit and wait out a pandemic. The St. Paul resident and former Ordway Center for Performing Arts leader is still making live theater all over the country since leaving the Ordway, and didn't stop just because of a lockdown or two. Back in the spring of 2020, he gathered local voices and created a fun video of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" to perk people up as we were missing live theatre and personal connections. He didn't stop there. His next project, a radio show reading of A COUNTRY CHRISTMAS CAROL, ON AIR, premieres on's Audio Stages tonight, Dec. 19, 2020. More details, including the star cast and how to catch this free performance, are here.

Rocco began performing at a young age in his New York City hometown, and still has amazing, long-time connections to theatre artists everywhere. He continues to bring together people and art in unique ways, even from home in St. Paul at a time we cannot gather in the theatre. He took time to explain more about how this project came to be in this exclusive interview below.

Read up, and then catch it tonight at 6 p.m. Central/7 p.m. Eastern time on WBAI 99.5fm or at and click the "LISTEN LIVE" button. (and listen to a sample of the album here and here, and get your own copy Monday.)

What brought you to this project at this time? How did you and Jayme decide to restart it?

Jayme McDaniel and I were looking for a project that could work with socially distanced staging in the hopes of creating work for ourselves and some colleagues in the theatre community during the pandemic. I firmly believe #NothingCanStopLIveTheatre.

I had already begun reconstructing a Studio Cast album for A COUNTRY CHRISTMAS CAROL, and the idea came to us. Why not perform the show as a live radio broadcast like "The Prairie Home Companion"?

And we were off.

From June thru October, there were two productions planned, pending pandemic conditions. The show was on again off again so many times; it was mind-boggling.

Can you give a little history of how you originally worked on this show and when that was?

I commissioned the show in 1996 when I was at Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma. It was a beautiful gem. Ronald Kaehler and Albert Evans brought a modern vision to Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL. have to admit their version was the first time the story ever resonated for me.

A Studio Cast recording was started over 20 years ago, but other work would come up, and the project was never mastered or finished.

When the Covid lockdown began, I knew the only way I would get through it was to stay focused on creativity. Finishing the C3 Studio Cast album seemed like a great place to start. (That's how we refer to the show, C3, A COUNTRY CHRISTMAS CAROL, three Cs -- C3).

How did you get Hal Linden, Terrence Mann, and the cast involved in this version?

In late October, on the same day we got word that we would not be doing the live show in 2020, I got a call from my former CATS castmate, Tim Jerome. Tim is the Producer of Audio Stages. He was calling to see if we might want to do a radio broadcast of the show for him. It was the fickle finger of fate.

Tim had starred in "The Rothschilds" with Hal Linden and told Hal about the show. Hal immediately offered to be part of it.

When we were looking for a Narrator, it was natural for us to turn to Terrence Mann, who had also been our CATS playmate. It was quite a reunion. And Terry is fantastic on the broadcast. It was a real treat to listen to his interpretation of the material.

It was a reunion on so many levels. I hadn't connected with some of the cast in over 20 years. Hearing from so many of them was balm during these troubled times. People like Bart Shatto, Audrey Lavine, Heidi Karol Johnson, G. Wayne Hoffman, Tari Kelly, Patti Wyss, do you have enough space to mention everyone because each one of this cast has been lovingly committed to making this happen.

Did everyone record their parts individually and then your team had to piece it together, or did you do it together online (such as using Zoom)? What was that process like for you?

I had to reconstruct previously recorded material, record new material, and learn how to use current recording technology at home in St. Paul. It did keep me occupied. Much of the score had already been recorded, but there were pivotal missing pieces. For example, the entire bridge of the song "God Bless Us Everyone" was never recorded.

The new pieces were recorded individually in St. Paul, Seattle, North Carolina, and Brooklyn. Direction happened via phone and Zoom, but everyone recorded privately and then sent me their material.

Will the show Saturday night be available online for people to view or listen to anytime?

I just got word that WBAI is planning a rebroadcast sometime during the holiday season. After that, it will be in the WBAI, Audio Stages archive online. So, after the rebroadcast, you can go to their site and search for the Audio Stages archive to listen to the show. Last week I did that and listened to an archived broadcast of "How Green Was My Valley" with Jennifer Baldwin Peden.

It will also be on my SoundCloud!

Another way to hear most of it again is the new album. The album uses a lot of dialogue from the show and tells the story pretty well. It will be out there on Spotify, Amazon, iTunes, the usual places.

The cast album release is coming up Monday (Dec. 21, 2020) -- what are some songs people will hear?

I love the opening "Marley County Christmas." It does what musical theatre does best by drawing us into the world of the show, introduces the characters, and it establishes an authentic country sound.

Bobbie Jo Cratchit's songs are pretty amazing. And for the sheer fun of it, there is a mash up of "Jingle Bells," and the country standard "Jambalaya" called "Jingle-Ayo."

Yes you read that right, Bobbie Jo Cratchit, a single mom who works for Ebenezer Scrooge.

I noticed at least one Minneapolis/St. Paul actor on the list -- Randy Schmeling -- are there any others who are local to this area involved?

Randy is like a brother. He sings so well. He is such a good actor, and he is fantastic to work with. He always delivers the goods.

I was digging up the previously recorded material, (and as I mentioned) we discovered that we had never recorded the bridge to a pivotal song, "God Bless Us Everyone." The earlier recording was so good and getting together the principals from the original cast was a daunting challenge. So instead we had the idea to open up the recording, literally split the recording where the bridge should be, and inserted a newly recorded bridge section.

That's where Randy came in. He sang all the male parts for the bridge and matched the sound of the recordings we did over 20 years ago. (BTW: The female roles were handled by Heidi Karol Johnson who revisited her role of Bobbie Jo Cratchit and Tari Kelly who sang all the other female parts for this cut!)

(Editor's note: Tari Kelly also performed at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts in DAMN YANKEES in 2015. )

What's next on your list to dust off?

Hmmm. There's interest in creating a virtual format of Broadway Songbook®. I'm hoping to find a partner to push that project forward. Jayme and I are looking at putting together an immersive theatrical experience that would be ready when we can all be back together in the same room, and I'm hoping to do a reading of a new play in January. Otherwise I need a gig.

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