A Christmas Carol’s Musical Director Malcolm Ruhl returns for his 11th production this season, where he can be seen on stage throughout the show playing various instruments alongside three other musicians. Below, Ruhl explains the role of a musical director and reveals why he loves performing in A Christmas Carol every year.
The duties of a musical director vary from production to production and can include everything from participation in the casting of actors, contracting musicians, teaching music to the singers, accompanying rehearsals, conducting and leading rehearsals for the musicians, to re-orchestrating the score. For A Christmas Carol, which is a play with music (as opposed to a musical play), I oversee the live musical aspects of the production. The music we play and sing often changes from year to year as a result of changes in the director’s vision of the play or to take advantage of the specific talents of the current production’s performers. We try to make sure that there’s always something new and special for audience members who return every year.
I play three different instruments in A Christmas Carol: accordion, concertina (a sort of a smaller version of an accordion that has buttons instead of a keyboard) and nylon-string classical guitar. Of the three, the guitar is the most period-correct for the settings of A Christmas Carol. Over the years we have conducted a fair amount of research on music from Dickens’ era. Though the musical instruments we play may not always be exactly period-correct, the music itself is always fitting of the times, authentically evoking the culture of each of the different classes of English society that turn up in the play.
For me, returning to this show each year feels like attending a family reunion. There’s always a mix of new and returning cast members. It’s like going to a holiday gathering where family members bring a new friend or significant other. I’ve gotten to work with a lot of amazing Chicago actors during the last 11 years of A Christmas Carol, several of whom have since gone on to perform on Broadway. The cast lists from the play’s 38-year history read like a “who’s who” of the Chicago theater community. This year is like an extra special holiday reunion for me because my daughter Maddi is in the cast. She is a brilliant musician and has exactly the right skills and temperament for her role. She has also seen the show every year that I have been in it! We have performed together before, but this will be the first time we have worked together on stage in a professional theater production. She recently moved to Portland, Oregon, but thanks to A Christmas Carol, she is back in Chicago for 10 weeks. I literally get to celebrate the holidays with family on stage!
For me, returning to this show each year feels like attending a family reunion.
Year after year I’m always energized by the timeless and universal messages of the play. This is a story that asks questions about what it means to be human, as an individual and as a member of humanity as a whole. It also addresses human suffering and how we choose to deal with it in its various forms. We all have obstacles we strive to overcome, and in our efforts to do so we hopefully work toward some measure of success. That success might be adequately providing for one’s family, the accumulation of ever-greater amounts of wealth, or in less quantifiable ways, transforming ourselves into the people we want to be. It might even be survival in the most literal sense. Although most of us are not as personally isolated or financially wealthy as Scrooge is at the beginning of the play, we are all vulnerable to falling into his self-serving, self-centered way of looking at the world—especially now that we live extremely busy modern lives, where everybody’s going in a million different directions at once. We often don’t make time to recognize and nurture the important human connections that we all need. A Christmas Carol reminds me of the perils of forgetting that and the rewards of remembering it. Given that there is always something new going on in the world that seems uncannily relevant to the text in a social or political sense, or perhaps because of new personal struggles we may be facing as individuals, walking through this journey together as a company every year only adds to the depth of our on- and off-stage relationships. Once again, I’m thrilled to share the Christmas Carol experience with this company and our wonderful Chicago audiences.