Published in KPBS On Air Magazine November 1997

The critics called it Capra-corn. It was never intended as a Christmas movie and it wasn’t a box-office hit until thirty years after it was produced, when it fell out of copyright protection and hit the public domain. But every Christmas, sure as there isn’t snow in San Diego, there are a million showings of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”   This year, make that a million and three. And two of them are onstage. You could call it the Duel of A Life.

Patio Playhouse in Escondido takes the movie literally, as the sunny, sentimental social commentary we all know and love.   The Fritz Theatre’s Bryan Bevell is more interested in the dark side of the piece, “given,” he says, “that we live in Pete Wilson’s California.”

Both stage adaptations were written in 1993, but one’s a drama and one’s a musical. Guess which theater is doing which.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” concerns George Bailey, a small-town guy who, thinking his life isn’t worth very much, tries to end it. He’s saved by Clarence, a bumbling guardian angel.

As Roger Ebert put it, “the movie works like a very strong and fundamental fable, sort of “A Christmas Carol” in reverse:   Instead of a mean old man being shown scenes of happiness, we have a hero who plunges into despair.”   George is shown what the world would have been like without him.

It’s a guaranteed tear-jerker, and a the professed favorite of producer/director/ co-writer Frank Capra and star James Stewart.

Up at Patio Playhouse, director Kate Hewitt says “the show, with book and music by Thomas Sharkey, is close to the movie.   It really flows very well from dialogue to music. It’s simple, understandable and easy to listen to.

“The show follows my own philosophy,” adds Hewitt.   “We’re all here for a reason, though we may not be aware of it. We each have a profound effect on other people, even through casual contact.   We’re all connected on a spiritual level. The show says, ‘Pay attention to what you’re doing. Even the littlest thing can make a difference.’ I learned many years ago, Never Regret…. I’m a romantic at heart, a cockeyed optimist.

“Sure, the movie is weepy and schmaltzy.   It may be a piece of fluff.   But if it makes one person think about how we affect other people’s lives, we’ve done our jobs.”

Well, Bevell might agree, but the way he’s going about his job is a bit different. His version, by James W. Rodgers, was chosen because “it deals with a lot of issues that are timeless, like tolerance and understanding. I love the sentiment of the movie. I’m absolutely a sentimentalist at heart.   But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been made cynical by my life and times.”

“What I want to do with it,” Bevell continues, “is to turn the magnifying glass back on the audience.   I think it’s a little hypocritical for us to get all wrapped up in a sentimental play about a little guy who takes on the corporate power when we’re voting for racist propositions and going after welfare mothers and doing nothing about corporate greed.” Atta boy, Bryan! Way to go!

“My casting has been completely race and gender blind.” African-American Chris Wiley will play George Bailey, and he’ll have a mixed family. There’ll be women in some men’s roles. And Clarence may be “someone who’s a little bit angrier than the character in the movie.   Maybe homeless or battling AIDS.   Something with contemporary resonance.   A bit of an avenging angel. He needs to learn tolerance, too.

“I think this story has almost a mythic status,” Bevell continues. “I want to approach it as an American folk hero doing battle with an America gone very, very wrong.    Where the movie makes assumptions, we want to ask questions.   There’s a basic assumption of goodness in George, an assumption that all people have value.   I think that’s a beautiful sentiment, but I wonder if people accept and believe that, and try to run their lives according to it.

“At the end, I want people to feel good. It’s a touching story. One man’s triumph.   But America is colder, harder and uglier than when the movie was made. I don’t want to hit people over the head with my ideas.   But if a couple of people walk away and think, ‘Maybe I haven’t given enough to poor people,’ then that’s fine.”

And maybe that’s what KPBS-TV is looking for, too.   A new, all-star “Radio Play” of “It’s a Wonderful Life” (airing XXXXX) also marks the 50th anniversary of the movie and pays tribute to Jimmy Stewart, who died recently.

This ‘concert’ version mimics the 1947 original-cast CBS radio broadcast. Actors step up to vintage microphones, there’s a live sound-effects man, and scenes are interspersed with old-time singing commercials.

Bill Pullman plays George Bailey, Nathan Lane is Clarence, Alfre Woodard is Josephine, the heavenly gatekeeper, and Danny DeVito portrays the villainous Mr. Potter. Also appearing in the Who’s Who in Hollywood cast: Rebecca DeMornay, Richard Dreyfus, Charles Durning, Chris Farley, Hal Holbrook, Martin Landau, Joe Mantegna, Edward James Olmos, and others.   All in an hour.   All to underscore the humanitarian message in Clarence’s famous final words: “Remember, George, no man is a failure who has friends.” Some friends are just more dramatic than others.

©1997 Patté Productions Inc.