By Michelle Trauring
Gayden Wren has a track record to uphold, and on Sunday afternoon, the Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island will put it to the test.
Of the three runs under Wren’s direction, “A Gilbert & Sullivan Christmas Carol” — his own musical adaptation of the classic Charles Dickens story mashed up with the tunes and humor of duo W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan — has sold out every show, consistently turning people away at the door.
But this weekend, the musical’s 30-member cast has a 400-seat house to fill at Old Whalers’ Church in Sag Harbor, one of the larger venues they’ve seen over the last 25 years and 60-odd productions.
And it’s as good a time as any for Wren to finally take the stage as Ebenezer Scrooge, literature’s most famous grouch.
“I don’t think that Dickens intended Scrooge to be a specific person. He wasn’t doing a satire of Victorian England,” Wren explained just hours before the final dress rehearsal. “I think he’s writing about the Scrooge in all of us, and there’s still hope for that person no matter how grim the situation may get. If Scrooge can be saved, anybody can be saved. And that is what our story is about. It’s what all the Christmas Carols are about. It’s why it works.”
For those who are unfamiliar with the classic tale, the circa-1843 novella centers on the ultimate transformation of mean-spirited Scrooge, a rich businessman taken on a journey by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future who show him the error of his ways.
Wren first heard the story as a child, and even wrote his own rendition for a family Christmas party in the 1970s. “It was the first play I ever wrote, and it was really bad and stupid, but the story has always resonated with me,” he said.
In the same decade, he would also see his first Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera, “The Pirates of Penzance,” at the Garden City High School. It was 1973, Wren was just 11 years old and he was absolutely captivated.
Little did he know, some of the actors in that very production would go on to become his closest friends and colleagues, when he joined the company at age 14 in the fall of 1975 — and he hasn’t ever left.
“On the surface, this is stuff that’s very light and superficial and funny, and certainly when I was 11, the first thing I noticed was the beautiful music and the witty humorous words and characters,” he said. “But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve more and more realized what I really connect to is the power of the stories themselves.”
The same could be said of “A Christmas Carol,” which has seen thousands of adaptations on both stage and screen over the last 175 years, Wren pointed out. His own unique retelling, which premiered both domestically and abroad in 1994, is set in Victorian times with the familiar Dickens characters — except to Sullivan’s music, with the book and lyrics inspired by Gilbert’s words.
“It’s such an iconic story,” Wren said. “It’s about personal redemption. It’s about coming to grips with the past. It’s a humanitarian show. It’s about charity and supporting the people among us in need. It’s about friends. It’s about family. It’s about coming together at the holiday season, at a time when, in this country, we’re having a hard time coming together.
“The story doesn’t need to be re-envisioned, it just needs to be told,” he continued. “We do it in a way that’s funnier than most of them, probably, because it’s based on Gilbert & Sullivan.”
After its sold-out opening, Wren went on to direct two more “Christmas Carol” productions, first the off-Broadway run in 2001, followed by the 20th anniversary show five years ago. There was never an empty seat in the house, he said.
“Now, it’s been done about 60 times around the country, as well as in Wales, England, Australia, New Zealand, a lot in Canada,” he said. “It’s really one of these success stories where nobody saw it coming, and each step along the way has caught me by surprise — but I’m very happy about it.”
But tackling the role of Scrooge is uncharted territory, one Wren is approaching with “fear and trembling,” he said with a hesitant laugh, thinking of the countless Scrooges who have come before him.
“For me, it’s just a question of trying to remember this story is a surprise for him, though it isn’t to anybody in our audience,” he said. “It’s a story that really has outlived its era because it’s not really about its era. It’s about universal human nature.
“The audience will learn deep human truths, but they will not walk away thinking about the flaws in their own lives,” he added. “They’ll walk away humming the beautiful tunes, and thinking how funny the show was. And that is a treat.”
The Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island will present the 25th anniversary production of “A Gilbert & Sullivan Christmas Carol” on Sunday, December 22, at 3 p.m. at Old Whalers’ Church in Sag Harbor. Tickets are $25 and $15 for children age 12 and under. For more information, call 631-725-0894 or visit oldwhalerschurch.org.