Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol – Courtesy of the Funny Girl Team
In my recent blog article about the indoctrination of young people into a love for musical theatre courtesy of holiday Christmas specials, many of you pointed out that I left an important one off of my list: Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. This was no accident. Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is a very special made-for-television holiday musical that is particularly dear to those of us who love Broadway and I wanted to save this title for its own inspection. Why? Because Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol features a score that is the product of Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, the composer and lyricist who gave us the powerhouse score for the musical Funny Girl. It is a testament to how beloved it is by theatre folk considering the number of you who reached out to me to point out its omission.
Created by UPA animation studios in 1949 in a time when near-sightedness was apparently funny, Mr. Magoo became a very popular property, actually winning two Oscars for Best Short Subject – Cartoons for “When Magoo Flew” (1955) and “Magoo’s Puddle Jumper” (1956). Voiced by the warm and wacky vocals of Jim Backus (who would someday play the fussy millionaire Thurston Howell the Third on TV’s Gilligan’s Island), Mr. Magoo was once an iconic part of the animated world, standing alongside the likes of Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop, Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry. Several theatrical shorts, TV shows, and even a live-action film starring Leslie Nielsen has kept his spirit alive, but in recent years, Magoo’s presence has faded a little, but it is not forgotten thanks to the perennial favorite Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.
Originally airing in 1962, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol predates the musical Funny Girl by two-years, but the latter was well in the works as Styne and Merrill collaborated on the former. Composer Jule Styne had just come off an enormous success penning the music for the Broadway musical Gypsy (1959), which is arguably his greatest music (with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim). Bob Merrill had even more-recently completed one of his greatest personal and artistic achievements writing the music and lyrics for the musical Carnival! (1961).These two men would join forces to write a top-notch score for Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, which would loosely tell the Charles Dickens holiday classic wrapped around the conceit that Magoo is starring in a Broadway production of A Christmas Carol. It’s corny and it works.
The 53-minute special opens with the lively “It’s Great to Be Back on Broadway” that helps to set-up the device of a show-within-a-show. If any song foreshadows what Styne and Merrill would achieve with their score for Funny Girl, this bold and flashy number bursts with that kind of gusto. Once we enter the Dickens story proper, Scrooge/Magoo (Jim Backus) sings “Ringle, Ringle”, a bit of a love song celebrating the one thing Scrooge knows and cares about: money. In counterpoint, Bob Cratchit (Jack Cassidy) bemoans the cold and begs for more coal to put on the fire. Perhaps the most iconic song to come from Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is “The Lord’s Bright Blessing” sung by the Cratchit family, a wish song listing all of the Christmas amenities they’d like to have, but also a celebration of the things they share like togetherness and family. Lyrist Merrill is at his most playful here, having Tiny Tim make an impassioned and repeated plea for “Razzleberry Dressing”, his favorite holiday feast side dish. One of the most effective and moving moments in the piece is “Alone in the World” sung by a young Scrooge when he witnesses his past as a lonely and forgotten child. Actress Jane Kean voiced the character of Belle, singing the sad and longing “Winter Was Warm” as she recounts her love affair with Scrooge and how it has grown colder and colder with time as his love of money superseded all things in his life. Voice actor extraordinaire (and a regular in many Christmas specials such as Santa Claus is Coming to Town and The Little Drummer Boy) Paul Frees sings “We’re Despicable” as two of the plunderers sifting through Scrooge’s possessions while the old miser looks into his future and sees how people respond to his death. There are not a lot of songs in Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, but what is there is quality writing, some of it quite moving.
I have always found the idea and themes of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to be more captivating than any particular film or production of it. Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, however, comes the closest to condensing the story into manageable bites while simultaneously capturing the spirit and meaning of this oft-told tale. It is full of charms and should be a MUST-SEE for anyone who appreciates musicals. May your holidays be merry and bright, and heaped with razzleberry dressing!