In the spirit of “A Christmas Carol,” Malcolm Ruhl, far left, has recorded an album with the show’s band, Smoking Bishop. The band’s name comes from the classic Victorian mulled punch sometimes served in bowls resembling a bishop’s miter. Near the end of the play, Ebenezer Scrooge says to Bob Cratchit, “[W]e will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop.”Submitted photo

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Change is integral to Chicago’s favorite production of Charles Dickens’ celebration of the human capacity for change. Evanston resident Malcolm Ruhl, in the midst of his 10th season as music director of the Goodman Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol,” has a director and actor’s perspective on the role of change in theater and this play in particular.

Having first joined the cast as an accordion player so long ago he has forgotten the date, Mr. Ruhl finds fresh energy and meaning each time he returns to this holiday classic. When asked how it is possible to keep a production being staged for the 37th time from stagnating, he says, “That is a question [theater people who do a show night after night] have to ask all the time.”

Change is one key to keeping a play vital. During his tenure as music director, Mr. Ruhl has worked with four directors. Each brought “a new concept [for the production],” he says.

While a director can institute such small changes as “the [musical] transitions from scene to scene,” there are limits, he says. The “biggest consideration,” Mr. Ruhl says, “is the set – big, [high-budget] pieces that roll on and off the stage.”

Though Henry Wishcamper is in his second season as director, nearly half the 2014 cast is brand new. That is “a good thing,” says Mr. Ruhl, praising the “new energy, new approaches, new ways of looking at things” they bring.

The cast invigorates one another, he says; “how you do [as an actor] depends on who you are on stage with.” The onstage presence on whom the plot – and actors – of this “Christmas Carol” depend, says Mr. Ruhl, is Larry Yando, who came directly from playing King Lear at Chicago Shakespeare Theater this fall to reprise his role as Scrooge. “A Christmas Carol,” Mr. Ruhl says, “is about Yando’s performance. He takes the journey. …[He is] such a phenomenal actor. That’s the spark for me.”

With all that the theme of change contributes to the life of “A Christmas Carol,” it is a rare continuity that has made this year different for Mr. Ruhl. The chance to perform for the second year with the same four members of a band who play instrumental numbers onstage has allowed the group, he says, “to elevate what we do to a whole new level.”

The schedules of freelance musicians and the complexity of casting each actor in multiple parts in “A Christmas Carol” make it difficult to keep a band together for the production, he says. But for a number of seasons, Mr. Ruhl, who plays guitar, accordion and concertina, in addition to serving as music director, has appeared in the show with Greg Hirte (violin) and Justin Amolsch (French horn), 13- and
18-year “Christmas Carol” veterans.

The addition of Andrew Coil (violin) last year hit such a right note that the group was able to realize a project the three veterans have talked about for years. This fall, calling themselves Smoking Bishop after a mulled drink served at the end of the show, the quartet recorded an 11-track album of Christmas music. Some of the tracks on “Any Tune for a Tuppence,” which is available for sale in the Goodman lobby, on iTunes and Spotify and at CDBaby.com, are from the show. Others are traditional carols arranged by band members and still others are their original compositions.

Making the recording, Mr. Ruhl says, “has made the band into a real band.” They have a “chemistry that feels organic,” he says, and the “ability to figure out their own parts and make it happen.” Now the four do “head arrangements” for “Christmas Carol” street scenes, he says, and “can come up with them on the spot.”

The fact that “A Christmas Carol” returns to the Goodman stage year after year makes it unusual. The opportunity to revisit the play facilitates change, says Mr. Ruhl. “It’s a gift to do a show, take 10 months off and return with new ideas.”

From the other side of the curtain, Evanston native Philip Hoskins weighs in on how some 30 years in the audience have turned him and his brothers, Stephen Hoskins and Silas and Charlie Hoxie, into connoisseurs and “shrewd observers” of “A Christmas Carol.” “We notice every change,” he says, “even subtle changes in the dialogue. Definitely set changes. Usually…cast changes.”

So familiar are they with the story and script, Mr. Hoskins says, “it is almost silly that we still take up room in the theater. We could perform it…verbatim.” They have a tradition of staging their own family “Christmas Carol” on Christmas Eve. The highlight, Mr. Hoskins says, is “trying to jam in every single 100%-accurate line from the play.”

More than a century and a half after he wrote it, Charles Dickens’ story of Ebenezer Scrooge and the ghosts who help him find the value of love and friendship in his own past, present and future retains its appeal. Mr. Hoskins says he is looking forward to the time when his own children can learn the lines.

“It’s a great story about humanity, addressing the question of how we connect with the world as one individual and what we get in return,” says Mr. Ruhl.

“It’s universal,” he continues. “Every time we read the script for the first time, something has happened that makes it feel like a metaphor. …Larry’s performance makes it possible for us to connect. It’s therapeutic.”

Working nine instead of the usual eight weekly performances in a stressful season “creates a bond [among cast members] that is different from other bonds,” Mr. Ruhl says. “The first day back [for rehearsals] feels like Thanksgiving.” Mindful of the amount of time the cast spends together, the Goodman schedules a dressing room decorating contest, potluck and Secret Santa exchange. “It feels festive in a holiday and family way,” Mr. Ruhl says. Life imitates art as the actors connect. “The script reminds us that it is what we’re doing right now that matters – that we are here together now.”