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How this year’s election caused Philly theater to swap years for ‘The Carols’

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In show business, Christmas often starts in July. That’s when plays are written and performances start being planned.

This summer, Jennifer Childs and Monica Stephenson sat down to write “The Carols,” a musical comedy set in 1943, when three sisters in New Jersey are having a difficult time casting a production of “A Christmas Carol” at the local VFW, because most of the men in town were overseas fighting WWII.

The year 1943 was a tough one, but the music was buoyant.

“There was a certain levity to the music of the 1940s,” said Stephenson, a composer. “It has that triumphant, happy, everything-is-going-well sound of the Andrews Sisters and big band music.”

Using three-part harmonies and slapstick humor, the story is about the struggle of putting on a play, and the bond of three sisters during trying times, waiting for their lives to start.

“It’s about making something right with the all the wrong people,” said Childs.

Childs took the script and an armful of songs to her theater company, 1812 Productions, to put on a play about putting on a play. The first day of rehearsals was November 8, election day.

“After that first week of rehearsals, we as a country were made very aware of the state of things,” said Stephenson. “I had no idea our country was so divided.”

They decided to change the tone of the play at the last minute — after rehearsals had already begun — to reflect the mood of one of the biggest election upsets in American history.

That change was subtle, but profound: the time shifted from 1943 to 1944.

It may have just been just one year, but 1944 was after the horrific slaughter of D-Day. By then many Americans were weary of war and its costs. They were tired of rations, desperate to put it all behind them.

“Shifting from 1943 to 1944, the lens is different; shifting from November 8 to November 9 the lens was different,” said Childs. “All of a sudden the lyrics in the show — like “It’s an upside down world we live in” — that were cute and fun on day one, on day two it was, ‘oh my god, it’s an upside down world.'”

“All the lines were new,” said Stephenson. “We were discovering new things.”

Childs and Stevenson did not change the lyrics to their songs, but discovered unintended meanings in them when heard in the context of the 2016 election. They adjusted the performances to accentuate those meanings, and deliver comedy with a serious core at its heart.

“It’s like, you can’t be brave if you’re not scared,” said Childs. “You can’t be funny if you’re not a little sad.”

“The Carols” opens Wednesday, running until the New Year.

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