It’s hard enough to memorize lines for one role, let alone 50! But actor Jefferson Mays seems to amaze audiences repeatedly with his ability to transform into multiple characters in a single show.
“I’ve never really been drawn to the one-person show genre. I sort of fell into it by accident with I Am My Own Wife, which was my first adventure in the monopoly log,” Mays told Broadway Direct. “Then followed A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, when I played a modest, nine characters. So this is my third foray.”
That foray is his latest role: He’s bringing his talents this holiday season to the Nederlander Theatre in A Christmas Carol, which begins performances November 8. He is not only the star of the play, but the only actor onstage. Yes, Mays plays every single part — including a potato, according to The New York Times.
This Michael Arden–directed, one-man iteration of the classic Charles Dickens novel debuted four years ago at the Geffen Theatre in Los Angeles. It’s only of late that Mays, an accomplished actor who also played Mayor Shinn in The Music Man on Broadway, has been cast in a play that has been around for ages and performed in theatres across the country.
For so many, the story is well known. Mean old Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley and the spirits of past, present, and future. And it’s been adapted so many times, including on Broadway in 2019.
And like everyone who has fond memories of their first experience seeing a version of the tale, Mays has his too. Broadway Direct spoke to him about when his love for A Christmas Carol began.
What is your first memory of A Christmas Carol?
It became a family tradition every Christmas. My love for this story and for Dickens in general came from my beloved parents, Linda Beth Mays and Victor Mays, who read A Christmas Carol to me as a very young child. One Connecticut winter night, we had a television accident in which the cat and dog tore under the table, got caught up in the electrical cord, and brought the television crashing down to the floor. It was a little portable black-and-white TV that we sometimes watched after dinner. I think that night we were going to watch Wild Kingdom. So, in lieu of the entertainment, my father pulled down a copy of A Christmas Carol and began reading it aloud. Then, when he got tired, he passed it to my mother. They read through the whole thing for us. It takes three hours to read the entire unexpurgated manuscript. We were just absolutely transfixed. In many ways that evening, it made me want to become an actor and made me fall in love with theater because it was theater in its purest, most elemental form. I just remember my dad’s lovely, detached narrative voice. Then I remember my mother fully inhabiting each of the characters to the point where she would disappear. To see this woman who I knew so well transforming before my very eyes into these other characters was horrifying, fascinating, and wonderful.
I feel like my introduction to A Christmas Carol was through TV shows doing a version on their holiday episodes.
A lot of people tell me that Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, the cartoon, is their introduction — that “gateway drug” to the story. A version I saw that was imprinted upon me and I really recommend won the Academy Award for best short animation. It was all of 21 minutes long, but somehow it just beautifully evokes the entire sweep of the story.
How is it that you can portray so many characters?
Heavens! Maybe it’s because I grew up in a neighborhood devoid of other children. So I had to go out and play by myself in the yard and I remember sort of adopting different personalities and costumes. It could stem from the life of a lonely child in the Clinton, Connecticut, suburbs.
What is it like to do this play on stage all by yourself?
I’m up there utterly alone except for the audience, which is kind of your scene partner for the night. It’s odd, I was thinking about this the other day: I get terribly nervous when performing with other actors because I don’t want to let them down — I have to come up with the right words, I have to make sure I pick up this cue or be here when they say that — so it’s sort of unsettling because I’m so responsible to the team. Here, I’m only really responsible for myself, and the pressure, oddly enough, doesn’t feel as great, somehow.
Who is the hardest character that you’re going to play out of the 50?
I don’t think there is any one that’s any more easy or difficult. It’s so hard to atomize this experience. It’s 90 minutes without an intermission. So I have a weird sensation of stepping onto this magic carpet. Then I step off of it at the end. One thing comes right after the next and I get swept up in it and lose all sense of time. I remember rehearsing a couple of days ago, asking the stage manager about a bit of blocking. I’m here, and Scrooge is over there. Then I realized, no, he’s not. I’m Scrooge. I had a weird moment of a multiple personality disorder where I thought I was talking to myself on the other side of the stage.
Who is your favorite part of all 50 characters? Scrooge?
Scrooge is a silent witness to what’s going on. What I really love doing the most is the narration. In most adaptations of A Christmas Carol, most of the narration goes and it’s reduced to dialogue. But Dickens’s own narration is so deliciously descriptive. I think those are my happiest moments on stage, when I’m describing something or someone in Dickens’s voice — the moral outrage of the piece.
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