Ghosts of Music Past : 'The Muppet Christmas Carol' songwriter Paul Williams undergoes a metamorphosis no less powerful than Scrooge's

Don Heckman is a regular contributor to The Times

Paul Williams has been doing a lot of thinking about Ebenezer Scrooge lately, and finding a surprising connection between himself and Dickens' original Christmas Grinch--but not because of any shared antipathy for the Yuletide.

"Oh no," said the veteran songwriter-lyricist last week, "Christmas has always been one of my favorite seasons. It's Scrooge's metamorphosis that touches me--the way he changes completely in one night. It's what it took me 49 years to do."

Williams' interest in Scrooge has been an intrinsic part of the work that has occupied his time for the last year or so--a full score of songs for "The Muppet Christmas Carol," which opened this weekend around the nation.

But the associations have not been all musical, even though it is the 52-year-old Williams' first major creative effort since the late '80s. Despite the differences in time and place, Williams' own metamorphosis has been no less powerful than Scrooge's overnight conversion from miserly skinflint to benevolent elder.

Williams' change began three years ago, when he confronted the potentially deadly prospects of a decades-old addiction to alcohol and drugs.

"I hit absolute physical bottom in '89," he said. "I wasn't crawling the streets, and I wasn't poor. But I was spiritually bankrupt. And I got to the point where I was having full-blown psychotic episodes from the combination of drugs and alcohol in my system. So I finally had to get down on my knees and ask for help."

His dependency problems notwithstanding, Williams had managed to function at an astonishingly high creative level for years. Songs such as "We've Only Just Begun," "Just An Old-Fashioned Love Song," "Rainy Days and Mondays" and "Evergreen" have become standards, and his mantel is filled with accumulated Oscar Golden Globe and Grammy nominations and awards.

As an actor, he became well-known to film audiences for his comical portrayal of Little Enos in "Smokey and the Bandits, Parts I, II and III"; in Brian DePalma's cult classic, "Phantom of the Paradise," he composed the score, produced the album and co-starred as the malevolent character, Swan. On television, the diminutive Williams (his much taller pal, comedian Pat McCormick, once told him, "You know, Paul, you look like an aerial view of a human being") made numerous celebrity-style appearances, including regular exchanges with Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show."

"I was pretty unpredictable, to say the least," Williams said. "I mean you never knew what was going to come out of my mouth on that show. Every now and then I remember some of the things I said to Johnny, and I sit straight up in bed and say, 'Oh, God, there's another amends I need to make.' "

By the late '80s, Williams' life was on a distinctly downward spiral. Like many with chemical dependencies, he had made numerous abortive attempts to break the addictive pattern.

"I tried to get sober once for somebody else," he recalled, "but you can't do it for somebody else. And then, in order to hide my drugs and alcohol--because I started using again--I became a chronic and habitual liar. I would sit there and swear that I wasn't using, when I was. So the person I was trying to get sober for left me, and there I was, with just my drugs. It wasn't much to be left with."

Williams checked himself into a hospital and began to do the serious work of recovery, aided by the 12-Step program. His innate energy and vigor were indispensable assets.

"The funny thing was that I'd never lived in a communal setting before," he said. "I was never in the service, and didn't go away to college. So when I did go into the hospital for rehab, I didn't want to leave. But when I finished the program, they just laughed and said, 'Sorry, you have to leave.' And the only way I could go back was to get a certificate for drug counseling, which I did, because for a certain period of time, I found that the place I felt I fit in best was doing recovery work."

On the down side, Williams also found it almost impossible to write. "I just couldn't write--couldn't do it--for a couple of years. I was terrified. So when the 'Muppet Christmas Carol' came along, it became especially important for me because it's the first song score that I've done sober."

Williams had done two previous projects with the Muppets--"The Muppet Movie" and a Canadian television special, "Emmett Otter's Jug Band Christmas." But this was his first venture with the Muppets since the death of Jim Henson.

"Working with Jim was the best experience I ever had," recalled Williams. "He had such trust. When I wrote the songs for 'The Muppet Movie,' I asked if he wanted to hear what I was doing. And he said, 'No, I'll hear them in the recording studio,' which was an amazing creative freedom to be given."

Williams was a little less assured about what to expect from Brian Henson, Jim Henson's son and the producer-director of "The Muppet Christmas Carol."

"Brian was a big surprise," Williams said. "There are still some great talents in the Henson organization--Frank Oz, Dave Goelz and some of the other performers. But there was the question of how the situation would work without Jim as the centerpiece of it all.

"It turned out that Brian's pretty impressive, although he definitely has a different way of working. For one thing, he wanted to hear everything, and, thank God, he loved the songs. But he prefers to have a strong creative interchange."

Guitarist/composer Oscar Castro-Neves, who wrote many of the orchestrations for the film, also had high praise for the ambience of the production.

"There are very few times I can remember feeling so happy to work on a project from beginning to end," said Castro-Neves. "Musically, it was first-rate, and the atmosphere around the Henson organization was incredible. And Paul--well, everyone knows he's a great lyricist, but his music has a real knack for enhancing the scenes. And he was like a new person to work with--humble about the experience, easy to get along with, and enthusiastic about the new direction he's taking with his life."

As with most productions, however, there were moments when all the creative interchange in the world couldn't make something work. The featured song on "The Muppet Christmas Carol" recording, for example, is an exquisite Williams ballad titled "When Love Is Gone." Both Henson and Williams thought it would be the film's big song. But it was eventually dropped from the picture, in part because the character who sings it--a girl loved by Scrooge when he was a young man--appears only in the scene of Christmas Past.

"Fortunately, the song's back in for the television and video version. So that's something," Williams said.

By composing the music and writing the lyrics for all the songs in "The Muppet Christmas Carol" (as he did with "Phantom of the Paradise" and "Bugsy Malone"), Williams clearly has put himself completely on the line. But he shrugs off any suggestion that the performance of the film might have significant effects, positive or negative, on his career, insisting that his recovery process has helped him keep things in perspective.

"One of the things we do in recovery," he explained, "is to pray for the knowledge of God's will for us and the power to carry it out. And that's it. Nothing more. So I'm trying not to add a request for a pony to those prayers. Whether its a career or a relationship or whatever, that's not what the prayers are about.

"Besides, there will be other projects, and other things to do. I'm getting my license to become a drug rehabilitation counselor, and I've got every intention of continuing to do recovery work. Plus, I just got a phone call about developing a television series with Tom and Roseanne Arnold. But recovery has taught me that my whole life is not going to swing one way or the other based on the success of any of these projects."

"There was a time when my life was like those old-fashioned strings of Christmas lights," continued Williams, "where if one bulb isn't working, none of them are. I think that, in recovery, what I've managed to do is turn my life into the new style of Christmas lights where, if one bulb goes out, the rest of them are still shining."

"So if 'The Muppet Christmas Carol' doesn't do well," he concluded, "or it isn't a hit, or people don't write about what a wonderful score Paul Williams has written, Paul Williams will still be at a recovery meeting the next morning, thankful for his healthy children, in love with Hilda Keenan Wynn, the girl he's engaged to marry, and--like Joseph Campbell said--following his bliss, doing what he loves."

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