For decades, Americans have turned to Macy's during the holiday season for a dependable dose of Christmas cheer, either by shopping amidst the yuletide decorations at the landmark Herald Square department store or by soaking in the pageant and spectacle of the annual Thanksgiving Day parade.
This year, however, Macy's will not concentrate its festive efforts solely at the corner 34th and Broadway. It will be exporting cheer across the nation.
The retail giant has engaged its creative team to conjure a stage musical called Yes, Virginia The Musical, based, in part, on the 2009, Macy's-produced animated television special "Yes, Virginia." Both the stage show and TV special were inspired by the famous 1897 New York Sun editorial which answered a letter written by 8-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon, who wrote to the newspaper asking if there is a Santa Claus.
As Christmas is the season of giving, the new show is being provided free of royalties to schools nationwide. The application period for interested schools ended on Sept. 13. More than 50 institutions applied. Productions will be mounted this December in every time zone, from Hawaii to Utah to Kentucky to Florida. Macy's is helping the schools stage the hour-long, 12-song show in several ways. It will offer a $1,000 grant to support each production to help defray scenic and costuming expenses. Also, beginning in late September, participants will be able to access a digital toolkit that will include a full, interactive script; piano and vocal scores; downloadable orchestral and vocal performance tracks; and character summaries.
Unlike most musicals, Yes, Virginia, which has music by Wesley Whatley and book and lyrics by William Schermerhorn, came together quickly. The team wrote the show in the early months of this year, and workshopped it at Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Training Center last summer. "It's been a whirlwind," said Schermerhorn.
Whatley and Schermerhorn have worked on the creative team of Macy's Parade and Entertainment Group for years. They wrote a stage production of Miracle on 34th Street which has played the Macy's puppet theatre, on the eighth floor of the 34th Street store, for years. (A 25-minute puppet-theatre version of the Yes, Virginia musical premieres this season at Herald Square.) They also wrote the song "Yes, Virginia" for the 2010 Thanksgiving Parade as part of the store's holiday-oriented "Believe" ad campaign. The tune won the duo a Daytime Emmy Award.
"We were looking for a new show to do," said Schermerhorn. "We thought, 'How do we top Miracle on 34th Street?'" Then they watched the 2009 animated "Virginia" special, which retold a story as familiar to Americans as is the "34th Street" yarn. (The writing team had nothing to do with the cartoon's creation; the new show was instead the effort of Macy's marketing and Broadway branch.)
"We watched it and thought, 'This has to have songs,'" said Whatley. Echoed Schermerhorn, "It should have been a musical to begin with."
Around the same time, Macy's advertising firm was pitching to store brass the idea that Virginia should be converted into a stage production. "It was like fate getting together," said Schermerhorn.
The musical is designed so that it's a good fit for any school's arts program. "Some schools have chorus programs," explained Whatley. "Some had very advanced theatre programs. We tried to create a piece that could translate easily based on the program in the school that does it." Cast-size, too, is flexible. The show required roughly 20 actors. But, said Schermerhorn, "I've heard in some places it will be as many as 60 people on stage."
And why, you might ask, should Macy's — which already gets plenty of business and publicity during the holiday season — wish to embark on such a seemingly altruistic project? Well, according to Martine Reardon, chief marketing officer for Macy's, "This school musical program is another way for Macy's to entertain our customers, allowing us to share this beloved story with even more families this year, spreading the 'Believe' philosophy and giving our support to the performing arts in communities nationwide."
Schermerhorn added, "I think it's wonderful that Macy's is able to contribute to the arts. It's a personal vision that both Wesley and I share, about how important it is to give back to the schools, and teach kids what it's like to be on stage."
For more information, visit yesvirginiamusical.com.