PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Elf — Stranger in a Strange Santaland

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Elf — Stranger in a Strange Santaland
 
Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of Elf, the new musical inspired by the film comedy.

Sebastian Arcelus; guests Stephanie J. Block, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Kerry Butler
Sebastian Arcelus; guests Stephanie J. Block, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Kerry Butler Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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With Scrooge and The Grinch holidaying outside the city limits this season, Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, Inc. rushed forth with good cheer and a checkbook to plug up this unsightly cultural pothole with its own (hopefully annual) Christmas tradition — a chipper, more lovable chap named Elf, who settled down Nov. 14 at the Hirschfeld for what may be the first of a regular nine-week seasonal stay.

Elf — Buddy by name — is the one about the infant orphan who stows away in Santa's gift bag and is reared at the North Pole toy factory by Santa's little helpers.

At age 30, towering acres over the Lilliputian populace, it finally dawns on him he's not an elf at all so he sets out on an ice floe for NYC to reconnect with his human roots — specifically, with his biological father, who publishes children's books, already has a family to neglect and is on Santa's Naughty List.

Enter Will Ferrell in the 2003 New Line film, flailing about for fun with determined, hurricane force —or, better yet, enter Sebastian Arcelus, his musical-comedy counterpart, who is more graceful and subtle at getting his laughs. The musical has mellowed the story considerably, giving it more heart and humanity, blurring the cinematic broad strokes so that a big, action confrontation involving Central Park Rangers and the Christmas believers is no longer needed. Other plot manholes have been tastefully averted, too, by the musical's adaptors.

Gingerly negotiating this tricky and wobbly terrain are the show's two expert book writers, Annie's Thomas Meehan and The Drowsy Chaperone's Bob Martin. One wonders if Meehan's chore was made any easier by the fact that he actually sounds like Bob Newhart, who played Ferrell's adopted dad, Papa Elf, in the film and served as its narrator.

Meehan laughed at the idea, then gave it credence: "Years ago, I actually wrote a couple of things for Newhart. I got to know him so maybe I picked it up from him."

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Martin, who copped a Tony for co-authoring Drowsy and a nomination for playing its Man-in-Chair narrator, revealed more: "Papa Elf was in the show for the longest time, speaking in Newhart's voice. Bob is actually a hero of mine, and it was fun to write in his style, but we decided to excise that character. He was replaced by Santa, basically. Santa is the new Man in Chair, relaying Buddy's story."

"Bob Martin has been a great partner," Meehan trilled. "I loved working with him. We'd like to do another show together. We don't have anything in mind. We're looking.

"Mark Kaufman, who put us all together when he was at New Line, is still one of the producers of the show, and he's looking for a property for us."

But Meehan's first order of business is the Maury Yeston musical, Death Takes a Holiday. "It's going to happen in April, probably at the Laura Pels [Off-Broadway]." (Roundabout Theatre Company has made no official announcement.)

And he just had a workshop done of his Susquehanna. "That was the one about Marie Antoinette in Pennsylvania. In 1893, a bunch of Frenchmen came to America and built a town where Marie Antoinette could come to escape the revolution and live there. They built her a castle, but she didn't make it, as you know."

Martin is likewise busy with the Charles Strouse-Susan Birkenhead musical, Minsky's (as in "The Night They Raided Minsky's").

"We're doing an intensive ten-day work session of that right after we open here — like, starting tomorrow," he said. "We're going to work on specific areas of the show, and we still intend to bring it in the fall of next year, so we'll see what happens."

That's the tip of the iceberg for director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who has been doing double-duty from Drowsy to Minsky's to Encores!'s Anyone Can Whistle to Elf. "We're changing the book a lot," Nicholaw said. "Beyond that, I'm working on Tuck Everlasting, which is another show that's coming up, and then we start rehearsals for The Book of Mormon in January. I'm co-directing that with Trey Parker, and I'm choreographing myself."

Nicholaw credits Meehan with steering Elf clear of pitfalls. "There were all of us together, of course, but Tom was the initial person who adapted the movie. We went through a lot of different things in Act II because the Act II in the movie was so filled with cinematic action that was un-doable on stage. It was about making up a second act, so I'm really proud of how it worked out. We worked hard on this. I was telling Tom that Christmas will be the first time in four years that we haven't been in his apartment with his Christmas tree working on this show. It has been an absolute joy. I mean, I know that it sounds so queer, but it's been like a Christmas party for all of us. It really has. It's people that I've known for my whole life up on stage. You know, I looked at who I was going to invite to opening night, and most of the people that I usually invite to openings were all on stage. Which is so much fun for me."

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New to the fold is his title player. "We did a reading about four months ago, and Sebastian came in for Elf. I thought, 'Oh, wow, I hope this guy can deliver, because I love that guy.' And he did. He was the last person who came in to audition, and we thought, 'You know what? He's our guy.' He has been amazing to work with."

If there's a shelf life for Elf, Arcelus is up for reprises. "I could definitely see myself doing this role again," he replied cheerfully. "It's a terrific part. You get to do everything. I'm a big fan of the film, but the writers gave me more to play with."

The only safe, and socially acceptable, haven for an elf at Christmastime in Manhattan is a big department store where he can pass for decoration. The role of Gimbel's in the '03 film is now played by Macy's because the setting's contemporary.

Amy Spanger sends out romantic attraction signals to Buddy in her Macy's elf costume, giving the show a good shot of prerequisite love interest. "This role [Jovie] is not just a typical ingénue," the actress offers. "She has a lot of depth and a lot of darkness so she's able to take this journey. She meets Buddy and she wants to be more like Buddy, so she has this huge transformation that happens."

Being in exceptionally good voice helps the transformation, of course, and Spanger is a Rock of Ages survivor. "That was very different and an unnatural way of singing for me — all in the men's keys. I prefer this. I think this music suits me. It fits my voice. Matt and Chad know how to write for me, which is nice and appreciated." Composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin provided Spanger with enough musical ammunition to win a Drama Desk nomination for The Wedding Singer. Apparently, the boys have a direct line to New Line, which also produced that 1998 Adam Sandler flick, and to the Hirschfeld Theatre, where The Wedding Singer also played. "Sheer coincidence," Sklar sloughed off, "but I really love this particular theatre."

Their genuine gifts for melody and wit might transcend the show. Something simply called "A Christmas Song" puts in the strongest bid to becoming a seasonal evergreen, but there are some promising holiday seedlings that could grow on audiences, with titles like "Christmastime," "Nobody Cares about Santa," There Is a Santa Claus" and "The Story of Buddy the Elf."

And speaking of St. Nick, he is played by a jovial, jellybelly-suited George Wendt — and it's not his first time at the North Pole! He has played the role in "Santa Baby," "Santa Buddies" and "A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All."

He's delighted to have a fourth go at the part: "It's just a privilege to be a fly on the wall in a room with all those great dancers and Broadway veterans and musicians — and Casey is just watching everything getting put together. It's really a thrill."

A father issue haunts and motivates the most of the story — Buddy's passion to belong to his newfound dad, played by Mark Jacoby, who uncannily resembles his film counterpart, James Caan. "I've been told that a couple of times now," Jacoby admitted. "Maybe it's just the power of suggestion, I don't know. His hair is a little redder than mine.

"It is a good part. It has what we call an arc. He has a journey that he makes so I like that aspect of it. I get to be mean at the beginning and silly at the end. How could I not have a good time with a part like that? That's what it's for — a good time."

Beth Leavel and Matthew Gumley
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Once you've seen Beth Leavel's Tony-winning, zany side (the aforementioned drowsy chaperone), it's not easy seeing her buttoned-down and behaving herself — her zaniest moment is rushing up to Santa with, "I loved you in 'Miracle on 34th Street'" — but that's what she likes about the part: "I'm normal again."

Michael Gumley, Broadway's kid-star-of-the-moment since Mary Poppins launched four years ago ("it seems like it was yesterday"), is their troubled son and Buddy's sudden step-brother. "I like that my character comes around at the end," he said, already talking the actor talk. "He goes from a non-believer at the beginning of the show to a full-on Christmas lover at the end. To make that transformation is great to be able to do mentally and physically."

Another MichaelMcCormick — reliably does the show's heavy-lifting as Jacoby's nasty know-it-all boss. "I did all the readings of it," he said, "and I just thought it was a joyous thing. My little boy is here tonight, and he loves the show. He saw the invited dress, and already he's humming the songs. Isn't it great?

"When Tom and Bob went away from the movie, I think that creatively they opened up so much, and I think the audience enjoys those moments, actually, that are connected to the film but totally different. Those guys are very smart writers."

Yet another MichaelMandell (remembered for A New Brain) reaps the benefits of the enlightened and lightening rewriting, playing a Macy's children's department manager (and, in a pinch, Santa), and swipes scenes with his effortless gregariousness. "I've had an incredible time. I feel like I'm in a fantasy, and I don't want it to end. It has been just so exciting. It's written a lot better than it is in the movie. Bob and Tom have some really great lines and some great stuff. My favorite moment for me is the Santa scene. I love doing the Santa scene. And I love the song that Beth Leavel and Matthew Gumley sing, 'There Is a Santa Claus.' I love that. It makes me cry every night. The lyrics and the music move me every night."

The final Michael heard from is Michael James Scott from the ensemble: "Everything about the show that is positive and good Christmas spirit and happiness is Casey. He's the spirit of the show. That's who he is—and a blessing to work with."

Christmas continued when the party site shifted from the Hirschfeld to the Grand Hyatt Ballroom — without a discernible dip in holiday spirits. If anything, that picked up at the various bars punctuating the massive room. Champagne went under the handle of "Seven Levels of Candy Cane Forest," and eggnog was dispensed under Buddy's favorite self-deprecation, "Cotton-Headed Ninny-Muggins."

Pasta tables, meat racks and Chinese food maintained individual stations for first-nighters "hunting and gathering." Polar bears, snow men and nutcracker soldiers stood guard all over the place, making themselves decorative and properly seasonal.

Matt Walton of "One Life To Live," arriving with wife Alecia Hurst, was downright bullish on the movie: "I'm here for Elf tonight," he declared. "I watch it every year. I had no idea it was being turned into a show, so I had to see it."

Other television shows represented among the opening-night assemblage were "Gossip Girl" (Kelly Rutherford), "The Daily Show" (Samantha Bee and Jason Jones), "Blue Bloods" (Will Estes), "30 Rock" (Katrina Bowden) and "Top Chef Masters" (Kelly Choi).

Jason Sudeikis of "Saturday Night Live" had a special reason for attending: "My uncle George is playing Santa — and, yeah, he was always giving me gifts."

For Madeline Carroll, now before the cameras in New York playing Jim Carrey's daughter in "Mr. Popper's Penguins," it was her first Broadway opening, ever. "I'm excited," she confessed. "We definitely don't have this in L.A."

Cooper Beane at least had Julianne Moore's Freckleface Strawberry under his belt. "This is his second show this season," said his dad, Douglas Carter Beane. "We missed The Merchant of Venice so we thought we'd catch this instead." At intermission, the playwright was toting around his tearful young son, explaining the intricacies of intermission. (Act I ends on a bad father-son note.) "He thinks the play is over. He doesn't understand there's more."

Brian Stokes Mitchell, having already given at the office (at the matinee of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), showed up with his wife, actress Allyson Tucker, and their six-year-old son, Ellington, for what he called "a busman's holiday" and "a terrific holiday show for the family."

Judd Hirsch came with his son, London, as well. Also: Rozi Baker (Young Fiona of Shrek), and Jeff Blumenkrantz, who's writing music and lyrics for The Red Rose Girls, a show with playwright Laura Shamas.

The place was lousy with Drowsy associates (including the show's Tony-winning songwriters, Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, who are, yes, working on a new project). Other Main Stem marquee names included the 9 to 5 / Pirate Queen, Stephanie J. Block (Arcelus' gifted wife) and Kerry Butler, who starts rehearsals for Catch Me If You Can the end of January. "I don't come in until the second act so you have to wait around for me," said Butler. "But I love my song. It's the kind of belty showstopper I dreamt about since I was a little girl dreaming about being on Broadway. It's called 'Fly, Fly Away.'"

Jacob Clemente and Joseph Harrington, two-thirds of the current reigning Billy Elliots, popped up, as did Wednesday of The Addams Family, Krysta Rodriguez, in support of her "other half," Noah Weisberg, in the ensemble. Marvin Hamlisch was solo at the theatre, scene of his Sweet Smell of Success — "but I'm wishing them better luck than I had here."


The cast of <i>Elf – The Musical</i>
The cast of Elf – The Musical
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