Making Merry: White Christmas Plays Broadway

For choreographer Randy Skinner, the best things happen while you're dancing.

Randy Skinner
Randy Skinner (Photo by Aubrey Reuben)

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Global warming and general fiddling-with-the-ozone play havoc with our recurring dreams of a white Christmas — but not this year: A stage version of Irving Berlin's cinematic songfest, White Christmas, has arrived at the Marquis Theatre (through Jan. 4, 2009) for you poor, snow-impaired people.

Fifty-four years ago, in 1954, Berlin and his favorite boy-singers — Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire — decided to renovate, if not precisely remake, their 12-year-old film "Holiday Inn." This time out, they called it by its proper, megahit name: "White Christmas" (and when I say "megahit," I'm saying the Oscar-winning, best-selling single in history).

Astaire dropped out of the picture because of illness — as did his replacement, Donald O'Connor — so it fell to Danny Kaye to serve as Crosby's song-and-dance sidekick. Their romantic interest was supplied by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, and the action of both films centered around a New England inn.

Basically, the stage musical has been previewing four years out of town, launching its new book by David ( Is He Dead?) Ives and Paul Blake in San Francisco in 2004. The Broadway cast stars Stephen Bogardus as Bob and Jeffry Denman as his pal Phil. Dispatching the distaff side are Kerry O'Malley and Meredith Patterson as Betty and Judy Haynes. To keep the couples in a constant state of perpetual motion, the director — Chicago's Tony-winning Walter Bobbie — tapped Randy ( 42nd Street) Skinner to choreograph. They've collaborated on a couple of Encores! shows ( Face the Music and No, No, Nanette), and, says Bobbie, "I knew Randy would do the period accurately without camping it. He has great respect for period shows. He doesn't have to spoof them. I knew he'd understand how to deal with the dancing and how to help Bruce Pomahac develop dance arrangements from the Berlin songs that felt period without, in any way, satirizing them. He knows what he's doing. He's a master of the form — yet it's fresh."

To dance on Broadway was why Skinner left Ohio in 1976. Choreography was just an accident sprung on him by two great dancing stars who inspired and mentored him: In February of 1980, Gower Champion asked him and Karin Baker to be his dance assistants on 42nd Street. Five years later, Ginger Rogers double-cast him as choreographer and leading boy (opposite Karen Ziemba) in a Babes in Arms she directed upstate and in Connecticut. "I still have things in my script she told me. She had so many words of wisdom and so much knowledge about performing."

He got to his professional fork in the road via The Road Not Taken: After he'd signed for Larry Kert's Broadway-bound Jolson, Ann Miller invited him to tour with her as one of her boys. He chose Jolson, which never survived its Long Island tryout, but her Sugar Babies ran 1,208 performances on Broadway. However, the dance arranger of Jolson became dance arranger of 42nd Street, and when Champion needed an assistant, Don Johnston knew just the guy. Champion soon knew Skinner more than filled that bill.

"I'll never forget. He took me out to lunch one day and basically said, 'You should be choreographing. Start now.' I said, 'Gower, I'm in my twenties. I want to dance.' He said, 'No. Start right now. Do it.' Then, of course, when he died on opening night and 42nd Street became such a hit we knew there'd be companies all over the world, it was a natural transition for me to step in and do those companies." He also did the 2001–2005 revival, which had 75 percent all-new choreography, but, since the assumption was he was reprising Champion's original dances, he was denied a deserved Tony.

Skinner's Broadway specialty is the musical with a film history. White Christmas, like Rodgers and Hammerstein's State Fair and the two 42nd Streets, allows him lots of evergreens to dance around. Plus, Berlin's screen score (the title tune, "Sisters," the Oscar-nominated "Count Your Blessings") was sweetened via a Whitman's Sampler of other Berlin hits ("Happy Holiday," "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy," "How Deep Is the Ocean?").

"I've always found Berlin to be a 'dancer composer,'" says Skinner. "He wrote three films for Fred and Ginger. He just knew how to write songs that were danceable. After you pick his songs, all you do is decide what genre you want to dance in — tap? jazz? ballroom?

"Of course, audiences flip out over the tap numbers — 'Let Yourself Go,' which opens the show, 'I Love a Piano' and, at the end, 'I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,' which I'm proud of. Carrie Robbins gave me gorgeous, wintry costumes, and Anna Louizos made a lovely snowy set, so I did a tap number that looks like ice-skating."

Skinner's personal favorite is "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing," a simple, surging, man–woman thing. "Jeffry and Meredith have danced together now in three of my shows and are so in sync with each other. It's not unlike any great dance teamand Gower, Fred and Ginger, Fred and anybody. They know each other's body languages. They adore dancing with each other. They're like one person in space. There's a lot of hard technique there, but a layman can't see it."

The Act I curtain falls on "Blue Skies" — "a real '50s jazz number," he says. "That's where our chorus kids all get to come out and do little features. Walter loved that idea of giving each kid a moment to shine. That's why dancers like doing the show. People keep coming back because it's great fun to do a show that is dance-driven, where the chorus kids feel they're an integral part of the show. It makes a family."

Meredith Patterson and Jeffry Denman (center) with the cast
Meredith Patterson and Jeffry Denman (center) with the cast