The 12 Shows of Christmas: How Broadway Performers Handle Holiday Schedules
By Robert Simonson
For the majority of workers in most fields of endeavor, the holiday season means a few days off to relax and enjoy the familiar comforts of hearth and home. For Broadway performers, however, it means exactly the opposite: Additional work and almost no time to spend with friends and family.
Producers have long recognized that the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's periods bring with them some of the most brisk business of the season, with many theatregoers choosing to take in a show as part of their holiday festivities. Accordingly, schedules shift. During Thanksgiving, the Thursday-night performances are cancelled, as few ticket-buyers are tempted to abandon the groaning dinner table to attend a play, but the lucrative weekend is frequently end-loaded with five successive shows, including two matinees.
During the Christmas week, many productions this year are tacking additional matinees onto Dec. 26, which is a Thursday this year, as well as adding second Sunday performances. Because New Year's Eve falls on a Tuesday this year, some productions — including popular musicals like Matilda the Musical, Motown, Pippin, Wicked and Cinderella — are offering the unusual attraction of a two-show Monday, which is usually a dark day for most plays.
Actors who work on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day, whose contractual salary is less than $5,000 per week are entitled, under their Actors' Equity contract, to extra holiday pay. This may explain why so few producers schedule performances of their shows on those days.
These alternate schedules may spell increased traffic and dollars for their production's box offices, but for actors they mean the already arduous eight-show-week — strenuous enough when spread out over six days — can be crammed into just five days.
"It is hard," admitted Bongi Duma, who has been in the ensemble of The Lion King since 2004. "Somehow the body gets accustomed to getting a day off. If it's many days in a row, and you don't get that usual day off, you start feeling it."
"It's like running a marathon," said Faith Prince, who is currently starring as Miss Hannigan in Annie. From Dec. 26- 29, she will perform seven shows in four days, including three two-show days. "You work up to it and pace yourself very carefully."
Duma shares the stage at The Lion King with his wife, Lindiwe Dlamini, which ensures that they spend a good amount of time together over the holidays — even if that time is largely onstage and backstage. However, it makes caring for their five-year-old a bit tricky. To answer that problem, they do what many performers do: Call on relatives.
"We have a little extra help," said Duma, explaining that an aunt pitches in to watch their child.
Married actors Danny Burstein and Rebecca Luker aren't lucky enough this year to be in the same show throughout the holidays — Burstein is in The Snow Geese, which closes Dec. 15, and then begins rehearsal for Die Fledermaus at the Metropolitan Opera, and Luker is in Cinderella — so, as Burstein put it, "It may be a little difficult to see each other around the holidays."
Because both are veteran actors, Luker and Burstein are used to such holiday shuffles and take them in stride. "You just take lots of naps," said Luker, who, from Dec. 26-29, will perform in Cinderella a total of seven times. "Maybe rest a little more. If you normally would meet a friend after a show, you wouldn't do something like that."
As for the usual activities that preoccupy most citizens during November and December — shopping, decorating, cooking, planning, etc. — they try to keep things simple and ask for help wherever they can get it. Their Manhattan apartment will be adorned with just a "Charlie Brown Christmas tree," as Burstein put it, and his mother will prepare Thanksgiving dinner for the couple.
"I've learned over the years to do less, to make it simple," said Prince. "The things I used to do — like cooking Thanksgiving for 12 people while doing 12 shows — I don't do that!" For Christmas — Prince will get Dec. 24-25 off — Prince will visit her sister-in-law in the Berkshires and let her relatives shoulder the yuletide burden. "I'm a guest," she laughed. "I'll do things for other people on another time."
Burstein and Luker's two children are grown, so child care is not an issue, but that wasn't always the case. "It was difficult" in the past, Burstein said. "But were very lucky. We negotiated hard and made sure they had a place to stay in our dressing room. That wasn't an easy thing to do back then. Broadway is more kid friendly now than it was back then."
As Cinderella is one of the few shows that is offering a Christmas Day performance, Luker will not get to spend the yuletide evening at home. Neither actor works on New Year's Eve this year, but they have in the past, and both remembered it as an experience not worth repeating.
"I remember doing Company at the Criterion Center for the Roundabout," Burstein said. "We had a performance on New Year Eve's — in Times Square! We had to exit through the back entrance. Just getting to work was impossible."
The New Year's throngs almost swept Luker away one night as she was trying to get to the Neil Simon Theatre, where she was performing in The Music Man. "I got caught in a crowd of people on Broadway," she recalled. "It was one of those moments where you get panicky. Finally somebody removed the barricades and we got out of there."
Prince is philosophical about the extra toil that comes with the holidays. "We're stage actors. There's a little chip missing in us that we all do eight shows a week, and then do 12 shows between Christmas and New Year's. But it's what we do."
One perk about being in a Broadway show during the holidays is that, occasionally, the producers don their Fezziwig hat and host a feast.
"They do something very nice," said Duma. "We will have a Christmas dinner. It is usually a week before Christmas."
As for giving one show Dec. 24 and two Dec. 26, it doesn't bother Duma and his wife much. "We are both from South Africa," he explained. That country does not indulge in the long celebratory roll-up to Dec. 25 that the U.S. does. "There, you celebrate Christmas on Christmas Day."
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