Six months before the 92nd Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade launched November 22, 2018, from 77th Street in Manhattan, Wesley Whatley sent out notices of congratulations to the marching bands he selected…for the 93rd Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade that will air November 28, 2019. As the creative producer of Macy’s Branded Entertainment, Whatley operates on an 18-month production schedule for each annual Parade.
Over his 16-year tenure with Macy’s, Whatley and team (which at its smallest is two people and at its largest was four) are in charge of programming and casting every single performance in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. That includes everything from creating and storyboarding an opening number to songwriting (Whatley won the 2010 Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Original Song for his parade composition) to finding Santa and, of course, selecting the Broadway shows that will land a coveted spot on the broadcast. “Any creative element that’s a performance, it’s our job to deliver it,” says Whatley.
Marching bands, as mentioned, are the first selected so that they can plan their trip to New York and raise funds to get here with 18-months notice. At the 12-month mark, Whatley begins coordinating with production on designing balloons and building floats, which continues into the final weeks before the parade. Six months out, Whatley casts the rest of the performance groups: dance ensembles (like this year’s 610 Stompers and National Dance Institute), cheerleading squads (like Spirit of American Cheer), and choirs (like Young People’s Chorus of NYC). They also cast and coordinate the Clown Units, consisting of Macy’s employees and their families who graduate from Macy’s Clown U, as well as Stilt Walker Units.
For the 93rd Annual edition, Whatley is responsible for 11 marching bands of approximately 2,793 total members; 10 performances groups of 600 cheerleaders and 600 dancers; 100 choral singers; 1,000 clowns; 22 stilt walker units; plus the companies of four Broadway musicals and the Radio City Rockettes.
In the summer lead-up, the team focuses on celebrity booking and it isn’t until November 1 that the crew chooses the Broadway shows—considering the biggest shows, the most successful productions, and the most buzzed about titles.
For Whatley, nailing the Broadway section is more than his job; it’s his answer to the self-described “theatre kid” who grew up watching the parade. “I can remember being at my grandmother’s on Thanksgiving morning and waking up—the first one in my family to wake up to watch the first hour—because in south Georgia [where I’m from] and she was in south Alabama, there was really no Broadway access for me.”
“The Parade is about spectacle and large scale performances,” he continues, “so we do look for the best of Broadway that’s really going to be delivering a big performance in whatever way that could be defined.”
The individual theatre producers, NBC, and Whatley—on behalf of Macy’s—collaborate to set the number or medley for each musical’s performance. “When you talk to the composer, the choreographer, they all know those ‘Macy’s Parade’ moments in the show they could deliver,” he says. “They see the audience respond and sometimes they have a better idea than we do.”
But Whatley and NBC producers need to ensure the performance, on a bare 34th Street, will read for a live audience and viewers at home. “I’m a huge fan of Broadway and it’s special to see these stories told, of course, in their theatre, but it is always a really special challenge for the creative staff of these shows to figure out: How can I tell this story on the street and really honor the material without the set?” Whatley points out.
“The objective for all of us is: how do we show this show off? How do we tell that story succinctly and clearly and how can it be entertaining?” he continues. “We, basically, are willing to do whatever that takes.”
And over the past decade, Macy’s has played with that idea—always looking to innovate. The performances for the 2013 revival of On The Town, where three sailors begin backstage before officially starting the Parade walk uptown—instead of at Macy’s—and for On Your Feet! that began with a conga line leading the front of the Parade—also uptown—mark two distinct successes in using the Parade format in conjunction with the musical’s story.
In fact, storytelling is Whatley’s foremost priority. His goal is to capture a narrative from the Parade’s start, Thanksgiving, to its end, Christmas. “ ‘The holidays are here’ is a line that we’re embracing this holiday season from a creative perspective,” he says. “That phrase has been woven through the show,” from a literal banner to the singing Christmas Tree’s musical message.
Whatley also counts on celebrity performers to add to that story while appealing to the widest audience possible. “Variety and diversity. Those two values steer our decision-making,” he says. Which is why this year’s roster features stars like Billy Porter and Idina Menzel, as well as the long-running band Chicago, Latin pop star Ozuna, and 12-year-old rapper That Girl Lay Lay. Whatley prides himself on the principle that “everybody will have a moment in the Parade that’s theirs.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Macy’s Parade without Tom Turkey leading the way and Santa’s sleigh bringing up the rear. “How do we take innovation and tradition and deliver a show that not only meets expectations, but surpasses them each year?” asks Whatley. “My goal, personally, is to surprise our audience. It can be challenging after 93 years.” Fortunately, Whatley isn’t afraid of a challenge.
THE MORNING OF
Where you’ll find Whatley on Parade day:
Whatley goes into the production truck to produce and monitor the broadcast. “My job that day is to make sure the telecast goes off without a hitch,” he says.
Finish the cue-to-cue rehearsal, which began Wednesday afternoon.
Broadway show rehearsal. Each musical gets 15 minutes. “They rehearse Monday and Tuesday nights at 34th Street and we do a full staging rehearsal with Broadway and the performance groups,” says Whatley. “But on Parade morning, it’s their only time in costume and their last opportunity to prepare before we go on air.”
Santa’s Sleigh rolls through and another Parade is in the books.