PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: White Christmas — There's No Business Like Snow Business

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: White Christmas — There's No Business Like Snow Business
"If you remember the words, help me out, folks," Stephen Bogardus coyly implored the audience at the Marriott Marquis Nov. 23 as White Christmas broke into a closing chorus of its title tune — only the best-selling record of all time! — and, as if by magic, the dream came true: a dissolving foam form of snow fell on cast and audience alike.
Jeffry Denman, Meredith Patterson, Stephen Bogardus, Kerry O'Malley, Melody Hollis, Susan Mansur, Katherine Tokarz and Anne Horak, Paul Blake and David Ives, Randy Skinner and Walter Bobbie
Jeffry Denman, Meredith Patterson, Stephen Bogardus, Kerry O'Malley, Melody Hollis, Susan Mansur, Katherine Tokarz and Anne Horak, Paul Blake and David Ives, Randy Skinner and Walter Bobbie Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Going against the buoyant sentiments of the season, Irving Berlin fastened some heart-aching lyrics to a melancholy melody, and it quickly become The Ultimate Christmas Song, striking a particular chord with World War II servicemen spending the holidays overseas far away from their loved ones. Such a separation inspired the song in the first place: Berlin, stuck in snowless, insistently sunny Hollywood of 1941 writing "Holiday Inn," wrote it while pining for his wife and three daughters in snow-covered New England. Subliminally, an extra measure of melancholy came from the fact that three-week-old Irving Berlin Jr. died on Christmas Eve of 1928.

The following spring, when "White Christmas" easily copped the Oscar for Best Song of 1942, Berlin found himself in the awkward position of having to announce himself the winner. He peeked inside the Price-Waterhouse envelope, grinned broadly and assured the crowd, "This goes to a nice guy. I've known him all my life."

So potent is the song that Paramount and Berlin recycled it as a movie title in 1954 and it instantly became a vastly successful VistaVision blockbuster. Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen played rough approximations of what Crosby, Fred Astaire, Marjorie Reynolds and Virginia Dale had done before, and their assorted little romantic mix-ups again whirled around a New England inn open for the holidays, run in the remake by the guys' old World War II Army general, who has faded away into a martinet innkeeper longing for the battlefront.

It's the remake that has been translated into a stage musical that has been playing a handful of cities at Christmastime for several years — and has now made it to Broadway, toplining Bogardus, Kerry O'Malley, Jeffry Denman and Meredith Patterson.

"I thought it was merry and bright," trilled Bert Fink cheerily at the after-party, which was held — whatta commute! — six floors above the theatre in the Marriott's spacious and elegant Broadway Lounge. Full disclosure: Fink was speaking as a company man, he being a spokesperson for the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization which administers the Berlin estate. Said he: "Paramount Pictures and Paul Blake came to us in the late '90s about doing a stage version of the remake, with other Berlin songs. Paul nurtured this and got it onto the stage in its first incarnation — at the St. Louis MUNY in the year 2000. Then, Kevin McCollum, who used to work for Paul, produced it in San Francisco with Walter Bobbie directing, Randy Skinner choreographing and David Ives co-adapting the book, and that's the blueprint that has now become the perennial."

Skinner, who has conjured some of the most dazzlingly energetic Broadway dancing since — well, since his last go-around with 42nd Street, was the secret star of the evening, and, like the True Star, he remained aloof and elusive all evening. Before the curtain went up, he was spotted alone in the lobby, doing his Julian Marsh, brooding by himself, watching the crowds file in to see his spectacular handiwork.

"I'm not much for the fol-de-rol," he admitted, Marsh-like. "I'm here 'cause my mom's here. I'll sneak in and watch it from the back, but I always leave." This was not a case of nerves but possibly too much holiday cheer. In addition to the Broadway version, he simultaneously staged editions for Detroit and St. Paul — all in one building (890 Broadway). "Three were going at the same time, all overlapping, but I had that great team behind me—my ladies: Kelli [Barclay] and Sara [Brians] and Mary [Giattino]. It's so great to be employing so many people, especially with what's going on. There are 20 dancers in each company — 16 dancers and four swings. Sixty kids have jobs right now, and that's fantastic."

Bobbie was pleased with what he and Skinner hath wrought: "I think of this fifth year as my fifth preview because we usually never get to work on it once we put it up. It's become leaner and the storytelling swifter, but, in principle, it is very much what it was the first year except that it has refined itself over time. If we hadn't got enough of it right the first year, its history would not have occurred this well.

"It was very satisfying to present the show in front of not only a New York audience but an audience so full of my friends and colleagues who've only heard about it. And it was great to see a show that has not a shred of cynicism or irony in front of a bunch of sophisticated New York handicappers. It was kind of a charming evening for me."

Adapter Ives admitted he went about his job gingerly. "Every year we've changed a little bit and tweaked it here and there, and we had a year to think about what worked and what didn't so we added little things and transitions," he said.

"We had to rethink the movie in certain ways because the movie is star-driven. When you read the script of the movie, you realize that there's very little there and that Bing and Danny and Rosemary — if I may use their first names — made something out of what wasn't much of a script. You have to figure out how to write it so that anybody can play it who's not a star in close-up, which is how the movie is shot. Taking what tension there is in the plot and making it a little bit more was crucial.

"A lot of the work was actually storyboarding the music. Walter and I sat down and we talked about what songs worked in the movie and what didn't and what songs would help us out to tell the story. We really just spent a lot of time literally blocking out the musical story that goes on, and we would figure out how the narrative works along side that. So, actually writing the script was very easy because we knew exactly what was happening and what songs we were leading to, which is always the important thing."

Quite a few Berlin evergreens are served up in the show — "Blue Skies," "I Love a Piano," "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep," "Happy Holiday," "Let Yourself Go," "Sisters," "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy," "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm," "How Deep Is the Ocean?" — but there are a few sleeper numbers, and Ives has his favorite: "This was not my idea. We knew we needed a song for the two love interests — for Bob and Betty — and Walter and I could not figure out what song we should put in that spot. And he sat up one night and read 'The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin' and found 'Love and the Weather,' which is about love and it's about weather, and we're doing a show called White Christmas. Bingo! Nobody ever heard of that song. Even the R&H people were not very familiar with it, and they deal with all his songs."

Charles Strouse, Sandy Duncan, Melissa Dye and Vanessa Williams, Joan Rivers, Christine Ebersole, Brian d'Arcy James and Danny Burstein, Sutton Foster, Sebastian Arcelus and Stephanie J. Block, Ana Gasteyer, Bob Martin, Beth Leavel and Shonn Wiley
photos by Aubrey Reuben

Stars in shows soon to set down on Broadway were conspicuous. The Shrek contingent included Brian d'Arcy James, Sutton Foster, secret choreographer Rob Ashford, book writer David Lindsay-Abaire. No, James' lips didn't move during the show. He had played the Crosby part for three of the four years, but, coming down to the finish line, had to give it a pass in order to do the title role in Shrek, which bows on Broadway Dec. 14. "It's a great problem to have," he sighed. "I'm proud to have been in White Christmas — I did in it 'Frisco, Boston and L.A. — and it's a beautiful show." The [title of show] cast — Hunter Bell, Jeff Bowen, Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff — had 100 percent attendance, plus their director, actor Michael Berresse, just back from wrapping his Russell Crowe-Helen Mirren movie, "State of Play," and looking surprisingly good for someone who had been shot 88 times. "Spoiler Alert," he flagged. "I get shot 11 times at the end of the film, but we had to shoot it eight times, so I was bloodied and constantly changing my clothes. I kill plenty of other people before I get my own." Like Roxie Hart once said of him: "He had it comin'."

The Monday morning of responsibility was at hand for the Minsky's company — 10 AM, to be exact — but that did not stop the personnel from partying to all hours. Namely, book writer Bob Martin and Beth Leavel. "Can't wait," said their fearless leader, director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw, about the start of rehearsal.

"I play Maisie, old broad, heart of gold — what a stretch, huh?" cracked Tony-winning Leavel, The Drowsy Chaperone herself, "except for the old broad part, yeah, yeah. She's fantastic. I can't wait to get to know her, and I get to sing some of the most beautiful songs, written by Charles Strouse and Susan Birkenhead. Great cast, too — Christopher Fitzgerald, Gerry Vichi, George Wendt." The company leaves Jan. 5 for Los Angeles and will world-premiere the musical at the Ahmanson Feb. 6.

Adding to the Drowsy trio of Nicholaw, Martin and Leavel were Troy Britton Johnson, the aforementioned Sutton Foster and, kicking the South Pacific sand out of his shoes, Danny Burstein. Next on Johnson's docket is Bound for Broadway, a program on upcoming Broadway songs that Liz Callaway will host Dec. 8 at Merkin Hall. "Cady Huffman and I are doing songs from the new Blake Edwards show, Big Rosemary. It's been kicking around for years, but Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison from Drowsy are in on the music now, and Blake is writing the book. The idea is that this big mob boss dies and leaves his business to a showgirl, and she runs the mob."

In the Heights Tony-winning choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and Stephanie J. Block have already had their Ahmanson experience via 9 to 5 and were checking out the Marriott Marquis, where their show will land April 30. "It's going great," Blankenbuehler said. "We're taking a little break, a little breather, to get away from it for a little bit. Dolly [Parton, of course] has written some new songs for the show." Also in attendance: Joan Rivers, Billy Elliot's Kiril Kulish, Jersey Boys' Sebastian Arcelus, "One Life To Live" star David Fumero, Raphael Ferrer, Melissa Dye, "Ugly Betty" star Vanessa Williams, Amanda Green, producers John Gore, Dan Markley, Marcy MacDonald and Sonny Everett (the latter with Blythe Danner), Clarke Thorell (who just returned to the role he originated in Hairspray, Corny Collins), lawyer Mark Sendroff, Seth Rudetsky, Paige Price ("We're finishing up Romantic Poetry at Manhattan Theatre Club, and I'm on all week for Patina Miller"), Avenue Q's Robert Lopez, Fran and Barry Weissler, Sandy Duncan (working "on a new Broadway show, basically it's a two-character musical with my friend, Ruthie Henshall") and Little Me hubby Don Correia, Christine Ebersole (taking her fashion tip from the title and looking like The Snow Queen), couturier Randi Rahm (who did the stars' party gowns) and designer Carrie Robbins (who did the show's costumes), James L. Nederlander (venturing an opinion: "Y'know, it's like riding in a convertible with the top down"), George Street Playhouse's David Saint (currently associate director of the Palace-bound West Side Story), director Guy Stroman (who is working on a new piece about Peggy Lee, made up of all Leiber and Stoller songs and starring Beehive's Laura Theodore) and Ana Gasteyer (who's also writing her own ticket, "a show about a fictitious Broadway dame").

Last but not least was "the first Phil," Lee Roy Reams, who originated the Danny Kaye role when the show first hit the stage in St. Louis. He was in high-camp mode.

"I'm leaving Brigadoon," he boomed, angling for the exit, "the miracle is over!"

The cast of <i>White Christmas</i> at curtain call.
The cast of White Christmas at curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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