Haul out the holly! It's holiday time on Broadway once again.
There are some traditions that many shows share, like performing in "Gypsy of the Year," recording songs for the "Carols for a Cure" CD collections, collecting Toys for Tots and playing holiday matinees and other extra performances.
But, what members of the public don't get to see is the way the casts and crews of the various shows mark the holidays backstage. Some shows, especially those that have been running for years, develop elaborate holiday traditions and rituals. We went backstage on several of the shows to take a look.
"We take competition seriously at The Lion King," said stage manager Arabella Powell. She said the company celebrates holidays the year round with decorating and costume contests, and the end-of-year holidays are no exception. At Christmas, the competition consists of dressing up dressing-room doors, judged by production hair supervisor John Jordan with cash prizes for the winners. Strong contenders in past years include a door wrapped like a huge present, a door hung with an iPad playing videos of cast members singing carols, a full stuffed Zazu (the secretary bird) and one ambitious door that included one of the kids in the cast suspended from a door, dressed as an angel.
The cast and crew also organize a building-wide Secret Santa game, in which everyone draws a name from a hat and then buys or makes a present for that person. To maintain anonymity, the presents are delivered on Christmas Eve by kids in the cast dressed as Santa's elves, complete with fake pointy ears sticking out of their hats. The cast also competes to bake the best holiday cookies, Powell said, with "truckloads of homemade cookies" being used to fuel the cast through the busy holiday roster of extra shows.
As a special holiday gift this year, The Lion King is getting a new Young Simba, Jahi Winston, 10, of Texas, who joined the cast (and made his Broadway debut) Dec. 22.
That might make a good Christmas TV special someday, but Powell said that for drama you can't beat The Lion King's fecund 2012, a year that no fewer than 15 babies were born to various members of the company, including number 15, who was born the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve.
"The Lion King is a very special show," she said.
Over the 25-plus years of its unprecedented run, The Phantom of the Opera has developed a number of holiday rituals, notably the annual "chalking" of the backs of the sets. Each year, images of both Christmas and Chanukah are sketched in colored chalk on the upstage side of the stage right flats — remaining unseen by theatregoers in the house but raising the spirits of the cast members who can see them, both from backstage and from onstage during the show.
Cast member Carly Blake Sebouhian said, "I've done a few of the Chanukah drawings now. There are so many of them from years past that it's fun to be creative and try to come up with something different — so they don't all look like replicas of each other. I try to come up with a fun theme for mine. One year there was a dreidl theme and one year rabbis." This year's is a menorah. On each night someone draws a new candle in and recites the Chanukah prayers before the show.
Sebouhian said, "It's definitely something special that happens on Broadway. It's not something I've encountered anywhere else. I think it's particularly special at a show like Phantom, and I find it much more fun that putting up ordinary decorations every year. Since the show has been running for so many years, the wings backstage are covered with drawings. It's amazing to look back at some of them and realize how much history there is in the building and with this wonderful show."
The cast and crew also host an annual Christmas party onstage, to which everyone's children are invited. This year's party will be held between shows Dec. 20 and will be attended by a spirit—not the Opera Ghost, but the spirit of the season, Santa Claus.
This musical opened on Broadway in 2009 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre and moved to the Helen Hayes Theatre in March 2011. According to production stage manager Justin Scribner, every year since the move to the Hayes, original Broadway cast member Andre Ward regales the cast with his special karaoke interpretation of Linda Bennett's 1975 holiday tune, "An Old-Fashioned Christmas (Daddy's Home)," which Scribner described as "the worst Christmas song in history." He said, "Every year, Andre's performance (as the mother, of course) gets a little more involved: wigs, costumes, other actors…. They're looking for ways to make this year's even bigger and better." Click here to check out the 2013 performance on YouTube.
Also, every year the stage managers put together a Nativity scene in their office using peg dolls of each of the characters in the show. These were fashioned by dresser Stacey Haynes several years ago "with painstaking detail" including scraps of their actual costumes, Scribner said. The ROA characters of Drew and Sherrie are Joseph and Mary; Justice and the Strippers are the Angels; Stacee Jaxx, Joey Primo, and the Mayor are the Three Wise Men; Dennis and Lonny are the Innkeeper and the Innkeeper's Wife; Regina and Hertz are a Shepherdess and Shepherd; and Franz is the Little Drummer Boy. Scribner commented, "We've gone a little crazy."
Stage manager Jason Trubitt said the Aladdin company has decorated the backstage of the New Amsterdam Theatre from top to bottom, including Christmas lights around mirrors, ornaments hanging from the ceiling and every dressing room door dressed up for the season.
"I have a huge collection of string lights that I brought with me from all my previous shows including Wicked, Never Gonna Dance and Mary Poppins, and I started by dressing up the callboard at the New Am. We celebrate Kwanzaa, Chanukah, 'seasons greetings' — we try to be as all-inclusive as we can. The Hair Room and the Wardrobe folks decorated a lot, and the head carpenter Drew Siccardi (who looks a little bit like Santa) has hung a Christmas tree made entirely of lights backstage right."
Trubitt, who worked on Mary Poppins at the same theatre, said the Wardrobe Union is continuing its tradition of hosting a toy drive for disadvantaged children. Instead of a Secret Santa gift exchange, the company is planning a similar "Aladdin-specific" game called Secret Scimitars for the cast and crew. He said Poppins "had six kids in the cast and company members in their 60s, which gave it a real family feeling. We don't have that on Aladdin, but everyone is still feeling the holiday spirit."
Apart from its own Secret Santa event, Beautiful: The Carol King Musical is hosting its second annual cookie exchange Dec. 20, in which everyone at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre is invited to bake batches of cookies which are then mixed and matched so everyone goes home with a selection of chocolate chips, sugar cookies, gingerbread men and whatever else creative minds have come up with.
Harking back to happy grade school memories, the show also hosts a "hand turkey" contest, with prizes awarded to the best in several categories. Submissions are displayed in star Jessie Mueller's dressing room.
Another company with a legendary history of dressing-room door decorating is Mamma Mia!, which has drawn Broadway celebrity judges from other shows, including Harvey Fierstein, Kathie Lee Gifford and Huey Lewis.
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Things can get stressful during multiple extra performance holiday weeks. Tony-nominated star Jefferson Mays climbed into the holiday toy donation box last year after 12 straight performances in which which he performed eight roles per show. That was 96 characters in a little over a week. Things are a little easier this year; Gentleman's Guide gives only nine performances in six days Dec. 26-31.
Cabaret is hosting a holiday contest with daily giveaways. Fans who repost photos of the prizes on their Instagram or Twitter accounts are entered to win. Prizes include everything from a pair of tickets to the show and a backstage tour, to a single fresh pineapple (like the one mentioned in the show). Here is the breakdown of the rules. The hashtag to search photos already posted is CabaretGiveaway.