Before I begin this blog I must thank the talented and generous John Bruning for taking beautiful pictures I could steal and use in the post. Where would I be without you? I would have a few blurry pictures that would not do this beautiful show justice. That is where I would be!
I must admit, I have been resisting the suggestion of my dear friend, Jeff Witt, to do Irving Berlin’s White Christmas for years. I have never really been a fan of the show. (My favorite Christmas movies includeIt’s a Wonderful Life and Christmas with the Kranks). Besides, retrofitted old movies rarely make great musicals for the stage. The piece just is not especially witty material in my mind. The musical may be strong with musical classics but the story is weak.
If you detect a certain weariness of tone, it’s because I think White Christmas is not a structurally distinguished piece of live musical entertainment. The story begins in World War 2, with Captain Bob and Private Phil putting on a show to entertain the troops at Christmas in 1944; ten years later it cuts to Bob and Phil as song-and-dance men on the Ed Sullivan Show. They “audition” a pair of girls for a spot in their show (cue song – “Sister!”). Soon the quartet find themselves in Vermont for a snow concert where they find that there is no snow and the men’s old General is running a near-bankrupt inn. So yup, they put on a show in the barn and save the day. Add a stage-struck tot, a busy body housekeeper, a hysterical stage manager, and a sloth of a farmhand/stage hand and you have a near-plotless, no-biz-like showbiz heartwarming crowd pleaser… or so we hoped.
In addition to my lack of attachment to the story, I was concerned with creating the multiple settings, costumes and snow to do justice to the show. I am a perfectionist… at least I strive to be. It would take a miracle to get a cast and artistic team make something incredibly difficult look incredibly easy… my goal in such projects. But that is what makes it all so fun, right?
This year… I caved. 38 cast members, 22 crew members, 17 scene changes, 18 body mics, 150 light cues, 4 follow spots, 1 snow machine and 3 weary directors later, we had a hit. Each of the 8 performances had more than 220 people in attendance and half of those performances had nearly 450 people. We set new records in ticket sales and could not only pay for the show expenses, but could save a little for a future show. Not bad for a show I resisted.
The selling point for me had to be the music (since the plot is not what grabs my attention). The score for the musical is stronger than the film. The stage musical does not include several of the songs from the film (including, thankfully, “Choreography”). The musical replaces song that were omitted with standards like “Blue Skies” and “I Love a Piano”. The vocal arrangement of “Snow” is particularly fine – a quartet is the original film, is now expanded into a choral gem. My favorite composition must be “Falling Out of Love.” (Abby Miller, Mo Eschette and Liz Santillan knocked this one out of the park!) The harmonies in this piece are so reminiscent of the Andrews Sisters and the many other singing trios of the era. The slow, wistful and nearly melancholy tune of “White Christmas” stands in stark contrast to the unabashedly happy songs of the season. However, Jeff is fond of pointing out that reminiscing may be one reason why this show is a crowd favorite… because our feelings over the holidays are ambivalent – a mixture of joy and sadness.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the film “White Christmas,” starring Bing Crosby (crooning royalty), Danny Kaye (a master of comedy) and Rosemary Clooney (a voice like silk). So, why not? Why not attempt the impossible and create a little Christmas magic… snow and all.
I didn’t have time to make a model for this show. I only had a ground plan and scene renderings complete with little stick figure actors (something that amused me greatly). That did not stop me from building. This show was a bit trick because I needed the sound shell on stage until one week before tech. I tried my best to get my flying walls in the air before the shell went out. I only got one installed. That made that week of build (all done on the Saturday and evenings after rehearsal) a bit more chaotic that I would have wanted. I engineered a flying wall with a functioning barn door, a flying wall for the Inn, a Piano drop, an extra drop to be in the way, curtains to dress the space up for the Regency Room scenes, and a drop for Christmas (Jeff’s favorite cue was “Go Christmas.” I even let him say it the last night on headset.).
While the sound shell occupied the stage I build train cars, rolling doors, piano ramps, and legged platforms for the day it could all move on stage.
The last part of creating “the look” of the show was painting the stage. My family is awesome and came to help me paint and sponge the stage. It was “effective”. This word makes me laugh because an audience member came up to Jeff and ask what was on the floor. He answered “paint” to which the man said, “wow! It’s very effective.” LOL. Jeff was a bit skeptical when I started with a cream floor and sponge rolled a brown, pine green and vanilla colored paint over the top. But see? It’s effective!
I love to paint with light. I added additional side lights to this show. I wanted to highlight and sculpt the dancing. I used our SeaChangers to change the look of each scene and to change the mood. I am sure glad the school invested in these versatile instruments! Nothing like setting the mood with blue SeaChangers and adding warm side lights.
Jeff worked on the costumes. Over 400 costume pieces later (6+ changes per actor), I could use my lighting to make those costumes pop! The result was one of the most stunning shows I have seen in a long time. It was a visual feast!
(show pictures are not in show order)
I believe the greatest crowd pleasing tech element of the show was snow! When those barn doors opened in the final moments of the show the audience cheered and clapped. This made me laugh ever night. The last show we produced that used snow we dropped potato flakes from the rafters. What a mess! This time, Jeff and I decided to invest in a “snow machine” – a machine that blows clusters of fine bubbles that float down like falling snow and even gathered on the fake trees we had sitting behind the “barn.” Very worth the money we spent!
I spent many afternoons at the school blocking and refining the scenes. I like blocking, Jeff doesn’t. He likes the nit-picky polishing, I am not attached. It’s a match made in heaven. Linda Kuntz came up with some dances that looked together with precision and again, we had a crowd-pleasing hit. Jeff handled the vocals. He is truly one of the best choral directors I have had the pleasure of observing and working with. We really do make a great team. (Funny fact. We are all married to a John).
Each performer in the production contributed to this show worming a place in my heart. I loved Connor Layton’s voice singing “Count Your Blessings” and Blue Skies” each night. Abby Miller equally rocked the house with “Love You Didn’t Do Right By Me.” Joel Robison danced with grace and ease and smartly conveyed Phil’s mischievous and care-free character traits. Dylan Lewis found the depth of character that the script lacked in the General and made up for the plot points that were omitted. Mo Eschette added some comedy with her goofy faces as Martha. Eddie Bruning took all the right pieces of me and of Jeff and developed Mike, a comic genius. The chorus add variety and believable-ity to the scenes. And, of course, I was particularly pleased with Lillian Boyack as Susan. She handled herself professionally and could hold her own against the performance skills of the older kids around her.
I may not have started this adventure loving White Christmas, but I ended this experience with White Christmas and the people involved taking a special place in my heart. I learned many things while conceiving, creating and directing White Christmas.
At the beginning of each show my friend Jeff would give a few audience instructions. This included turning off phones. It is rare in this day and age to unplug and to be. Great magic happens when we cut the “cord” and “Let Yourself Go” in the moment. How healing it would be if we all let go for a 3-hour period and enjoyed pure joy.
Lesson one: Unplug. It won’t kill you to put the cell phone down.
The musical begins with soldiers goofing off and singing on Christmas Eve in 1944 during World War II. War themes that many struggle with in America today are woven into the musical. General Thomas Waverly, has a hard time transitioning back to normal life. The stiff former general in “White Christmas” craves the structure of the Army, and many pieces of Army culture filter into everyday life at the Vermont inn, even as the business struggles and the bills form an ever-growing pile.
But while Waverly considers going back into active-duty service to resolve his inner turmoil, his family, friends and even former battalion members show their love and support. Why do they do this? I think we miss out on the why. I like to think that this General laid down his life for the lives of his men. He not only served with them, but served them.
They loved him because he loved them first.
Lesson two: Support loved ones when times are hard.
Concern for Waverly is present throughout the entire musical, adding depth to the easygoing, carefree nature of the romances that develop and the show tunes performed. Even the general’s grandchild in the musical is worried about his happiness, as shown by her prayer for him toward the end of the first act. She even advises him with this simple message, “Count your blessing instead of sheep… and you’ll be happy…” She learned this message for herself as she fretted to be a part of the show and to contribute to the solution to save her Grandfather’s inn.
Lesson three: Let children affected by the grown-up world feel needed.
On its surface, the musical is a show about a show, derived from a film about a show. It provides a window into the magic of making a musical, even as the audience’s suspension of disbelief kicks in — kind of like a window into the magic of Christmas.
Lesson four: Americana-style Christmas is one part spectacle, one part meaningful interaction.
There’s the playful version of a Scrooge theme, where one man on the train to Vermont has been tricked into heading north for Christmas, instead of traveling to sunny Florida. The passengers around him sing about how excited they are to see snow while the man sits stubbornly in the center, not participating and looking decidedly grumpy that things did not go his way.
Of course, he is the same character who shows the most growth in the musical, falling in love and revealing his true, good-natured colors as he loses himself in the service of someone else.
Lesson five: Wonderful adventures can be had when people let loose and have fun.
The humor in the musical is cheeky, reminiscent at times of the comedic geniuses of old.
Lesson six: Love makes the world go round.
The musical shows people who value each other’s’ opinions. It presents sisters who love each other and are ready to give up their own dreams for each other. It presents a man who loved his fellow men and served his country, cares for other and is now losing everything to the vagaries of weather. These people are willing to sacrifice of themselves to help each other. They are human and admit to making mistakes… and then rectify them.
It is about love and caring and giving. It is the truest sort of Christmas story. It is the true meaning of Christmas. Unselfish LOVE. It is what makes the world go round.