’TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS
If you’re like me, a handful of familiar Broadway show songs routinely play in your head the full month of December. Atop my tune stack is always “We Need a Little Christmas,” Jerry Herman’s felicitous tune from Mame (though sung in the show at Thanksgiving). Visions of Rentand its infectious score dance in my head, what with its action beginning on Christmas Eve. And speaking of Christmas Eve, Ann Harada’s portrayal of that inimitable character in Avenue Q still makes me laugh whenever she pops up on the original cast recording, even if the show doesn’t take place in December. Full-on Christmas musicals include Meredith Willson’s Here’s Love, a sadly uninspiring redo of Miracle on 34th Street, as sublime a Christmas movie that’s ever been. Much better musicals were made from the films of A Christmas Story and Elf, both of which should be perennials, staged each and every season for Grade-A family entertainment.
As for additional Broadway Xmas songs the list is a long one beginning with “A” — “A New Deal for Christmas” (Annie) and onto “B — “Be a Santa” from Subways Are for Sleeping (1961). If you’ve never heard of that one it’s because it’s not exactly one of Jule Styne & Comden and Green’s finer efforts. In fact, that show is best remembered today for the deceitful manner in which its evil genius of a producer, David Merrick, advertised it. Merrick always had the idea in the back of his mind to one day countermand bad reviews from critics by finding ordinary citizens to quote from who had the same names as the journalists from New York’s seven daily newspapers. His plan was to wine and dine them, invite them to the show, then solicit their “unbiased” opinions, attributing their names to rave quotes (almost assuredly written by the puppet master himself). Knowing he’d be quickly caught didn’t bother Merrick, as it was a surefire ploy to turn Subways Are for Sleeping into a topic of discussion. As the saying goes, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
His plan was always contingent upon the retirement of the New York Times’s Brooks Atkinson, as that was a name that was going to be hard to duplicate. So, when his retirement came in 1960, it didn’t take all that long for Merrick to find another “Howard Taubman,” the name of Atkinson’s replacement. Here’s how the ad looked (only one paper — the Herald Tribune — ran it):
Also, note the audacity of offering “Mail Orders Filled Thru Jan. 1963” — a full year in advance (the show opened two days after Christmas in 1961).
Any excuse to show off the dancing talents of these three remarkable women (Donna McKechnie, Baayork Lee and Margo Sappington) is a call for celebration, and since this number is set during an office Christmas party, here goes. I was lucky enough to see the original cast of Promises, Promises! when I was twelve years old (it was in the summertime), my memory aided immeasurably by it being preserved for posterity on the 1969 Tony Awards. “Turkey Lurkey Time” is as nonsensical a show stopper as there’s ever been, but the genius of Michael Bennett (all of twenty-five when he staged this) is on full display. “We were having some problems at the end of the first act,” recalled Neil Simon, the show’s book writer. “The number [Bennett] came up with didn’t just solve the problem, it was a sensation.” When the entire ensemble kicks in for the big finish, its breathtaking joyousness is a sight to behold.
And talk about your Christmas miracles! Donna McKechnie ❤️
Still more Christmas -themed film musicals were turned into stage productions over the years. Meet Me in St. Louis arrived on Broadway in 1989, allowing for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to be added to this list. Composed by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine and first introduced by Judy Garland in the 1944 film directed by her then-husband Vincent Minnelli, its words and music provide a perfect combination of melancholy, hope and joy. And its introduction at the height of World War II must have brought an abundance of tears to audiences seventy-seven years ago.
White Christmas, based on the 1954 movie musical with an original score by Irving Berlin, was adapted for the stage in 2000, where it premiered regionally at the MUNY (St Louis Municipal Opera Theatre). It toured during the holiday seasons for years, eventually finding its way to a limited Broadway engagement during the Christmas season in 2008. And before anyone chimes in to correct me, I do realize that by stating the film had an original score by Berlin that “White Christmas” itself had been introduced (also by Bing Crosby) in the 1942 movie musical Holiday Inn. And, naturally, it too was turned into a stage musical, opening on Broadway in 2016 with the title Holiday Inn: the New Irving Berlin Musical.
There are more, but I only give myself around 1,200 words with these columns, so I’ll cut to the chase with my all-time favorite Christmas musical, 1963’s She Loves Me. Its Sheldon Harnick-Jerry Bock score has been rightly described as “perfect,” even though no production of it has ever earned a significant profit (sad face emoji). And that’s not due to a sub-standard book, which befalls most shows with great scores that don’t succeed. Joe Masteroff’s book is, well, masterful. No, the problem lies in it being almost too charming for its own good. It’s so sweet that after it opened on Broadway to uniformly good reviews, the best pull quote that is producer (and director) Harold Prince could use in its first print ad was “A bonbon of a musical.” It was overshadowed in its season by a musical called Hello, Dolly! which took the lion’s share of Tony Awards (ten) and the box office along with it.
Based on a Hungarian play Parfumerie, by Miklós László, it was turned into an exquisite film comedy by director Ernst Lubitsch in 1940’s The Shop Around the Corner, with a glorious screenplay by Samson Raphaelson (and an uncredited Ben Hecht). Starring Jimmy Stewart, Margaret Sullivan and a never-better Frank Morgan, it’s become a holiday standard that I usually wind up watching every year in spite of having seen it dozens of times. And credit where credit is due, as in many ways, Masteroff’s book is an improvement with regard to certain elements of the Raphaelson-Hecht screenplay. The songs also help deepen the characters’ feelings and motivations and it’s that rare musical where each of its leading seven characters get at least one solo with which to shine. In fact, in one of the only categories that Hello, Dolly!didn’t win, the vivacious Jack Cassidy took home the Best Featured Actor for playing a smooth-as-silk Lothario.
At the show’s conclusion, its leading man and woman are finally able to acknowledge their love for one another. As they step outside the parfumerie where they work, it begins to snow. Declaring their love as the underscore plays “Ice Cream,” sung as outrageous comedy only ten or fifteen minutes prior to the finale, Don Walker’s gorgeous orchestration uplifts the beauty in its music which always brings tears to my eyes. When Georg and Amalia embrace and kiss and the curtain slowly descends, I enter musical comedy heaven and, at least for a moment, all is right with the world.
And what’s a better Christmas present than that?
So, to those who celebrate, in the words of Hal David’s immortal “Turkey Lurkey” lyrics, may you each have “a snowy, blowy, mistletoey Christmas.”
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, follow me here on Medium and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.