Putting a 'White Christmas' On Stage Every November and December, arts organizations around the country compete for the lucrative "family holiday entertainment" dollar. A production based on Irving Berlin's tunes is aiming to be musical theater's newest seasonal tradition.
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Putting a 'White Christmas' On Stage

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Putting a 'White Christmas' On Stage

Putting a 'White Christmas' On Stage

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Every November and December, arts organizations around the country compete for lucrative family holiday entertainment dollars. This year there's another competitor. In three major American cities--Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston--some enterprising producers are trying to create a new holiday tradition. Jeff Lunden has the story.

(Soundbite of "White Christmas")

Mr. BING CROSBY and Ms. ROSEMARY CLOONEY: (Singing) I'm dreaming of a white Christmas...

JEFF LUNDEN reporting:

Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" is a perennial. The song, written in 1942, is literally the most popular popular song of all time. Introduced by Bing Crosby in the film "Holiday Inn," it became the title song for the much-loved 1954 feature, which starred Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney. The movie "White Christmas" is a constant presence on television screens during the holiday season, and if Broadway producer Kevin McCollum has his way, a live version may be coming to a theater near you.

Mr. KEVIN McCOLLUM (Broadway Producer): You know, we had "Christmas Carol," we had "The Nutcracker," but music theater didn't have its own musical form. And that's the time of year when people come as families, and I'm very big on trying to get all generations to come to the theater. It's one of my goals as a theatrical producer.

LUNDEN: So when McCollum was approached about producing a stage adaptation of "White Christmas," he and his partners pounced. Last year they put together a production team of Broadway veterans, which included director Walter Bobbie, to try the show out in San Francisco. Bobbie says the only Irving Berlin stage musical that constantly gets revived is "Annie Get Your Gun." So adapting the film of "White Christmas" was like staging a new Irving Berlin show.

Mr. WALTER BOBBIE (Director): The opportunity to create, arguably, a new theater piece with Irving Berlin music was something I just couldn't pass up when it came to me. It's a wonderful opportunity to pass on to another generation a major American composer in the context of the theater.

(Soundbite of music, tap dancing)

LUNDEN: Bobbie and his collaborators kept most of the songs from the film and added some other numbers from the Irving Berlin catalogue, like "I Love a Piano." Choreographer Randy Skinner says Irving Berlin's music is made for dance.

Mr. RANDY SKINNER (Choreographer): He understood what it was like to write a real melody and he understood rhythm, and he had so much syncopation in a lot of his songs. So that makes your job easy if you just sit and absorb the music.

(Soundbite of choral number)

Chorus: (Singing) Bluebirds singing a song, singing a song, nothing but blue, bluebirds all day long.

LUNDEN: Last year's production in San Francisco was such a success that the decision was made to put "White Christmas" on in three cities simultaneously, says producer Kevin McCollum.

Mr. McCOLLUM: There are only, you know, 10 or so markets that could have a show the whole holiday season that has enough population and enough theatergoers.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: One of those markets is Boston, where "White Christmas" is playing at the Wang Center for the Performing Arts, which used to host Boston Ballet's "Nutcracker." When the Wang Center's president, Josiah Spaulding, was looking for a new holiday show to play in his theater, he flew out to see "White Christmas" in San Francisco and called producer Kevin McCollum.

Mr. JOSIAH SPAULDING (President, Wang Center): I said, `Kevin, I've got to have this in Boston. This is a fantastic piece, and it would be my hope that we could try to create a new holiday tradition in Boston.' And Kevin said, `Really?' And he said, you know, `Well, you know, it's expensive.' And I said, `Yes, I understand it's expensive, but we're in.'

LUNDEN: The non-profit Wang Center invested $3 1/2 million in its production of "White Christmas," and Josiah Spaulding believes he can recoup the investment with this year's five-week run. The Boston company of "White Christmas" began rehearsals this fall in New York along with the Los Angeles and San Francisco companies. The logistics were tricky, says director Walter Bobbie.

Mr. BOBBIE: We took over two floors of 890 Broadway, which is the old Michael Bennett Studios. We had a hundred actors in rehearsal. We had an extraordinary schedule. We started out with just the San Francisco Company, and by the third week we had all three companies in rehearsal.

LUNDEN: Choreographer Randy Skinner.

Mr. SKINNER: Every morning you would walk in and there would be posted where you were supposed to be, what company was rehearsing in what room, what number or what scene. I just would go up and down stairs all day and go in and out of rooms where I was needed. It was fun, but it was tiring.

(Soundbite of "White Christmas")

Unidentified Child: Lookit, Mommy! It's snowing! Mommy, it's snowing!

Unidentified Man: Oh! Open the doors!

Chorus: (Singing) I'm dreaming of a white Christmas...

LUNDEN: Some critics have questioned the need to translate such an iconic film to the stage, but director Walter Bobbie thinks that ticket sales and audience involvement signify the birth of a new annual holiday entertainment brand.

Mr. BOBBIE: I think that the show has enormous popular appeal. It's evidenced by the response of the audience in all three cities at this point. And I think they will tell us what to do. I think that the current hope is that we would do just three productions next year, but maybe we'd move them to three different cities.

LUNDEN: And, Bobbie adds, producers from Australia and England have attended "White Christmas" in the States, so there may even be more productions abroad.

Mr. BOBBIE: The good news is we seem to be surrounded by opportunity. And in the theater, believe me, as--you don't say this at Christmas, but `Mazel tov!'

(Soundbite of end of choral number)

LUNDEN: "White Christmas" is running in Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco until New Year's Eve. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden.

(Soundbite of "White Christmas")

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) ...go naturally on the floor. For dancing soon becomes romancing when you hold a girl in your arms that you've never held before.

SIMON: You can see clips from the stage production of "White Christmas" on our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of "White Christmas")

Mr. DANNY KAYE: (Singing) ...come out all right if the girl is sweet. If by chance their cheeks should meet while dancing, proving that the best things happen while you dance. Proving that the best things happen while you dance.

SIMON: And this is WEEKEND EDITION.

(Credits)

SIMON: Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, good Kwanzaa, and for our British Commonwealth friends, happy Boxing Day. I'm Scott Simon.

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