November 15, 2005

Living the “White Christmas” dream

Filed under: Art and About Holidays — admin @ 4:21 pm

The stage version of “White Christmas” has opened again in San Francisco. You may recall that the theatrical adaptation of the 1954 film premiered in San Francisco last year to great reviews and even better ticket sales. It was so successful that this year, they have added productions in Los Angeles and Boston.

The film version of “White Christmas” is to my family what “It’s a Wonderful Life” is to other clans. In filmmaking craftsmanship, “White Christmas,” starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, is one scene away from being a perfect movie. In the categories of holiday schmaltz, feel-goodness, love, joy and downright good entertainment, it is the perfect movie. To this day, I have a burning crush on Danny Kaye. And I cry every time General Waverly walks into the barn-turned-stage and is surprised by the hundreds of soldiers from his former battalion who have shown up to remind him of what an impact he has had on their lives. (If you don’t know the scene I’m describing, you seriously need to head to the DVD store.)

So out of morbid curiosity, I went to see the stage show last year. For me, the production had a huge task ahead of it to convince me to like it. On casting alone, how could it even compare? And part of the charm of the movie is that it is decked out in all of MGM’s musical splendor and sophistication. I love stage musicals, but there is no way to mimic the thrill of a well-filmed and edited dance sequence.
I knew that I the sentiment I was bringing to the theater was shared by many of the audience members. I took my seat with a mixture of trepidation and hopeful anticipation.

From the first moments of the show, I was disappointed. I felt that the heart of the movie and its characters was gutted to appeal comedically and musically to the lowest common denominator.  I’m not saying that the movie script is Shakespeare, but when you’ve seen it hundreds of times, you notice the multiple levels of nuance and subtext in every word and every song, and in the performances of the actors. It’s far deeper and cleverer than it appears on the surface, and none of that was apparent in the stage show.

Judging by the crowd reaction, however, I was alone in my assessment. I started to grumble louder and louder as I observed the audience succumbing to the dumbing-down of American entertainment. They were falling for drek, and nothing steams me more. I not so patiently waited for the torture to end.
Then the cast began singing the classic title song, and they did a not-so-bad rendition of it. And then the audience started singing along, just like the soldiers do at the end of the movie. Hundreds of people suddenly became a choir singing the most mellow, heartfelt and comforting music I had heard all season. I started to cry.

I cried so hard, my attempts to sing along were only squawks of choked sound. I was overcome by a community of people sharing the common background of a beloved song. This show had inspired a theater full of strangers to join together for a few minutes of holiday harmony before re-entry into the disharmonious world. It was oral tradition ceremoniously being shared by the tribe. It was the unabashed joy of art and life being lived in the moment. It was the pure essence of live theater.

My heart grew three sizes that day. I remembered that no matter our artistic differences of opinion, nothing is more unifying to mankind than a shared artistic experience. Thank you, “White Christmas,” for the best gift of the holiday season.

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