Monday, December 3, 2007

Rediscovering Jerry Herman’s Mrs. Santa Claus

Angela Lansbury really is something. I don’t know if there is another performer who can lay claim to a career that is as long, as varied, or as beloved. Film, television, Broadway—she’s conquered them all. I don’t know if she’s ever received a lifetime achievement Tony; however, with her final Broadway role in Deuce, this next year’s ceremony might be the most appropriate time to bestow such a deserved honor.

Among her Broadway credits include a short run in Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle, a knock ‘em dead turn in Mame, followed by Dear World, Gypsy, The King and I, Sweeney Todd, and a return as Mame. Mrs. Santa Claus, with its Broadway pedigree and her warm performance, practically fits into her series of roles on stage.

After always intending to look for the DVD for the past few Christmas seasons, I remembered recently that I had recorded it back in 1996 when it originally aired on CBS. Watching it reminded me of what a Christmas classic the movie truly is. Why it’s not a regular primetime presence on CBS every Christmas, I’ll never know.

In it, Lansbury plays Anna Claus, the wife of Santa himself (played by Charles Durning). After years of contentment as being the woman behind the great man, Mrs. Claus decides to step out for herself. However, while testing a new flying route a week before Christmas, she lands in 1910 New York City with an injured reindeer, unable to get home. What unfolds is a tale infused with all the fascinating events of the time—the suffragette movement, immigration, and unionization—with Lansbury’s Mrs. Claus working her special magic through it all. Often when family movies attempt to tell stories from historical periods, there is a decided determination to highlight every fault of the time with a clear modern eye. The creators of Mrs. Santa Claus, however, allow the stories and characters to take center stage, with the modern interpretation taking a backseat to a simple presentation of events like those that happened.

With its 1910 setting, Mrs. Santa Claus oozes Christmas, celebrating the season to a backdrop of the diverse cultures and customs that help make New York so wonderful. It’s almost like a Christmas card come to life.

There’s also much inventiveness in the story. Tavish the toymaker, for example, has an employee motto which is “It only has to last ‘til Christmas,” when his toys will inevitably break. There’s also a touching plotline of one woman from “the Old Country” who always keeps a bag packed with family treasures in case the government forces her out, a fear escalated by her daughter’s outspoken stance against the government’s law on the woman’s ability to vote.

With music and lyrics by Jerry Herman (who makes a brief appearance himself, tickling those ivory keys), Mrs. Santa Claus feels like a full night at the theatre (There are eleven songs with numerous reprises). There are more than a handful of gems in his score, most of the numbers feeling like perfect theatre songs, with catchy hooks, clever rhymes, and satisfying ends. This is a score that rivals my two favorites of his, Hello, Dolly! and Mame. As you would expect, there’s a song introducing the main character, a big dance number (the memorable “Avenue A”), a beautiful love song, a vaudeville turn, and so on. I will admit that in hearing this score for the first time in about ten years, I longed for the great scores of old, with the simple, hummable showtune, as Herman himself has called it (I, for one, agree with Peter Filichia, however, that showtune is a term that has far outlived its use).

Mrs. Santa Claus is of interest for more than its intelligent family friendly story and its perfect Jerry Herman tunes, for it even has a great Broadway cast. In addition to Lansbury and Durning, there’s also Michael Jeter as elf Arvo, and Terrence Mann as the villainous toymaker Tavish, plus David Norona as Marcello, a charming young actor with a splendid theatrical tenor voice (and look for Sabrina Bryan of Dancing with the Stars fame as one of the children in the toyshop). Choreography is courtesy of Rob Marshall, who helps make “Avenue A” a highlight.

If you’ve never seen Mrs. Santa Claus, or saw it ten years ago and have since forgotten it, I encourage you to seek it out. Since Mrs. Santa Claus, we’ve had a respectable number of television musicals, from the great (Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and Annie) to the mediocre (Once Upon a Mattress, South Pacific) to the bad (The Music Man, Gepetto—which has great music), but none have managed to top Jerry Herman and Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Santa Claus.

the Broadway Mouth
December 3, 2007

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