Monday, January 12, 2009

White Christmas in January: Reflections on Movie Musicals and Movie Musicals on Stage

I’ve admitted worse on here before, including that I once entered Barnes and Noble with the intention of getting the OBCR of Stephen Sondheim’s Passion and walked out with Bombay Dreams instead. But this time I’m admitting I’ve never seen the movie White Christmas. It’s not that I haven’t intended to, but December is always so busy. I do sometimes see a copy of it at the library, but June 18 is such a bad time to check out White Christmas.

I did see a portion of the movie on television once a number of years ago and remember thinking that I needed to rent it. I liked it. But that’s not a surprise because I usually enjoy musical movies from that era. Not only do they have charming storytelling, if not the most engaging integration of songs into the story, but they exude class, sophistication, and humor.

Several years ago, I had the great fortune of seeing Singin’ in the Rain on the big screen. I had rented it while I was in high school and had seen it at least once since, but getting to experience it on the original canvas, a movie screen before an audience filled with people, was another experience entirely. It is a hilarious movie. It was a romantic comedy with music, much like a romantic comedy people see today, except funny (and with music). I mean, people were constantly laughing.

I’ve since been able to see two other great old musicals on the big screen—one of my favorites, Meet Me in St. Louis (which featured a post-show discussion with Margaret O’Brien) and one I had not been a particular fan of, The Harvey Girls. Interestingly enough, while I had really disliked The Harvey Girls on DVD, watching it in a theater filled with people brought out so much I had missed at home, namely the great humor and charm in what is essentially a very light romantic comedy that, in our time, takes on the burden of being a classic and minor epic because of the presence of Judy Garland and the added aura of it being a musical.

To us, a movie musical is an event—Chicago, Hairspray, The Phantom of the Opera—an expensive, costume-heavy movie promoted to high-heaven. To movie-goers in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, they were often breezy evenings at the movies and while they were hard for the talented artists involved in making them, studios were popping out many every year like machine-work. Musicals like The Harvey Girls and White Christmas were not the epics we associate with movie musicals of today. They were simple, popular entertainment intended to be viewed once and then locked away in a movie vault somewhere.

Back to White Christmas.

This Christmas, not much changed. I still need to see White Christmas the movie, but now I can say that I’ve seen it on stage. It was the very last performance of a regional run, a performance which fell on a very un-Christmasy post-New Years Saturday.

Though I have nothing to compare it to (except my knowledge of movie musicals from that era), I guess it doesn’t take a genius to form an opinion and then analyze it to death.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy White Christmas so much as it didn’t thrill me, didn’t leave me with much of anything I’ll fondly remember in a year. It was, I suppose, nothing in particular. It wasn’t particularly funny. It wasn’t particularly romantic. The characters weren’t particularly rich or memorable. The choreography was energetic and fun but not particularly striking. I don’t think I’ll ever stop and reflect on what a great evening it was or go out of my way to find the original cast recording. In a year, I may have no specific memories of it (except maybe the final ice-skating dance, which was pretty clever and beautifully costumed).

Because I know one or two people who rave about the stage show (telling me that the movie is a must-see Christmas tradition) and because I know that it is a show that is gaining popularity around the country (evidenced by its run on Broadway this past Christmas), I assumed that it would be a remarkable show. But after seeing it for myself, I find it interesting that I’ve now met a number of people who either echo my sentiment or who respond, “Yeah, I’ve heard that.”

I think part of the problem is the book. It feels like a movie pulled onto the stage, and the characters still feel largely bound to the screen. The four lead characters feel very much like the type of characters found in musical movies of that era (as opposed to the fun, theatrical characters found in stage shows of that era). It didn’t help that in the production I saw the male leads were well-sung but not particularly thrilling in the parts, but I can’t help but wonder if, in the bigger picture, that doesn’t have more to do with the material. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye automatically bring a certain charm and air to their film roles that stage actors don’t have access to.

Musical movies of this era were known for having thin plots bloated by show within a show numbers. I admired the stage White Christmas for almost not over-doing the show within a show numbers (a problem I had with the 42nd Street revival), but the plot isn’t any more thrilling or compelling because of it. Again, I can’t comment on what may have been added or dropped from the movie, but the folksy “Let’s Put on a Show to Save ____________” where Broadway hoofers start coming out of the cracks and take up eight minutes of stage time to sing a song disconnected from the plot doesn’t make for a satisfying evening at the theatre.

The show definitely has impressive production values, with sets and costumes that made the tour of Grease I had recently seen look like a community theatre production, and there is an attempt to make the show something special, but the material just doesn’t hold up.

Had I paid $70-100 for the ticket, I would have been greatly disappointed (which, by comparison, I didn’t feel after paying $76 to see Grease), and I can’t help but wish the thousands of people who see White Christmas around the country every Christmas hadn’t had a chance to be thrilled by The Drowsy Chaperone, The Color Purple, or Hairspray instead. On stage, White Christmas may bring back fond memories, but it doesn’t manage to form any new ones.

the Broadway Mouth
January 12, 2009

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