How to turn the big holiday into a big annual legit event
Argyle socks, homemade fruitcake and a shiny red sled are very nice presents — but what road presenters really would like for Christmas is a great big holiday show. And while some major producers are doing their best to oblige this season, wisdom has it that a genuine Christmas classic is hard to create from scratch. Sometimes you just have to believe in Santa Claus.“We won’t recoup — no hope of that at all — until year three,” says Bill Kenwright, who sank “several million dollars” into “Scrooge,” the elaborately mounted Dickensian musical going out with headliner Richard Chamberlain and many, many truckloads of scenic effects. Adapted from the 1970 Albert Finney movie and fitted out with a score of 19 musical numbers by Leslie Bricusse for its original production in London, the show begins its American tour at Chicago’s Ford Center Oct. 26 and finishes Jan. 9 at the Merriam Theater in Philadelphia. “The hope is that after we do the 11 weeks in these eight cities, the theaters will see it’s a great family show and book it earlier next year,” says Kenwright — ideally, scheduling it out of season. According to the London-based producer, that’s how things work in the U.K., where the annual pantomime shows gear up in early November and play for up to 16 weeks, with the popular ones going right into Easter. For “Scrooge” to earn that kind of devotion in the U.S. road market, it would have to tap into something Kenwright believes to be uniquely American, “not Christmas tradition, but family tradition. You are very family-oriented in America, and that’s what I want to hone in on.” So, while he hopes “Scrooge” will prove to be “the perfect Christmas show,” he considers it “a show that could take place on Thanksgiving or Easter, or any other holiday when a man is revisited by the ghosts of family holidays past who challenge him to redeem his life.” Kevin McCollum also hopes to simultaneously capture and transcend the Christmas market with “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas,” the stage version of the beloved 1954 Paramount movie that he is producing with his “Rent” partner, Jeffrey Seller, and GFI Prods. All decked out for the holiday season in its enduring score (with the matchless title song and classics like “How Deep Is the Ocean” and “Sisters”) and freshly adapted book by David Ives and Paul Blake, the new musical goes into San Francisco’s Curran Theater on Nov. 2, and sits down through Dec. 26. “It’s a big show and we’re spending real money,” McCollum says of the production, which is costing $4 million -$5 million to open. As staged by Walter Bobbie (“Twentieth Century”), with choreography by Randy Skinner (“42nd Street”), sets by Anna Louizos (“Avenue Q”) and costumes by Carrie Robbins (“Grease”), the show is going out with more than 30 cast members and a 25-piece orchestra. A single eight-week booking might not seem fiscally viable for such a costly show, McCollum admits. But, like Kenwright with “Scrooge,” McCollum expects “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” to pay bigger dividends down the line by becoming a holiday tradition in multiple venues. “I think the road really needs a new holiday perennial,” says McCollum. As former president and CEO of the Ordway Center in St. Paul, Minn., he was always looking for holiday fare to book into that 1,900-seat house. “Rather than taking it out to tour every season, I see this show as becoming a perennial in many theaters in America and around the world,” he says. His plan is to give each theater a personal stake in the show, by casting locally, using regional craftsmen for construction and leaving sets and costumes behind so the production could become part of the resident theater’s permanent repertory. “What we’re actually doing is creating franchises that can fuel the economy of the local market,” says McCollum, who followed the protocol in San Francisco and hopes to extend it to other venues like Boston, Chi, Cincinnati and Los Angeles. “It’s an innately collaborative process,” he says, “that can become a real community event in any number of cities.” In other words, an American tradition.