14 December 2011

‘Christmas Eve with Christmas Eve 2011’: Revelry, Remembrance, & Other Unpronounceable Words

Miracle on 46th Street
Ann Harada and WVM, after the show.
Backstage photos by Anne Balcer©

“If you don’t have anything else to believe in, you can always believe in Broadway musicals!” a pint-size dynamo named Christmas Eve insisted during her extended “Broadway fantasy” on Monday night, Christmas Eve with Christmas Eve. She knows what she’s talking about, after all: the actress Ann Harada created the role of Christmas Eve, a sometimes inscrutable psychiatrist in the hit musical Avenue Q, and Ann trots her out each year in a benefit performance for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. But I was inclined to believe Ann, and to believe in Broadway musicals, with all my heart already, because something extraordinary happened during Monday’s performance.

To explain, I have to take you back to my first years in New York City, when I observed the fretful faces of the folks back home. When I told my family where I planned to live, my cousin Mary Elizabeth took me aside. “Don’t let them make you mean,” she implored; “don’t let them make you into a Yankee.”

It can’t be easy to send any young relation off to the wilds of the big bad city, but least easy of all for a loving grandmother to watch her grandson embark for that perilous destination. Once I got here, I calculated that theater — specifically, the Broadway musical — might prove more eloquent than any argument I could make in favor of my remaining here. A really good show could provoke my loved ones to set aside for a happy hour or two whatever terrors they suffered for me.

Witness, for example, the delight my mother still gets from a number called “The Grass Is Always Greener,” which Miss Lauren Bacall and Miss Marilyn Cooper performed one night for Mom exclusively (she’s certain of this) in a Kander & Ebb show called Woman of the Year. If New York could harbor such wonders, then surely it wasn’t such a bad place, after all.

Ann Harada, in performance as Christmas Eve.

But my grandmother might prove a tougher case, I thought. She and my aunt Tisha came to town in 1985, and it was my unfortunate duty to conduct her into the New York City subway system in her first moments here. Tisha thrilled as if on a carnival ride and made friends with everyone in the car, but my grandmother sat silent and petrified the whole way. She would have been content to lock herself in her hotel room; she required all her inner fortitude in order to follow me anywhere beyond.

For her, then, something extra-special would be required, and in Big River, I had it, a show that combined an irresistible score with imaginative stagecraft, and the spirit of Mark Twain, whom my grandfather, another son of the Mississippi, revered.

And I was right. Helen loved the show, and it’s entirely possible that, for the rest of her life, whenever she thought of me in New York City, she also thought of Huckleberry Finn, braving perdition as he navigated the river on his fragile raft, just as she’d seen him do in Big River. Like Huck, I might turn out all right.

That’s why I believed already when Ann, as Christmas Eve, exhorted us to believe in Broadway musicals. By that point, she had brought to her little stage no less than the original Huck Finn, Daniel Jenkins, and together they had sung a medley of the beloved songs. In doing so, they achieved no less a miracle than bringing back my grandmother, until I felt her beside me, just as she was 26 years ago.

Daniel Jenkins and the late Ron Richardson as Jim,
in the original Broadway production of Big River

This isn’t to say that the experiences were identical. Theater doesn’t work that way. Time doesn’t stand still here. Ann isn’t the girl I knew in school, either, my grandmother passed away in 1989, and the songs they sang decades ago are gone. The lively arts are the most Proustian: they’re a memory even as they happen, and to retrieve such memories requires great effort.

So Daniel Jenkins, though his tangy, twangy singing voice sounds much the same as ever, is a real grownup now, not a stringbean in overalls. And Christmas Eve, though completely committed to the role of Jim, didn’t seem quite authentic as she sang “Liver in the Lain,” one of Big Liver’s most poignant songs. Still, my grandmother would have loved it. In fact, I know that she did.

This is the second Christmas Eve with Christmas Eve I’ve attended, in which Ann explores the character’s “Broadway fantasies,” performing terrific numbers from classic shows with fun guest stars — all men, of course, and many of them shirtless, because it’s a fantasy.

Ann commands the stage for roughly 90 minutes with nary a break: she has thrown the show together in her so-called “spare time” in a matter of days, and yet she remembers every line, executes every step, and never lets her exaggerated accent lapse for a moment in repertory ranging from operetta to Garland-esque belting, from West Side Story to Annie, from Sideshow to Oliver!

To a degree, this revue represents the kind of clowning around that any Broadway-mad kid does in the privacy of the den, playing records and goofing off with a few friends. To another degree, it’s top-notch artistry from bona fide Broadway stars who may never sing Tony and Maria, for example — but can do just that, and do it better than anybody else. At the same time, they’re doing good, for friends and colleagues who need their support.

My Broadway fantasy is that more musicals will be as satisfying as Ann’s shows — and I wish I could say that fantasy often comes true. Yet for one night a year, Ann gets to do whatever she wants, which is what she was born to do; and I am happy to be in her company — on the banks of a big river, on an enchanted island that is known as New York City.

If you’d like to make Ann — and me — happy, please consider making a contribution to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

Here, I am auditioning for next year’s show.
(The benign patience with which Ann appears to listen to me is just one indication of what a phenomenally good actress she is.)


Alex said...

Love this on so many levels!

Larry Maslon said...

Funny, this week I completed a semester at NYU's Grad Acting where I taught a musical comedy course; I assigned two of our actors "The Grass Is Always Greener". I had to explain to them and the White House and jelly beans. O tempore, O mores. I remember thinking BIG RIVER was the height of folly: Huck would tell the audience that he needed to warn Jim to get on the raft, and then cross all the way stage right and say, "Jim, we need to get on the raft." My sensibilities were offended--twice. Of course, my greatest Broadway musical experience actually happened in Boston, when I braved the worst blizzard in New England history in February of 1978 to go to the Colonial and see the o.o.t tryout of ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. But, you, of course, know all about that. Be well. I enjoyed your blog. Did you know my birthday is September 29th? LM

William V. Madison said...

Larry, considering the crap that's sloshed across Broadway stages nowadays, Big River may look better in hindsight, even without the sentimental attachments I've got. They don't make 'em like this any more, such that it seems churlish to ask Big River to rise any higher.

But I won't try to disguise my admiration for Big River on its own terms, and the original production's very practical and sometimes extraordinarily beautiful solutions to the staging challenges of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn still strike me as ingenious. (Where else are you gonna put the raft? The lobby?) Any show that features Ron Richardson, Patti Cohenour, René Auberjonois, John Goodman, Bob Gunton, and Evalyn Baron -- in addition to that Jenkins fellow -- stands a good chance of making a believer out of me. Above all, Roger Miller's score remains a marvel, and the show's greatest strength: I still play the cast album with great pleasure.

And yeah, my grandmother loved it, too.

(I didn't remember that your birthday is September 29! Good karma.)