In the words of Mame Dennis (and Jerry Herman), "We need a little Christmas, right this very minute...." Here, seven current Broadway stars and one beloved juvenile-turned-elder statesman of the theater share favorite holiday memories, plans to celebrate, and wishes for their community.
"My favorite Christmas memory," says Robert Morse, a two-time Tony winner for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Tru,
"is several memories jumbled into one. When I was young, I remember trudging through snow in Newton, Massachusetts [his birthplace] and the great feeling of joy I got from cutting wood, putting it in a truck, bringing it to the house. We'd go out and get a Christmas tree. That was a very special event. Also very special was going to get the Christmas turkey at an actual farm. The whole family would celebrate--my parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, my brother, and myself.
"Christmas in Sherman Oaks [Morse's California home] isn't quite the same," he laughs. "But I'll try to duplicate it because I have a 10-year-old, Allyn, and a five-year-old, Charley [his daughter and son with second wife Elizabeth]. We'll carry wood into the house, make a fire. We'll put out cookies and milk for Santa Claus. Christmas is a joy! We don't pick out the turkey anymore; those days are over. We do pick out a tree. When we get it home, it tilts the wrong way. I bring it back and argue with the guy. He cuts it again. I bring it home and it still isn't even. I go back. He says, 'Damn it, I'll go with you.' He comes and fixes it."
Since Tru took place on Christmas Eve, audiences got to see Truman Capote at Yuletide, but how does the actor envision How to Succeed hero J. Pierrepont Finch observing the holidays? "He must be an older fellow by now," muses Morse. "He must be 70! Finch would probably celebrate with his feet up--probably rereading How to Succeed."
Morse's wish for the theatrical community is that everyone "raise their voices high, sing well, and stand tall. All of them give so much joy to audiences. We need it now more than ever. I give them a hug and a big, wet kiss!"
"My memories of Christmas are mostly of being in plays," says Marian Seldes.
"I've been so lucky. I don't take a second of it for granted. I've never felt sad about working on Christmas because acting doesn't seem like work to me. My daughter lives in Connecticut; this year, I can't get there for Christmas, but I'll go for New Year's." The actress's daughter is named for Katharine Cornell, her godmother.
A native New Yorker, Seldes won a Tony for the original production of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance. Her latest creation is the role of Rayleen in Neil Simon's 45 Seconds from Broadway. Seldes swiftly turns my compliment on her performance into kudos for the playwright: "What a wonderful part, Michael. Imagine! What a leap for Neil Simon!" She praises Bill Moor, who plays her mostly silent spouse: "Isn't he extraordinary? So honest and beautiful, so sad and funny. It wouldn't be the Rayleen I have if it weren't for him."
How does Seldes imagine that her fanciful character would spend the holiday? "Rayleen would celebrate in her dreams," believes Seldes, "probably as the star of some 1940s movie that she remembers. I say 'movie' rather than 'play' because in a film, things are forever the same."
Says Seldes, "Having the play to do is a gift. We started rehearsing on September 10; it's been a cocoon for all of us. Theater is kind of a blessing for people--especially at the holidays, if you're lonely or despondent. If you come into a theater, it heals you. It takes you somewhere else, which is a very hard thing to do. Religion probably does it for some; I know music does it. If I were not in the theater, I'd be a 'theatergoer.' That's what they'd put after my name."
Fortunately, Seldes is in the theater, and I tell her how glad I am of that fact. "Oh, so am I, my darling!" she exclaims. "It saves my life--over and over again!" Her holiday wish for her colleagues in the theater "is that we can keep doing what we do, doing it as well as we can and being part of the healing."
In just over a year, Brad Oscar has gone from playing Santa Claus in the
Radio City Christmas Spectacular in Branson, Missouri, to being Broadway's
strangely lovable Nazi in The Producers. A Tony nominee for his performance as Franz Liebkind, Oscar has also frequently subbed for an ailing Nathan Lane as Max Bialystock. "What a ride it's been!" he exclaims. "The first times [playing Bialystock], it was a little surreal. Max is such a huge part. It's comfortable now and a lot easier."
Oscar's holiday recollections are two-fold. "Here I am, a nice Jewish boy who grew up celebrating both Chanukah and Christmas [in his native Washington, D.C.]. My Chanukah memories are basically, 'Oh, my God, here come eight fabulous nights of getting gifts!' On Christmas Eve, we used to go to my aunt's home for dinner. She was a goyim who married into the family. Her place was almost like a cottage: There was a tree, and my sister Victoria [who's now an actress] and I would get to open some presents that night. One night, when I was maybe four or five, I remember looking out the window and I could swear that I saw Santa in the sky, on his sleigh. I was sure I had seen him. And I said, 'One day, I'm going to play that man!'"
The Producers' holiday schedule allows Oscar to celebrate "with family and extended family. I can go home to D.C. after the matinee on the 23rd and come back for the matinee on the 26th." How does the actor imagine that Franz Liebkind, the author of the show's musical-within-a-musical Springtime for Hitler, would observe the holidays? "Franz would probably be alone at a diner. He might scout around to make sure no one was serving pigeon." (In the show, Liebkind raises pigeons.)
Oscar is particularly thankful "that this year has happened for me, professionally. My God, I'm so blessed! I'm doing what I love to do--and having success. In light of all that's happened, I'm thankful to have the family and friends that make life worth living. This [experience] is so dramatic, so exciting, that you have to keep a balance--and I'm thankful for the people who help me to do that." His wish is "health and happiness for everyone" in the theater community. "What we do is important," he says. "It's part of the fabric of the city, and I think how proud and lucky we are to be a part of it. God bless us, everyone!"
Cady Huffman, a Tony winner as the sexpot Ulla in The Producers, points out that the much-honored musical has succeeded in many fields. "We also won the Broadway Softball League [Competition]," notes Huffman, a catcher for the team.
She was 14 at the time of her favorite Christmas moment. "We were really poor," she relates. "My mom had warned all of us, 'There's not going to be any presents this year. Can't afford 'em.' I knew she wouldn't say it if she didn't mean it. But in my 14-year-old head, I thought: 'She's got to be kidding. It's Christmas!' We all got up on Christmas morning--my brothers, my grandmother, my mom--and there was a Yule log in the fire. We each had one present to open. Mine was a bag of cookies from a girlfriend. We sat there, and it was an opportunity to really appreciate each other. I tell you, it was one of the best holidays we've ever had. We went to church and then my mom cooked some sort of soufflé. We laughed and had a great time. We appreciated the spirit of the holiday much more so than in years when we had presents to open."
This year, Huffman will be on vacation right before Christmas: She and husband Bill Healy will visit her hometown of Santa Barbara, California. "The best part," she says, is that her family is "not poor anymore." Huffman is especially thankful that her mother-in-law survived the year: "She had open-heart and colon surgery. While I was celebrating all my success, we were also praying very hard for her."
How would Ulla celebrate the holiday? "She'd have a very large party," says Huffman. "Her home would be tidy, painted white, and full of Christmas cheer. She'd be the Swedish Martha Stewart!" Cady Huffman wants the theater "to thrive again. I want everybody to enjoy the type of success that we're enjoying at the St. James."
Currently keeper of the flame as Lumière in Beauty and the Beast, Bryan Batt says that one of his favorite Christmas memories is of something that occurred just recently. "My mom had just moved into a new home and was kind of blue. My dad and grandmother had passed away. On one of my trips home [to New Orleans], I rummaged through all the pictures I could find. Then I got this beautiful, red leather photo album and had 'The Batt Family Christmas' engraved on the front. The first picture I put in was my father proposing to my mother in front of a Christmas tree. From then on, it was the history of Christmas in our family. My mother said it was the best Christmas gift she ever got. We've continued it ever since, with pictures of the grandchildren [his older brother Jay's daughters, Bailey and Kelly]."
Fortunately, the Beauty schedule allows Batt to be off on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. "I usually try to get that in my contract," he tells me. "It breaks my heart if I can't be home for Christmas!" And how does he imagine that the holidays would strike Lumière? "Considering the candle aspect, I think my character would celebrate Chanukah!"
This year, Batt feels "especially grateful to be an American. There's such an astounding resurgence of patriotism." His wish for the theatrical community: "I want everyone to be working!"
One of the main attractions of 42nd Street, Mary Testa's performance earned her a second Tony nomination. (The first was for her dilly of a teacher in On the Town). Testa's favorite Christmas memory is a collective one: "The typical you-can't-sleep, Santa-is-coming thing--the whole magic of when you believed in Santa Claus. You got up, ran into the living room, and there was all this stuff there [for Mary and her older sister]. It was always the most magical
Born in Philadelphia, Mary was four when her family moved to Rhode Island. "After the show on Sunday [December 23], I'll drive there and spend Christmas Eve with them. Italians have a big tradition. Christmas Eve is actually more important than Christmas Day; Christmas Eve is when we open our gifts and have a huge dinner with weird kinds of fish. Well, other people would think it's weird. I don't, because I grew up with it! We have squid, linguine with squid sauce, snail salad, pickled eel...."
"I'll come back Christmas Day because we have a show that night," Testa says. "Afterwards, I'll probably hang with friends and have a couple of drinks." How would her character celebrate? "Maggie would probably write a little show with Bert [played by Jonathan Freeman] and they'd put it on for the kids in the company. They'd throw a big party and invite everybody."
This year, Testa is thankful "just to be alive. As you get older, you learn how important life is. It can be taken away in a moment. We see it all the time but it doesn't resonate until something major happens, which it did this year. It did for my family, as well: My dad had surgery and there were complications. It was touch-and-go, but he's fine now. You see how quickly things can be taken away. I'm grateful for being able to be grateful!"
Testa's wish for her theatrical colleagues "is that they continue to take chances, try all sorts of new things, and that everyone realizes how important their jobs are to other people."
Currently playing Caldwell B. Cladwell in Urinetown, two-time Tony winner (Shenandoah, On the Twentieth Century) John Cullum remembers Christmas Eve as "the most exciting time, up until I was about
12." Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, Cullum was the youngest of five children; after age 12, he says, "I realized that I was no longer the person that the whole world revolved around."
Cullum and wife Emily Frankel are the parents of actor J.D. Cullum. "When my son
was about four, I dressed in a Santa suit and came to the door," dad relates. " 'Ho! Ho! Ho! This is Santa Claus,' I said. He looked up at the beard; then he looked down and said, 'You're wearing my daddy's shoes.' "
While he has no particular plans for this year's celebration, Cullum notes that, "Deep
down inside, I'm moved by what's happened in our country. Christmas and celebrations of good will are very much on my mind. We're supposed to love everybody and forgive our enemies. I'm praying and hoping that the world will be a better place." The actor assumes that, during the holidays, Mr. Cladwell would "give out money and feed the poor. He's a strange, interesting character.
"Acting is a thing that I've always wondered about," says Cullum. "Why do we do it? I've come to the conclusion that it's the right thing to do. But it's times like this that prove to you that it is important." His wish for the people of the theater "is that we hold on to the same kind of spirit that we have right now--working together, enjoying what we have, and appreciating that it's worthwhile."
Karen Mason says that the camaraderie she shares with Louise Pitre and Judy
Kaye in Mamma Mia! reminds her "of me and my sisters [Kathy and Kim]. We're very close. It's nice to have a relationship of three women onstage. Backstage, we giggle, go through each other's closets, try on each other's jewelry."
As Tanya, a '70s dancing queen, Mason sports platform shoes and Spandex; as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, she wore heels and "very heavy costumes. I seem to get all these aerobic roles! It would be great to wear one outfit, show up and do an 11 o'clock number, get a standing ovation and win a Tony," Mason concludes, laughing.
Born in New Orleans, the singer-actress grew up in Georgia and St. Louis before her family settled in Chicago. Her favorite Christmas memory is of something that happened in St. Louis when she eight or nine: "My older sister, Kathy, and I had asked for a television set for our bedroom. Christmas morning, we came downstairs to the basement, where the tree was kept. In the Catholic faith, they have 'Spiritual Bouquets,' and there was one for each of us on the tree. We were trying so hard to be gracious--'Thanks for the four Hail Marys'--but I'm sure our lower lips were quivering. Mom asked us to get something out of the freezer on the other side of the basement. We went over...and there was the television set! My family loves to play jokes. Christmas is always as silly and wonderful and loud as it possibly can be."
After the December 23 matinee of Mamma Mia!, Mason and husband Paul Rolnick "are flying to Chicago. After September 11, I really want to be with my family. We're all getting older and time is getting more precious. My mother's cooking, and we're all helping her out. We fly back on Christmas night and there are two shows on the 26th." How would Tanya celebrate the season? "She's a party girl," says Mason. "She'd be well dressed and surrounded by men--probably on a beach." One suspects that, as a stocking stuffer, Tanya would buy everyone Mason's latest CD, When the Sun Comes Out.
This year, Mason is especially thankful "that I'm still here. Of course, Christmas is a while away; God knows what's going to happen between now and then! But I'm very thankful for every minute that I have with my family and friends. This fall has been very difficult on a lot of people in the theater. It's getting harder and harder to maintain a career. What I hope for all of us is that we can continue to enjoy being live performers."