Holiday on stage

For those who celebrate Christmas, the hard work is nearly over. The main thing left is a little carol singing and the struggle of unwrapping the presents. But if you are a working actor, the heavy lifting has just begun.

On Broadway and off-Broadway, the holiday season means work and lots of it. On Broadway, most producers, avoiding Christmas Eve and daytime Christmas performances, redistribute their weekly allotment of eight shows. Performers face double duty on unfamiliar days and a working Monday on December 30, which would normally be a dark day.

“That is the killer, those stacked-up shows,” said Kate Baldwin, who plays Sandra Bloom in Big Fish. “It does take a toll, physically and emotionally.”

Off-Broadway the performances can pile up fast, especially with the long-running crowd pleasers. Stomp will have 12 shows between Christmas and New Year’s Day, with no breaks. Blue Man Group will do 20 shows during Christmas week alone.

“Starting tomorrow we embark on 11 shows in a row,” Peter Bradbury, who plays Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at the Theater at St Clement’s, said last Tuesday. “It’s a beast.”

For solace he might head over to Radio City Music Hall, where the annual Christmas Spectacular schedule requires four to six performances a day. The five days from December 26 to December 30 have traditionally been peak earners for Broadway musicals, and the schedule reflects it, with most shows squeezing in eight performances in that span.

A lot of shows take Christmas and the day before off — even Annie, whose plot unfolds at Christmastime. But about half of the shows on Broadway, and a hardy handful of off-Broadway shows, have a Christmas Eve matinee or an evening performance on Christmas Day.

This would seem to be a depressing prospect: turning up for work on a day normally devoted to warm family gatherings, ceremonial gift giving and the rest of the little rituals that set the heart aglow. Not so.

“You know you’ll be overbooked during the holidays, but you’re with your de facto family anyway,” said Lesli Margherita, who plays Matilda’s mother, the appalling Mrs Wormwood, in Matilda the Musical. “At least I won’t be standing in line at the airport.”

A number of performers cite hidden benefits like that. “The great thing about working on the holidays is that there’s no traffic,” said Donna Marie Asbury, an ensemble player since 1999 in Chicago, which has scheduled a Christmas performance on what is normally its midweek day off.

“I live in New Jersey, and I can leave the house at 7 and make it to the stage door at 7:20,” Asbury said. “Besides, the alternative is to be unemployed and not working.”

Stephanie Marshall, a performer with Stomp for 18 years, said: “I kind of feel good about it. I feel like we’re part of somebody else’s celebration. I love the holidays and I tend to decorate the green room or the dressing rooms.”

There is a lot of decorating. In theatres all over town, cast members have organised Secret Santa gift-giving ceremonies and promoted holiday spirit with backstage glitter, wreaths and the occasional ornament. The actors in Chicago are competing to win best stage-door wreath, being awarded on Christmas. “I share a dressing room with four girls and we are definitely in it to win it,” Asbury said.

During Hanukkah, which began in late November, the cast of Bad Jews, at the Laura Pels Theater, lit Hanukkah candles and sang Hanukkah songs, then segued seamlessly into Christmas mode.

At Matilda, with its herd of child actors, chaos reigns backstage. “Our whole backstage is decorated,” Margherita said. “The kids have glitterised and Christmasised everything. Wherever they could throw tinsel, they did.”

This year Adam Dannheisser will spend his sixth consecutive Christmas as the club owner Dennis Dupree in Rock of Ages. Apparently the Christmas spirit can make itself felt through the dense curtain of 1980s power chords. “They tend to be good audiences,” Dannheisser said of the holiday crowd. “People are not stressed out about work, they’ve been spending time with their families. It’s a nice feeling.”

The song list does not change for the occasion. In the season of Adeste Fideles and The First Noel, the musical sticks with We’re Not Gonna Take It and Hit Me With Your Best Shot. That does not mean that the occasion goes unmarked, however. “We have our own way of inserting a Christmas vibe,” Dannheisser said. “My character, in particular, has a lot of room to break the mold.” He mentioned Santa jokes but declined to offer an example. “Too racy,” he said.

Despite the good cheer, there is a tinge of seasonal tristesse that affects even the most upbeat Broadway hoofer. Friends and family are gathering in celebration, perhaps far away. Like subway drivers, restaurant workers and police officers, professional actors have to put the twinkling lights on the Christmas tree out of mind and drag themselves into work. It is silver-lining time.

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