Notes on White Christmas
by bookwriter David Ives
Walter Bobbie, who so brilliantly first directed (I’d almost say who created) Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, gave a simple, crucial bit of direction to two of the show’s leads one day.
was fall of 2004. We were rehearsing the show’s premiere production,
slated to go up in San Francisco’s Curran Theatre. This was early days
of rehearsal, in a New York hall that looked out over 42nd Street’s
gaudy chaos toward Times Square. That morning, Brian d’Arcy James and
Jeffry Denman were working on the scene where Bob and Phil, former army
buddies who’ve become stars, decide to put on a show that will help
their friend the General keep his Vermont inn going.
reason, the scene was going miserably. No matter how much Brian and
Jeffry – wonderful performers both – went back and reattacked it, some
necessary piece was missing. I wondered if I should simply rewrite the
scene from scratch.
Then Walter stepped in for a word with the two actors.
said to them, “I want to remind you of one thing. This is a
pre-neurotic, pre-Sondheim musical we’re doing. The year is 1954. Bob
and Phil are not interested in their feelings, or showing their
feelings, or showing what sensitive men they are. They’re men of their
time. They don’t want to be sensitive. They want to be decent. They want
to help their old army buddy – the same way they’d help each other out
of a jam, without thinking. Forget about Bob and Phil. The scene isn’t
about them, it’s about the General. Now let’s try it again.”
could palpably feel a sudden lightening of mood in the whole room, from
the two actors and from everyone observing in the cast. It was the
lightening that comes of revelation. And lo and behold when Brian and
Jeffry launched back in, the scene was utterly changed. It was free. It
was uncomplicated. It was joyous. And never again did a scene get stuck
that way, because everyone in the room knew that Walter had gone to the
heart of White Christmas. From that moment on, the show began to glow.
You see, despite its apparent innocence, White Christmas
is a show that’s actually about something. Call it community. Call it
the ties that bind. In the army, in show business, in running an inn
together, in friendship, in sisterhood, in “the spirit of Christmas,”
the characters of White Christmas realize their connections,
and their responsibilities, to everyone around them. It’s why Betty
feels so morally betrayed when she finds out (wrongly) that Bob is less
than he seemed. It’s why generosity runs through the veins of these
characters, who live in a world that is perhaps quite alien to us
today: a world in which people are for others, not for themselves.
I had any advice to give performers, directors, designers launching
into this show it would be this: outward simplicity, and inner
generosity. Outward simplicity means not hammering jokes in the
contemporary sitcom smirking-mugging manner but letting laugh-lines land
as they will, with all the modest ease of 1954. The humor has to come
from character, not from knowingness. Inner generosity means making your
every acting objective about the other person. Speaking and listening
are more important than trying to be funny here because it’s humanity
that’s on offer, not snappy lines.
In short, this show can’t be
played as a musical of today. To work, it has to remain true both
outwardly and inwardly to the era the movie it’s based on was written
in. That’s one of the reasons people want to see White Christmas:
because they want to inhabit that more innocent world of 1954 for a
couple of hours. A world of uncomplicated friendships and simple, open
feelings. It’s the world of everyone’s inner Christmas, where Scrooges
are transformed and true love comes wrapped as a gift and snow falls
when it’s supposed to.
Simplicity. Generosity. Decency. You can’t go wrong.