Backstage at a theatrical White Christmas

White Christmas at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Pictures: Manuel Harlan
White Christmas at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Pictures: Manuel Harlan
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It’s one of cinema’s most celebrated festive films, so how do you successfully transfer White Christmas to the theatre without Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye? Sarah Freeman goes behind the scenes of West Yorkshire Playhouse’s brand new production.

It’s a Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz probably just sneak in ahead, but in the list of all-time classic feelgood festive films, White Christmas has to be up there, at least in third position. For a start it stars Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye (If you’ve never seen Kaye’s take on Robin Hood in The Court Jester, put it on your Christmas list immediately), two titans of Hollywood, it has a soundtrack of classic songs from the title number to Sisters and Blue Skies. Plus it’s impossibly camp. Remember that final scene with the entire cast dressed as Santa Claus? It’s the world viewed through a fog of mulled wine and a roaring fire.

White Christmas at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Pictures: Manuel Harlan

White Christmas at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Pictures: Manuel Harlan

All of which makes West Yorkshire Playhouse’s decision to bring it to the stage with a brand new orchestration a brave one. Casting Darren Day in Bing Crosby’s role, perhaps even braver.

“Do you know what? I’d never actually seen the film,” says the show’s director, Nikolai Foster, in quiet confessional mode. “I first really became aware of it when I was working at Sheffield Theatres and the possibility of staging it at the Crucible was talked about quite enthusiastically. It didn’t happen and it was only when the Playhouse’s artistic director, James Brining, got the rights that I sat down and watched the Bing Crosby version. It did later transfer to Broadway and there have been countless stage adaptations, but yes, for many people it will always be linked with the film.”

Foster is on a break from rehearsals and we are sitting in the empty auditorium while on stage the set is being built. In another room, the band, who will be visible to the audience for much of the performance, are getting to grips with the score and in the main rehearsal space the chorus is gathering to go through another complex dance routine.

There’s less than a fortnight until opening night and there are still a few rough edges that need polishing. Not that Foster is fazed. He is after all the man who three years ago brought Annie to the Playhouse stage, a show that rested on the shoulders of two young girls, both under 13, who shared the lead, performing alongside 34 other perfectly rehearsed fellow orphans and a dog.

“The thing with White Christmas is that it not only has to be electrifying and raise the roof, but it also has to be moving. The audience has to feel an emotional connection with the piece, otherwise you’ve failed. It has a great story to tell. It’s about feeling displaced, it’s about finding your feet again. Remember it opens with General Waverly, this once great leader of men on the battlefield, returning from the Second World War and finding that there is nothing for him to do.

“He feels worthless, but the men he led haven’t forgotten him and ultimately it’s them who give him a reason for being. That’s a really powerful, important story to tell. It also has some of the greatest music ever written.”

Ah yes, the music. Those worried by the phrase “new orchestration” needn’t be. Jason Carr’s treatment of Irving Berlin’s songs is a sympathetic one. Along with musical director Tom Kelly, he has assembled a seven-piece band, which, although small in number, makes a pretty big sound.

For the last few days, the unmistakable strains of Blue Skies have been heard along the Playhouse corridors and many of the theatre’s staff have been waking up and going to sleep with the jazz number still going round in their head.

“No matter how many instruments you have, believe me you can always make noise. What’s much harder to achieve are those subtle, softer moments. It’s difficult to be quiet. Really I am a composer and I only take on other people’s music when I really love it. And I love White Christmas. My mum was Cynthia Carr who ran quite a famous dance school in Leeds. I grew up with that kind of music and I feel a real sense of connection to those songs.”

While Carr knows every beat of White Christmas intimately, he also knows that many of the audience, particularly the younger ones, will be coming to the story and the music for the first time.

“From quite early on I said to Nikolai that we had to have a baby grand on stage for Tom to play. A keyboard just wouldn’t have done it justice. We want them to look like a house band that you might have found in a Hollywood club in the 1950s.”

Many theatre musicians find themselves hidden away in the orchestra pit, but in White Christmas the band are as much a part of the cast as the leading actors.

“Being visible, being on stage makes them feel like artists rather than part of an overlooked service industry,” adds Carr.

A few days after we meet, cast and musicians, who have been rehearsing separately up until now, were due to come together for the first time.

“It’s always particularly exciting moment, particularly for the cast,” says Carr, who was about to head down to Stratford where he has composed the music for a production of The Shoemaker’s Holiday for the Royal Shakespeare Company. “Rehearsals for a show of this size and complexity can be pretty gruelling and having the band there gives them a real injection of energy. It makes them feel like it’s all coming together.”

Audiences will be unaware of the time that has gone into precisely marking the beat of every drum, just as they will be unaware of the man-hours involved in making the costumes. Victoria Marzetti is head of wardrobe at the Playhouse and as well as White Christmas she has also pulled together the costumes for the theatre’s two other Christmas shows, Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas and an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. “Let’s just say we’ve been working some very long hours and we’re still not quite there. I still need to order some shoes. Lots of shoes,” she says.

While some costumes can be recycled from other productions, most of the White Christmas collection has been made from scratch. “This is definitely the biggest show we have done for a long time. Most of the cast have at least 10 costume changes, some up to 15, so they will be either on stage performing or off it getting changed,” adds Victoria.

Finished outfits hang on rails and for White Christmas those costumes range from white tuxedos to sexy Santa outfits while even the most delicate of dresses have to be robust enough to last the eight-week run. “When there are matinee performances we are looking at seven shows a day, so the washing machines are going to be pretty busy. We get through it, we always get through it, but there are times when you look back and wonder quite how you did it.”

Back in the Playhouse’s main rehearsal room, Foster and his team are working through the choreography for the Blue Skies number. On one table is a bag of Marks & Spencer’s Percy Pig sweets and a packet of Jaffa Cakes, presumably for those who need a quick sugar rush as the afternoon wears on. At the moment it’s 
not needed as Darren Day does his bit stood on the baby grand and assistant director Tom Birch makes a decent stand-in for Emma Williams as his love interest Betty.

“These are always interesting pieces to cast because there are lots of talented theatre actors, but there aren’t many who can also sing and dance,” adds Foster. “A show like this needs star quality and I think we have that, not just with Darren, but with the three other leads too. The rest of the company is quite brilliant and I have no doubt that in a few years, some of them will be leading casts in shows like this. Honestly, there are some earth-shattering, beautiful moments.”

White Christmas, West Yorkshire Playhouse, to January 17. 0113 213 7700, www.wyp.org.uk