In the Confabulations series, I instigate a virtual “public conversation” about a “live event” that some interesting person and I both happened to experience. To inspire a Confabulation, a “live event” might be a telecast, a livestreamed webcast, or one of those “live in HD” things at your local cineplex. Or it might be an actual “live” festival, concert, stageshow or somesuch. As a general rule, though, my confab partner and I will not have been in the same spot (day/time/place/row/etc) at the time of the “live event” and thus our ostensibly shared experience of the event will always be at some remove. Also, given my tastes, I suspect that very few Confabulation-worthy events will be what you might call “highbrow.”
And what better way to kick things off than with some reflections on a definitely-not-highbrow actual performance that was somehow both “live” and “live in 3D”… The 2013 edition of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular!
My new friend Dan Dinero joined me for this first confabulation. Dan holds a PhD in Performance Studies from NYU, where he presently teaches. A specialist in (and theorist of) musical theatre, Dan is also an award-winning theatre director and prolific theatre reviewer. Our confabulation below distills a series of email exchanges (which have been edited for length and flow) that Dan and I shared in the final days of 2013.
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BRIAN HERRERA: Let’s start with true confessions: I went to this year’s Radio City Christmas Spectacular as a total lark. One of my closest high school friends was in NYC from Los Angeles with her husband and two kids (boy 11, girl 9). They were in town to be tourists and had decided to do Radio City on Christmas day. I’ve only been to Radio City twice before: the first time for a patriotic summer show in the early 1980s (when I was about 13 or so) and the next about twenty years ago, when a friend (who was a lighting designer working on the Christmas show) invited me to see a dress run. And, this year, I just thought it would be a hoot to tag along. (I did promise to make reservations for an xmas Chinese dinner afterwards.)
DAN DINERO: I had been to the Christmas show at Radio City once before. I went with my family one winter weekend when we saw a few other shows. The Christmas show was, by far, my least favorite show. At fifteen, I preferred more rarefied theatre — you know, like Miss Saigon. Since I moved to NYC in 1999, I think I’ve been to Radio City once or twice, but never for the Christmas show.
So how in the heck did you end up at the Radio City Christmas Spectacular this year?
My boyfriend Gabriel lives in Buenos Aires and came up to visit for the month of December. I wanted to give him a decent sampling of NY theatre — a little Broadway, a little off Broadway, a little off-off, Joe’s Pub, etcetera — and I had the idea he would appreciate the spectacle of the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular! He is also an architect, and he loves Art Deco, so if nothing else, I figured, if the show was as dumb as I remembered it, the theatre itself would still be grand. We went on a Tuesday morning at 11. Tickets were cheaper and it seemed to be the least popular show time. We also got there somewhat early — both to enjoy the theatre itself before the show, and also to beat the throngs. I was very impressed with how seamless everything was in terms of entering the theatre and getting to your seat.
I went at 4pm on Christmas day. So not at all on the “cheaper” end and, boy howdy, were there throngs. But it’s quite the operation they’ve got in place, hustling 6000 people in and out of that building for 4-6 shows per day. I didn’t even buy a toy, candy or cocktail from any of the concessioneers, and still I think I interacted with 4, maybe 5, separate uniformed people between the first ticket scanner and the usher (who totally shocked me by handing me a pair 3D glasses along with my playbill).
My mother went earlier this year, so she had told me about the 3D. Based on her report, I was expecting to see tons of kids running around in the aisles, waving all of those spinning lights they sell in the lobby.
But, I must say, I enjoyed myself far more than I had expected, although I admittedly went in with very low expectations.
What did you think was the most remarkable thing about the show?
I keep coming back to the mother-daughter pair — the “main characters” (aside from Santa) in the central (albeit slight) narrative.
Given that the Rockettes only admitted people of color in 1986 or 87, I was pleasantly surprised to see a black woman and her daughter as the leading players in this show. The mother didn’t really engage in typical “big black lady” performance tropes either and didn’t break out into a big gospel number or anything. (She may have sung a big riff at the end of one number, but that was it). There’s the daughter’s Christmas wish for a “boy’s toy” and we see mother AND daughter actually playing a video game. I am having trouble thinking of another mainstream show or movie where I have seen this.
I can’t say I found the Tracy/Kayla storyline as compelling as you. But, you’re right — I would have likely been even less interested had they been, say, a mother-son pair. But mostly, though, I think I was a little gobsmacked by the fact that I was sitting in Radio City wearing cardboard glasses watching someone onstage “play” a video game in 3D! (The game was a projected animated video in which Kayla helps her mother Tracy learn to use the video game’s joystick control so that they can together eliminate pesky Humbugs with twinkling zaps of holiday cheer. Of course, the ostensible object of the game is to save Christmas but, as Santa knows, it’s really to bring this squabbling mother-daughter pair together.)
Even so, by the time we got to the video game, I had become somewhat inured to the extraordinary digital projections throughout the show. Better CGI than in most feature films, all synchronized to “interact” with moving human bodies and stage props. Quite spectacular throughout, really.
I guess I’ve become a bit of a grinch about the increasingly frequent use of projections.
One wonders if, in ten years or so, there will be any actual building of a set out of wood and steel. The CGI was outstanding but I just find projections a bit cold, and these made me hunger all the more for the Rockettes and the other “live” elements of the show. I mean, how special is “3D” when you’re watching live theatre. Isn’t live theatre the original 3D?
I really was jostled, I guess, by exactly the paradox you just named: “Huh?! You’re asking me to put 3D glasses on when there are real people on stage?” I did think the 3D an intriguing evocation of the origins of both the Rockettes and RadioCity, as a hybrid venue in which you might see the dance number as part of a larger bill that included films. And I can almost hear the producers pitching the 3D in exactly the terms you use: “This is a generation of kids that knows and expects a 3D experience when they sit in a big theatre. Let’s show them that live theatre is 3D.” Indeed, the 3D glasses struck me as the show’s gesture to “meet the audience where they are” — for better and worse. And, in certain moments, like when the Rockette-bus was touring holiday Manhattan, the 3D made an otherwise banal moment appealingly meta.
That number makes NYC look so magical because there is NO traffic! Of course New York City is wonderful during the holidays…for the Rockettes. They aren’t cold. Or tramping through slush. Or cramped up in a crowd of tourists all trying to get that perfect shot of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.
One of my younger companions said that her favorite part was the costumes from the Rockette bus-tour, when they strip down from elegant winter coats to glitter minis. Even from the mezzanine, Sadie noticed that those Rockettes wearing coats with red-sequin accents wore a green sequined minis (and vice-versa). I was distracted perhaps by my alarm that The Rockettes were leaving their lovely white coats on the bus!
But The Rockettes’ “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” is a classic, too. Sitting fairly close, it was very interesting to see the final “all fall down” bit (in which the soldiers line up single file, and then a cannonball is shot into the first one, so they all fall in succession). The move happens very very slowly, and each Rockette painstakingly links arms with the one in front. I liked seeing the intricacies of this moment.
That number really is quite entrancing in person. I always forget that Vincent Minnelli designed those costumes, which also stands (or falls) as perhaps my favorite reminder of the military roots of things as disparate as Busby Berkeley and High School Marching Bands. This time through, though, I realized how — in the 1930s — The Rockettes were just one of many such synchro-dancing troupes in New York and Hollywood; it’s just that The Rockettes are perhaps the only troupe still kicking today.
As Gabi and I were walking around the theatre and saw something about the Rockettes, he asked me “Oh, are the Rockettes still around?” I hadn’t told him anything so I smiled, and said “Who do you think we are going to see today?” It’s interesting to me that, living in Buenos Aires, he has heard of the Rockettes, but in his mind, they are something from another time, a relic of a (distant?) past. I guess in that respect we are lucky to have them — there is something delightful about having a troupe dedicated to this style of dance.
Were you gobsmacked, surprised or otherwise awed by any particular aspect of the Christmas Spectacular?
Gabi was somewhat surprised by the Nativity scene.
Not just that there was a live camel and sheep, but that there was anything religious in the show at all. If anything, I was a bit disappointed. There was this fast march of animals across the stage. A few sheep, a few people — it was like they were worried the baby Jesus would be gone before they got there. My memories of this moment are far more majestic and, well, I was a bit underwhelmed.
Now that you mention it, the live nativity did seem a bit hustled. I think I was fixated on just how specific some of the “we three kings of Orient are” costumes actually were, but, yes, I do think this version was a bit blink-and-you’ll-miss-the-Jesus — a very quick nod to the ostensible reason for the season.
I thought it was funny that the Nativity number was “justified” by having Tracy read Kayla the story before bedtime (in a 5-second snapshot, essentially) — funny in that there was, in fact, a narrative justification (however minimal) for the Nativity in a Christmas show. In fact, the Santa-as-narrator allowed for a “narrative” that ran throughout the entire show — certainly a flimsy one, but the show was not just a series of disconnected numbers and there was a “reason” for each number, which surprised me. Apparently (at least according to my mother, who was seen the show a few times in the past several years) this is not always the case.
I was most surprised by end of the new-this-year “Snow” number, when those Snowflake Drone things wafted out of the orchestra pit and did their little GPS-controlled balloon ballet.
I had perhaps a perfect view from my mezzanine seat and, because they looked like giant clear beach balls with dimensional snowflakes inside, I first thought they were just a somewhat deluxe collection of regular helium balloons released to float upwards until they hit whatever. But before I could even look to see if any errant balloons from previous performances lurked at the edges of Radio City’s vast ceiling, I realized that these snow balloons were rising in perfect synchronization. And then I noticed the little antenna things sticking out from each balloon’s midsection. And that’s when I knew. These floating snowflakes were not balloons at all. They were Snowflake Drones. So when they began flying methodically toward me in my mezzanine seat? Yikes. I mean, talk about the 3D experience! But (thankfully and quickly) their drone master summoned them home. And as I watched them return to the pit in perfectly synchronized formation, I felt like I was — for better and worse — witnessing the future of live commercial theatre.
I was sitting directly beneath them, so I could tell immediately those snowflakes were not actual balloons. When I saw them, the term that came to mind was “radio-controlled” — as in a radio-controlled car or some such thing. But then, they were never flying towards me. I think you’re right. This is the future of live commercial theatre. A bit scary, now that you say that. Between the soldiers and the drones, this holiday spectacle is incredibly militaristic, no? Maybe the projections aren’t so bad after all.
Well. On that spirited note… Any final thoughts?
I have to say — even with all of my “academic-y criticism” — I enjoyed myself. It was a lovely way to spend the morning, and I left in a cheerful, festive mood. While I wasn’t bowled over by anything, I also wasn’t bored.
I totally hear you. Quite frankly, I found it utterly enthralling and actually sorta spectacular.
I was pleasantly surprised how pleasant it all was. And perhaps THAT is what I found the most surprising.
If nothing else, the Rockettes are always a delight, and maybe next time, they will remember to take their coats with them!
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