Blame the falling chandelier in The Phantom of the Opera. Since then, it seems like in orderto have a successful touring musical there has to be more than a good story and great singing, dancing and acting. Like flying witches (Wicked) or a character who taps dances around the entire proscenium arch—including upside down (Mary Poppins).
Or, in the case of Irving Berlin's White Christmas, which opens at Bass Performance Hall on Tuesday, you have snow. And not just the snow on the stage that you'd expect for a show called White Christmas. After all, tech types have been making precipitation on stage, in the form or rain or snow, for ages. But in this tour, some of that snow actually falls on the audience. (It won't be new to Bass Hall audiences, where the Fort Worth Symphony has been making it snow in the auditorium for its annual Home for the Holidays concert for years.)
TheaterJones chatted about the theatrical white powder with John Calder, production stage manager for the tour of Irving Berlin's White Christmas, which is based on the 1954 movie starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. Calder has been in the business for 30 years, and last worked at Bass Hall for a Casa Mañana production of Annie. He was involved with White Christmas on its 2007 and 2010 tours, too. (It was on Broadway in the 2008 and 2009 Christmas seasons.) This stop marks the show's North Texas debut.
TheaterJones: What is the show made of?
John Calder: There are two types of snow. We have like a confetti snow that's onstage, but the big event is during the finale. We have 10 snow machines. Four of them over the stage, and the rest over the audience. Basically they are adjusted bubble machines. It's a chemical like bubbles, but designed to create a snowflake instead of a bubble.
Have you ever had complaints about the substance, especially in places like Texas where some of the women in the audience might have hair that's, shall we say, carefully molded?
We have not had complaints about it. It's an "ah" moment at the end of the show, there's ice-skating happening on the stage, and then the snow comes down. It doesn't cause any stain or chemical problem. It's just a small bubble. By the time the person gets up from their seat at the end of the show, they wouldn't even know it had been there. It dissipates that quickly.
It doesn't leave a slippery residue like bubbles?
No. All of our tap dancers dance on it. We have a dance floor, and people have a tendency to think it's slippery with this substance on the floor, but it's not. Most of the time it will dissipate before it hits the floor. By the end of the curtain call it's all gone.
Do touring shows need to find a hook like this to keep the audience's interest?
Ultimately it's what's on the stage that's important, because if the audience is going to be bored, they won't stay around until the end. These sort of techniques or additions are attempts to give the audience a little wow factor, to give the family audience and children something that's out of the ordinary. For those of us who came to the theater as children, there were moments we thought were exciting and magical, and this is our attempt to do a little icing on the cake, or snow on the cake. But yes, shows do have to find a hook. Something where the audience can leave and say "that was unexpected."
◊ For an example of the dancing, here's a clip from the 2008 Broadway production, of the number "I Love a Piano."