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By Sylviane Gold
It’s the second week of rehearsals for the Broadway musical Elf, and director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw is closing in on finishing one big dance number—five to go. The six men of the ensemble, one woman, and two featured players have linked arms for the finale: step-kick-step-kick, step-kick-step-kick. It’s a familiar move, but this chorus line is not. Most of the men will wear white beards and Santa suits, and the song is a career-specific lament: “Nobody cares, nobody cares, nobody cares about Santa.”
Set in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas eve, after the Santas have finished their assorted gigs, the number shares the genial irony that made Jon Favreau’s 2003 film a hit. But it was entirely invented by the show’s creators, book writers Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone) and Thomas Meehan (Annie), composer Matthew Sklar (The Wedding Singer), and lyricist Chad Beguelin (The Wedding Singer).
Nicholaw joined them for a six-week workshop last year. And now, the dancing Santas promise to be a highlight in the story of Buddy, the human baby accidentally brought to Santa’s workshop in the North Pole and raised there as an elf.
A film whose mantra is “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear” would seem to be a natural for musical theater. But Nicholaw says he has learned otherwise. “The humor has changed,” he says during a lunch break. “It kind of had to. The movie was able to have a sight gag and cut away, another sight gag and cut away. And you were seeing peoples’ closeup responses to a big guy in an elf suit. But if he has to sing six numbers, it’s a whole different thing.”
Nicholaw’s stage savvy does not come out of nowhere, though it appeared to when he won a Tony nomination for choreographing his first Broadway show, Spamalot, then two more for his second, The Drowsy Chaperone. He began in musical theater as a kid with the famed San Diego Junior Theater. And he started amassing non-Broadway credits after inviting theater types to a self-financed showcase.
As work on the Santa number resumes, Nicholaw begins with a casual soft-shoe routine that gradually builds into a raucous floor-pounding display of Santa angst. He’s tweaking the blocking, giving corrections, and keeping the postures natural, making sure there’s no signal that a dance number is about to explode. But explode it does. And by the end, everyone cares about Santa.
Sylviane Gold writes on theatre for The New York Times.
Photo by Kyle Froman