To paraphrase Tolkien: One does not simply walk into The Radio City Christmas Spectacular. First of all, there are so many security gates. Second, its city-block-size lobby has a popcorn counter, which is very difficult to walk past. And third (in my particular case), one is a bit worried that glittery-toothed razzle-dazzle simply isn’t one’s jam.
Thus, as in Tolkien, a fellowship. A kind friend lent me himself and his two kids for the afternoon so that we could see The Radio City Christmas Spectacular together. I spent much of the time watching the show, and some of the time watching them. What I learned (other than the fact that you can get a small ice rink onstage) is that adult eyes go to very different places than children’s eyes do during a production. The grown-ups follow the story, but the kids follow the details. Also, despite conventional wisdom, children aren’t all that bothered about being bored. These inner resources mean that when the show occasionally lapses into monotony, they might wriggle a bit — but they keep finding things to look at. Adults watch; children notice. It’s humbling how much more they saw than I did.
For the record, we’d seen a lot. After a big countdown (the whole room chimes in), the show starts with a 3-D video projection that seems to fill the cavernous hall: We fly with an animated Santa from the North Pole, down through the eerily clean and empty streets of midtown, and up to Rockefeller Center. Presents tumble off his sleigh and into the air, seemingly in front of us. “Real” Santa then comes bounding in, full of bonhomie, to introduce us to the “Christmas stockings” (oy), by which he means the lower half of a whole lineup of Rockettes. Beneath a partly raised curtain, dozens of perfectly nude-stockinged legs go kick kick kick, swivel swivel swivel, and we’re forcibly reminded of the form’s less than family-friendly origins. Once upon a time, this sort of entertainment was for men who wanted to see dancing girls showing their gams. Radio City is where vaudeville and the Follies ended up — with three-foot-tall fans in Elsa dresses eating popcorn in the lobby.
While the audience has changed, the Rockettes have been sashaying their way through some of these numbers for 80 years. The highly satisfying “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” in which they march in Busby Berkeley–meets–the military formation and then collapse like slow-motion dominoes, was in the show when Russell Markert founded it in 1933. Indeed, the show makes constant reference to tradition, with dashes of the old to season the new. There’s a highly condensed Nutcracker, with all the dancing sugarplums played by giant Plushy bears, and a living nativity with camels — those three kings came with a retinue apparently — and a number in which the Rockettes tour the city on a Gray Line bus. When they get to the stage version of Times Square, the billboards light up with product placement. I could tell you which bank and which December sales event for which car, but that’s the sort of knowledge you (and they) will have to to pay for.
There is also a small playlet, in which two brothers discover the meaning of Christmas. Santa whisks them to a kind of steampunk North Pole, where a chorus of huge Raggedy Ann dolls convince them of the perfect gift to buy their sister. And, of course, there’s dancing. The choreographer Julie Branam incorporates tap, ballet, jazz, and even a little twerking into her numbers, which nearly always come to a crescendoing unison ta-daaaa. And ultimately, for me, that everything-ends-with-a-big-finish quality is why the show felt long and rather tiring. On a conceptual level, there was a similar sense of the … inescapable. Almost every moment was wrestled around, eventually, to the twin concepts of BUY SOMETHING and COME BACK NEXT YEAR. And as I felt myself resisting both messages, I turned to my showgoing companions, who had, indeed, come back this year.
After the show, we had a discussion about what we’d seen. Here, with some light editing, is that conversation.
Alice, 5 years old. Has seen the show once before. Medium-squirmy during the show, but participating fully, diving for ribbons when they fell from the ceiling.
Penny, 10 years old. Has seen the show once before. Ambivalent, cautious, but very eager to stay fair and to give the show its due.
Dad: Their dad; has seen the show four times. Weary.
Vulture’s critic: a newbie.
Interior, a café near Radio City Music Hall.
Dad: Hot chocolates coming up. Oh, God, what a day!
Vulture: What’d you think of the show?
Dad: You’re recording this?
Vulture: [Waves cell phone.]
Dad: I’m an old-fashioned guy; I like the high kicking. And my favorite part is the Toy Soldiers. Those are the old bits, and I felt they were drowned out by the rest of the stuff.
Alice: The dominoes were pretty good. I like the high kicking and their dresses.
Vulture: Which dresses in particular?
Alice: Well, I do like the dresses that have all the colors like swirling like a painting. They have all the colors on them and the light around at the end.
Dad: This one loves to dance.
Vulture: Interesting. Alice, as a dancer — is this [Rockettes-style] the kind of dancing you do?
Alice: I don’t really do tap.
Penny: She does more freestyle and twirling and sometimes [thoughtfully] high kicking.
Vulture: Penny, do you have a favorite part?
Penny: I don’t know if I really had a favorite part. I liked the Ben and Patrick scene of the nonbeliever. The Christian part wasn’t my favorite part, but with that they were really appealing to one kind of crowd. I think there could have been people who would say, “I hate that part,” and I didn’t! But I think that most of their stuff is sort of appealing to everybody, but that was more directed.
Vulture: Alice, I noticed you liked the projections. You were certainly noticing things in those projections that I wasn’t seeing, like the spiraling candy and a flying reindeer.
Alice: It gives you so much to look at!
Vulture: Is that good or bad?
Alice: That’s good.
[Everyone sips hot chocolate.]
Alice: DAD! Did you like the religion thing?
Dad: Not really, no.
Alice: But those animals were part of the religion thing, so you are saying [hard cross-examination here in which she forces her father to admit that he liked seeing the animals in the Nativity scene].
Dad: Okay, okay.
Penny: I think the reason this show is so popular is because humans are interested in the exotic.
Penny: The exotic.
Both adults: The exotic?
Penny: The unusual. We normally don’t see like 100 dancers on a stage synchronizing and tap dancing; we normally don’t see human dominos; we don’t normally see a camel or a donkey or a sheep onstage.
Vulture: Is there anything else you want to tell people?
Alice: That it’s really good! They are really nice dresses and you should really like it.
Penny: If you’re into ballet and dad jokes then you should go.
Vulture: I see, Alice, that you’ve got a ribbon that fell from the ceiling. There’s a lot of that stuff in this show. Do you feel that’s a real selling point?
Penny: You know, I don’t get why we like things coming out of the sky. If a meteor fell from the sky, would we be so happy?
Alice: DAD DAD DAD DAD
Penny: I mean, the dinosaurs weren’t so happy.