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by Adrienne Onofri
Two of Broadway's most endearing musical leading men, Marc Kudisch and Jeffry Denman, have teamed up for a seasonal engagement at off-Broadway's York Theatre Company, The Holiday Guys in Happy Merry Hanu-Mas. It would be easiest to call it a holiday revue. But also inaccurate. Perhaps a cabaret cum fireside chat cum holiday free-for-all might be more accurate. Oh yes, The Holiday Guys features singing of Christmas carols, as well as songs from your favorite Christmas TV shows (but in unique new renditions). There's also--naturally, with Denman present--tap dancing. Kazoos and a ukulele. A medley transposing a Hanukkah tune in Hebrew with "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." One of the guys in pajamas. A stage littered with holiday tchotchkes. And guest stars--a different one each night, drawn from the likes of Tyne Daly, Bobby Steggert and Carson Kressley.
Denman (left), who choreographed and performed in York's acclaimed 2010 musical Yank!, was the longtime star of the stage production of Irving Berlin's White Christmas as it made its way to Broadway in 2008 via four years of regional productions. Kudisch (below) is a Tony nominee for 9 to 5, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Thoroughly Modern Millie. Both these Holiday Guys' gals are also musical-theater performers: Erin Denman played Lola in Damn Yankees at the Ogunquit Playhouse last summer and has performed with her husband in White Christmas; Kudisch's wife, Shannon Lewis, is currently appearing on Broadway in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
The Holiday Guys in Happy Merry Hanu-Mas was presented earlier this month at Monmouth University in New Jersey, Buffalo's MusicalFare Theatre and the Signature Theatre outside Washington, D.C., and is running at the York through December 31, including a special late performance on New Year's Eve. We chatted with Kudisch and Denman backstage the day after their first performance in New York.
How did you two become the Holiday Guys?
JEFFRY Well, 2008 Christmas was when you were having your ride up to Greenwood Lake...
MARC My wife and I have this little house in Greenwood Lake--Jeff's been up there, it's lovely. I was driving up on my own, and because I'm Jewish, I was listening to Christmas music. I love it, I really, really love it. I was in the car listening to, I don't know who it was, probably Barenaked Ladies, and I called our friend Scott Siegel. Jeff and I have done a lot of concert work for Broadway by the Year [a series of concerts produced by Siegel at the Town Hall]--that's how we started working together. And I said to Scott, "We've gotta do a Christmas show. This is too much fun: I'm in my car driving and having the best time. We can give that to an audience. I'm gonna call Jeff, Jeff will do it." I called Jeff: "Dude, let's put together a Christmas concert. It'll be awesome!" "Great." Scott: "Great." Goes to Town Hall; Town Hall: "Sounds great." We're gonna get all of our friends--all the people that have been in Broadway by the Year--it's going to be a gift back to the audience for all these years, make it feel real homey, talking to them and not just singing at them... Everyone was in, they loved the idea of it--the simple idea, of essentially giving back. And then we hit all the red tape. And all the "It has to be this, it has to be that, it needs to have this, blah blah blah..."
JEFFRY One of them was that it needed celebrities, it needed high-powered names to sell it. Which we didn't believe, because we saw the audiences that were coming to Broadway by the Year.
MARC We were like, "That's not the point. That's not the point of why we're doing this." It was kind of like those years on the Tony Awards when everyone they showed on television had nothing to do with the Tony Awards. That was the feel we were getting. It was like, "Why are you looking over here when it's right in front of your face?"
JEFFRY I don't think they understood what the kernel of the idea was. I think they thought it was just another Broadway by the Year, with a Christmas tag on it. So what ended up happening is that, based on Marc's first instinct, we started to create something that was wholly different, that was not a show. It was an experience, it was a variety entertainment, it was a conversation with the audience, it was putting as much importance on them as what was going on on stage. That was something we didn't see being produced anywhere. I think we spent about an hour and a half at John's Pizzeria on 44th Street; we had a tablet, and we said, "Okay, what are we going to do?" We came up with about 18 "events," as we called them. And that was the beginning.
MARC It was like a happy accident, I have to say. It's a well-structured evening of spontaneity.
Is your show inspired by, or an homage to, those specials and variety shows on TV that don't exist anymore?
JEFFRY I don't think that we sat at home and watched them and researched them. I remember them from my childhood, so they're back there somewhere. And then when we started doing it, I think that those things just came out of us. Those specials are locking into something--or, actually, unlocking something that's very truthful: that people like to be social. And there are hosts, and there are guests. There are people who love being hosts; you saw that with Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope...those guys loved being hosts. The Smothers Brothers too. We happen to be two guys who like to be hosts, and we love to have guests.
MARC Carol Burnett, as well as Jonathan Winters...I was influenced deeply by their comedy, their sense of humor. One of the funniest guys I've ever seen--no one can make me laugh as hard--is Burt Reynolds. People forget how funny that man is. Jonathan Winters' show was an improvisational show, and he would have Burt Reynolds on all the time, and those two would just go. It allowed you to see people's real creativity, but it also gave you the opportunity to get closer. Anytime you watched The Carol Burnett Show, you always felt like you knew 'em. Shows like Laugh In--people were having fun, and they were drinking on camera. It was a party! I don't know that we set out for that; I do think, however, that we were influenced by that. It was other people that saw it in us...I remember the first time someone compared us to a modern-day Smothers Brothers. We'd never thought about that! But, yeah, that makes sense, because we're doing something that hasn't been done that way for a while.
Jeffry did White Christmas for many years. Marc, do you have any experience in holiday shows?
MARC The only holiday show I've ever done in my life was when I was in high school and my first year or two of college, I was the butler in the foyer for Campus Life Haunted House in south Florida. Let me tell you something, that was an awesome job. It was one of the coolest haunted houses you ever saw.
JEFFRY He approached me right after White Christmas hit Broadway, and I think my first reaction was "I've been doing White Christmas for five years. I don't want to be handcuffed into the 'holly jolly' kind of thing..." And he was like, "No, no, no! It's not going to be that. It's going to be all the fun things about the holidays and none of the commercial."
MARC White Christmas, Grinch, Christmas Story...perhaps they're bigger than they need to be. I think people see dollar signs, and so it goes bigger, bigger, bigger. We wanted to be the antithesis of that. Hence, two dudes in La-Z-Boy kind of chairs hanging around a fake fireplace. You're going to leave your living room to come to ours. There's nothing precious to what we're doing. And everyone's included.
Jeffry, what has Marc taught you about Hanukkah?
JEFFRY I never knew anything about the Maccabees. I knew there was a menorah and there were lights and there was oil that lasted. I didn't know there was, like, an action movie behind it--the Maccabees kicking ass.
MARC I'm pretty good with Christmas, too.
What's your favorite Christmas carol?
MARC I'm kinda biased toward "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" now... But, not ours, I'll always love Bing Crosby and David Bowie singing...
JEFFRY "Little Drummer Boy"
MARC ...and I'm a massive fan of Sting's album If on a Winter's Night... It's very English, which I think is what I like about it. It feels very Charles Dickensian.
JEFFRY When I was a teenager, my mom bought in the drugstore some sort of generic "twenty a cappella Christmas songs." There was no name, no group attributed on it. It was a cassette tape, and I've made it into a CD, which I still have. I can listen to that every single year. It is the most glorious music, my favorite Christmas album. Pick one of those on that album, and that puts me in the mood. It feels like a snowy, wintry night when you listen to it.
Do you have any special holiday traditions of your own?
JEFFRY The sad part about being involved in holiday shows like White Christmas is that so often I was away from my family or so busy doing shows that you barely have time to get a tree, you barely have time to go shopping, you barely have the energy to do any of those things. This is the first time I'm going to have Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off since 2004. I want to whisk my wife away somewhere--like, this nice little Christmas away. We've talked about getting a tree; we still haven't gotten one, and Christmas is a week away. So Christmas traditions have gone away, and I'm looking to build some, basically.
MARC When I was younger, the nice thing about Hanukkah is that every night the family would come together, light the menorah, sing a prayer... Nowadays, like he said, when most people are at play, we're at work--that's part of what they're at play at.
This year, we're going to go to [my wife's] folks up in Canada. Christmas dinner's going to be in Toronto. Usually, at home, what we do is, there are these awesome croissants that you can get from Williams-Sonoma. They don't sell them in the store; you have to order them online. And they're not inexpensive. But they are the real thing--oh, my god. They ship them frozen, and then you leave them out overnight so the yeast can rise. So, Christmas morning it is our tradition that we make those. And there's this great apple butter that you can get for them. [Mouthwateringly] Ohhhh... We do it on Christmas morning, and we do it for breakfast at Wimbledon.
What do you like best about the holidays in New York City?
JEFFRY I'm waiting and hoping that it will happen, and that is a light snowfall. I love New York in December when there's snow. I will go out in it--sometimes my wife will join me, sometimes she won't. My favorite city, the beauty of the snow, especially when it's a light snow, and then the Christmas lights... Go to Rockefeller Center, go even to Times Square where you see everything all dressed up, walk by Macy's and Bloomingdale's and take all of the shop windows in. And definitely Central Park. I love New York when it's snowing.
MARC I love--love, love, love--the Christmas village that's set up in Bryant Park. On a nice chilly night, Shannon and I will go down there and window-shop. It gets better and better every year. They have the ice skating rink there. And then we can sit and get a nice chocolate, or there are the little restaurants around it, and watch people ice skate.
Which Christmas special or movie is your favorite?
JEFFRY I think few get it better than Charlie Brown Christmas. Charlie Brown Christmas nails it! But then you've got to go to the Rankin-Bass specials: the whimsy that they have, and the sense of humor that they have, the winking to the audience--and the great songs. Moving forward [to more recent productions], the movie Elf gets me every time. When Santa shows up at the end and they all start singing...it just kills me.
MARC It's a Wonderful Life, just because it's also a genius film. And it's dark, which I love. It's not just sweet or cute or precious. It's about something, and it really brings you home to the idea of what the holidays should be about. I also love Christmas Carol, the one with, is it Alistair Cooke? Alastair Sim. It's such a classic. Again, it's dark and moody... And Christmas Story. They play it nonstop on TBS. It is pretty damn funny.
We've had White Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Elf and now A Christmas Story--what should be the next Christmas movie to become a Broadway musical?
MARC It's a Wonderful Life hasn't gotten its shot yet. It was written by Sheldon Harnick [and Joe Raposo]. The only time it's been done in New York--there are some rights issues--was when we did a benefit for the Actors Fund [in 2005].
But we don't need to keep musicalizing films.... I can tell you from doing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which is one of my favorite films of all time: I cannot watch it anymore, because I did it on Broadway. To play the Baron in Chitty was a dream job for me. I was like a kid again. I love that film, so to play one of those characters? And now, if I ever hear [singing title song] "Chitty Bang Bang, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang...," I just turn it off. There's that joy--that annual tradition--that sort of just got killed.
What will you be doing after the holidays?
JEFFRY I'm going to be working on the Sondheim piece Passion, Classic Stage downtown. Judy Kuhn, Melissa Errico and Ryan Silverman have the leads. John Doyle has a take on it--which he always does--that the soldiers play all of the other characters. My buddy from White Christmas, Stephen Bogardus, is going to be in it, and other guys--we're playing women, men, all the other characters... I'm really looking forward to it. I'm just jumping out of my shoes to work with John Doyle. Rob Berman, an old friend, is the music director. As my agent said, it's going to be sexy.
MARC I have written a piece about the history of the baritone voice that I am presenting at ArtsEmerson [in Boston]. In the near future we are presenting it in New York for a lot of theater owners. We're setting up a small tour, and hopefully we can film it for PBS--they're interested. Then I am negotiating a lovely acting job that requires zero singing. And then I have another job offer immediately following that. So there's a whole lot going on. But then he and I have to continue to write. The minute we finish with this, we then have to go, "Okay, next year..."
JEFFRY It took the better part of this year to create this month.
MARC This for us is our first step. When we talk about other holidays, it's not a joke. There's a lot more the Holiday Guys have to say.
To wrap up this interview, complete this sentence: All I want for Hanu-Mas is...
JEFFRY It's a long list, but most of it has to do with the psychological and emotional state of the people in the Northeast who have been hit, in one way or another, first with Sandy and then with Sandy Hook. I think that sometimes we move so quickly through the news cycle that we're onto the next thing and we forget that people are suffering and it's not ending for them. The people in New Jersey are still rebuilding, and will be for months, if not years. The people in Sandy Hook have just begun their journey. The more we can just remember them, sending good energy and prayer and thoughts, that's one of the best gifts that we can give, if not actually being there for them physically.
MARC Then just a moment of silence. I mean for us. When all is said and done, that there's a moment where we can have a nice big, deep satisfying breath. A well-deserved rest. And then we'll move on.
For more information and tickets to The Holiday Guys in Happy Merry Hanu-Mas, click here.
Production photos by Carol Rosegg