Say what you like about Dickens and Seuss; for my gelt the greatest Yuletide tale of all time was generated not by any goyim, but by my fellow Hebrew Irving Berlin, whose 1940 song "White Christmas" plays on endless repeat at my home during the holidays. So even through the menorahs have been packed away, I felt like I was opening another Hanukkah gift when I recently got to interview Jeremy Benton and Kelly Sheehan, who co-star in the stage version of White Christmas, my favorite seasonal movie musical, ahead of their appearance this week at Orlando's Dr. Phillips Center, Dec. 18-23.
When I spoke with Benton and Sheehan, who play the dance-heavy roles of Phil Davis and Judy Haynes (immortalized on screen by Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen), they were preparing for a two-performance day at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and eagerly anticipating the opportunity to breathe easy in Orlando. "We are a mile high and breathing 50 percent less air," Benton sighs.
Both Sheehan, the daughter of a professional dancer, and Benton, whose maternal grandfather was a singer, began performing at an early age. ("We were fetal dancers," Benton jokes.) The pair met in 2002 on Broadway's 42nd Street, working with director-choreographer Randy Skinner, who also helmed this production. Both began with the show over a dozen years ago as understudies, and have been touring their current roles for five seasons.
While most members of the audiences watching them on stage may hold strong memories of the original screen version, you may be surprised to learn that these White Christmas co-stars aren't among the movie's lifelong devotees. "I am embarrassed to say I hadn't actually seen it all the way through," Sheehan confesses. "It was only about three or four years ago that I saw the movie to its completion, and I thought 'Oh that's charming, no wonder people watch it every year.'"
Benton thinks Holiday Inn, the 1942 film that first featured White Christmas' title song, was "the better script as a movie, but White Christmas just tugs at people's heartstrings."
"Honestly, I enjoy how the stage version is constructed a lot more. It's just more of a big Broadway musical."
Keeping the iconic onscreen interpretations at arm's length allowed the actors develop their own takes on the quick-stepping sidekicks, who scheme to pair up their performing partners (played on film by Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, and on stage by Sean Montgomery and Kerry Conte) by faking an engagement. "These are beloved characters, so the fear and the danger is to start imitating what they did in the movie," says Benton. "You can't be listening and reacting as an actor if you're doing an imitation." Instead, he says the key to playing "old famous dead people" is to "bring that joy that you felt as a little kid watching [movies] with you on stage."
Fortunately, Sheehan says that slipping into her character (whom she describes as "a little sneaky, a little funny and a little mischievous"), and indeed the entire era, comes easily: "We were just born maybe in the wrong era. I think we have that internal 1950s clock inside of both of us."
Similarly, Benton says the "devilishly funny characters who happen to love to do ballroom and tap-dance" that they play are basically themselves. "People think we're acting, but we're just trying to make each other laugh."
Rest assured that the best-loved songs from the movie's soundtrack make the transition to stage, including "Sisters," "Snow" and "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing," which both Benton and Sheehan call their favorite dance number in the show. But even ardent White Christmas admirers must admit that some scenes – such as the "I'd Rather See a Minstrel Show/Mr. Bones" number – haven't aged as well. In the stage version, those problematic pieces have been plucked out, replaced with crowd-pleasers from Berlin's catalog like "I Love a Piano."
As for the screenplay's mid-century sexual mores, Benton reassures that "all of the things that might make you go 'ugh' when you watch an old '50s movie have been eliminated or edited," leaving a story where "everyone has equal footing."
But one thing that hasn't been altered is the story's old-fashioned romantic core. "There's really no bad guy in the show, it's really just miscommunication," says Sheehan. "It keeps it so sweet and innocent, and of course it ends happily ever after."