Ahh, Christmastime in New York: skating in Central Park, freshly harvested pine trees for sale up and down the avenues, the flushed faces of toy-buying tourists spilling out of FAO Schwarz, and camel poop on the stage of Radio City Music Hall.
True, some traditions aren't as well known as others. But a few New Yorkers have trouble handling the relentlessly cheery face this city puts on for the holiday season, so they develop their own version of seasonal affective disorder, stripping away the tinsel and laying bare some of the backstage reality of Christmas in New York.
Take actress Jennifer Jiles. For four years in the mid-1990s, she high-kicked her way across the stage of Radio City as one of the few dozen Rockettes in the annual Christmas Spectacular. To the thousands of little girls who've come to town and dressed up in the finery that befits a $125 (U.S.) ticket, being a Rockette is a dream come true.
To Jiles, it was just a really tedious job, especially on the five-show days that began at 9 a.m. and ended past 10 p.m., when she had to fight her way through the crowds outside the theatre. "Everybody's so happy and you just want to kill them, you're so tired," she told me last week.
She developed a one-woman show out of her experiences called Kicking and Screaming, which just finished a brief run at Dillon's, opposite Studio 54. A few theatre producers may be interested in taking it to a bigger house, but in the meantime Jiles is working on a tell-all book about the catty Rockette sisterhood.
Last week, she reminisced about some things the Christmas Spectacular audiences don't get to see or hear, like the vodka-soaked pineapple chunks the dancers pop as they come onstage, the stagehands with fake salamis down their pants, and the endless chattering on stage, about sales at Macy's, during the Toy Soldiers number. "You're 30 yards away from the audience," Jiles said. "There's a lot going on that nobody hears or sees."
That would include the camel dung, regularly deposited by the animal talent during the manger scene. (What are you gonna do, fire the camel?)
Jiles spent many of her shows staring out into the massive Radio City auditorium looking for the tell-tale red light of video cameras, since taping the show is forbidden. Coming off stage for a quick change, she'd tell security where to find the video banditos. Not that she cared if people taped the show. But, "I was bored. You're doing the same thing over and over, so you gotta find some way to liven it up."
There's a radically different high-kick line livening up the outer reaches of 42nd Street this season, in a hit show that cobbles a Christmas tradition onto a subversive fable: A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant.
As the name suggests, the hour-long show is the story of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Hollywood's favourite empowering pseudo-religion, enacted in a consciously amateurish and high-kitsch pageant style by a cast of 10 children aged 8 to 12.
Many of the kids are adorable, though it seems unlikely that they fully appreciate the ironic venture they're involved in. (A 10-year-old watching the show next to me was bored silly, while the adults around him hooted with laughter.) That's partly the point: The director of Very Merry Unauthorized has manipulated his young actors to do his bidding just as Scientology has been accused of manipulating its members. Still, watching it can creep you out. The famously litigious church sent a representative to see the show but has not given its feedback, which is to say it has not yet sued.
It's a good thing the more established religions are less inclined to seek judicial relief, because they'd have a full plate with some of the other shows in town. Down at Joe's Pub on Friday night, a woman calling herself Tammy Faye Starlite took her cabaret act, Passion in the Manger: Tammy Faye's Christmas Crusade, to the people. While I couldn't make it to the show (it was the first night of Hanukkah, not to mention the fourth night of Lord of the Rings), I was intrigued by a press release that said the show "is also part of a promotional campaign for Mel Gibson's magnificent upcoming epic, The Passion. (Portions of this concert are performed in Aramaic. Translations will be available upon request.)"
The next night, the downtown singer Lea Delaria concluded a set of seasonal cabaret cheer in her brief run of Virgin Mary, Make Mine a Double: A Very Lea Christmas at the Belt Theater. She took issue with a popular carol, suggesting that no woman would ever write a song celebrating childbirth and call it Silent Night, poked fun at her own "axis of evil" (George W. Bush, the Pope and Andrew Lloyd Webber), and took swigs from a vodka bottle atop a piano as if to dull her pain. But you can't accuse Delaria of not being in the spirit: As part of her act she invited audience members to launch a sex toy into a Christmas basket.
It's all in fun, of course, but sometimes genuine distress underlies New York's dissonant Christmas spirit. Last week FAO Schwarz's Fifth Avenue flagship store had the feeling of a downmarket garage sale, with tacky yellow Store Closing signs papering the place. This year the company tried for the second time but ultimately failed to fight its way out of bankrupcy. Executives are now accepting bids for the assets. Merry Christmas, everyone.