The Rockettes performing at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
The Rockettes performing at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

Broadway and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

The anticipation is building in towns across the country as marching bands prepare for their time in the spotlight. Finishing touches are being put on balloons and floats in Moonachie, New Jersey. Soon, they’ll be sent on their way through the Lincoln Tunnel and then rigged and built up to 30 feet tall in time for Thanksgiving Day.

Miss America will be waving on the Uncle Sam’s Top Hat float, the Pep Rally float’s cheerleaders will spread holiday joy and the Spider-Man balloon will again spring into action. And some of Broadway’s finest will, for the 87th year, march, ride, sing and dance in one of New York’s — and Broadway’s — grandest traditions.

The 87th Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade — the longest-running show on Broadway — will air live on NBC on November 28 from 9 a.m. to 12 noon. Three-and-a-half million spectators will line the parade route in New York, joining 50 million TV viewers across the country to ring in the holiday season by cheering for their favorite floats, balloons — and Broadway performers. Broadway has been an essential part of the parade starting with the very first one in 1924, which also featured animals from the Central Park Zoo!

Back then, the parade had only about a dozen elements. Today, it’s grown into the nation’s most beloved spectacle, with 15 giant character balloons, including the premiere this year of an all-new Snoopy and Woodstock; 30 floats, plus 11 marching bands, 37 additional balloons, 1,600 dancers and cheerleaders and 900 clowns.

“The parade is Macy’s gift to America,” said Bill Schermerhorn,  vice president and creative director for Macy’s Parade & Entertainment Group. “Broadway is New York City’s most important industry, and parade viewers across the country look forward each year to experiencing a taste of some of Broadway’s greatest shows and performers,” he said. “They keep these performances in mind when they plan their next trip to New York and decide what shows to see. With so few opportunities to showcase Broadway on national TV these days, the parade is one of Broadway’s greatest boosters.”

“What surprises people most about the parade is the care we take to put it all together,” Schermerhorn said. As creative director, it’s his job to make sure each year’s parade tells a story and has a flow every bit as compelling as a Broadway musical. “The order of the parade is thought out, telling the story of the holiday season.” Planning starts early: Schermerhorn’s group starts working with some partners as much as two years in advance. The marching bands that will appear in the 2014 parade have already been selected.

Since the early 1960s, every parade has started with Tom Turkey to welcome Thanksgiving and ended with Santa and Mrs. Claus in a sleigh to signal the beginning of the Christmas season. Schermerhorn and his team focus on variety when they plan the order of the parade’s attractions. “Just like in a Broadway show, you don’t want two ballads in a row,” he said.

Of course, Broadway stars and numbers are big crowd-pleasers. How do parade organizers decide which Broadway shows get to perform during the parade? It’s a joint decision between Macy’s and NBC, which broadcasts the parade nationally. The goal is to represent the widest range of Broadway shows in a given season, offering something for everyone. Other considerations: Will a number work on the street without lighting or sets? Is the production OK with the risk that performers and their costumes may get soaked in heavy rains or blown around in heavy winds? Just about all of them are more than willing to participate, given the opportunity for the biggest and best exposure of the year.

The parade has featured memorable performances from many fan favorites over the years. “One of my favorite memories is from my first year working on the parade,” Schermerhorn said. “Cats performed, and we had cats leaping out of a real manhole, crawling all over Broadway.”

Years later, Betty Buckley, who won a Tony award for Cats, moved the nation by opening the first parade after 9/11 by singing “America the Beautiful.”

What other Broadway legends have made the parade a highly anticipated must-see event year after year for theater fans? For starters: Carol Channing, Joel Gray, Nathan Lane, Chita Rivera, Ann Miller, Andrea McArdle, Glenn Close, Jim Dale, Larry Kert, Tommy Tune, Ben Vereen, Donna Murphy and Jennifer Holiday. Last year, parade viewers got to see performances from Cinderella and Annie, among other shows. In previous years, Newsies and Anything Goes were featured in parade-stopping numbers. Ten years ago, original cast members Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth sang “One Short Day” from Wicked less than a month after that show’s opening night. This year, Ms. Chenoweth will be back, singing “New York, New York.” And Megan Hilty performs the holiday favorite “Merry Christmas, Darling.”

What else is in store for Broadway fans this year? They’ll be treated to blockbuster performances from current Broadway hits Kinky BootsMatilda, Motown, and Pippin, and to a special appearance by Carrie Underwood and cast members from NBC’s much-anticipated The Sound of Music.

Marching bands are also an annual favorite. Hundreds of bands compete for the honor of marching, but this year, only 11 have been invited to perform. Among the chosen few: The James Madison University Marching Royal Dukes, the largest collegiate marching band in the nation, with 482 members, will play “My Favorite Things”; the Ooltewah High School Band will perform a special Wizard of Oz medley; and the United States Marine Corps Quantico Band, whose musicians all are active-duty Marines, will play “Strike Up the Band.”

“The parade brings holiday magic to New York,” Schermerhorn said. “Every performer I’ve been talking with wants to be in the parade. It’s a great tradition. Not just performers, but everyone loves the parade. Young kids. Seniors. Even the cops working the route are having a great time.”