Macy’s, Thanksgiving, and Musical Theater

Macy’s, Thanksgiving, and Musical Theater

While theater folk are notorious for sleeping late, casts from five different Broadway musicals will be up before dawn breaks on Thursday, November 27. If they’re not, they won’t make it to Herald Square in time for their 6:45 a.m. call.

“The casts are from On the Town, Side Show, Honeymoon in Vegas, The Last Ship, and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” reports William Schermerhorn. “They’ve got to be there that early for rehearsals.”
True, four of the shows have come to Broadway only in the last few weeks, but A Gentleman’s Guide has been running more than a year. Why would it need to rehearse?

Because Thursday, November 27, is Thanksgiving, and the casts will be learning how to be camera-ready for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade that will be seen starting at 9 a.m. on NBC.

It’s all under the supervision of Schermerhorn, the vice president and creative director of Macy’s Parade and Entertainment Group. He’s also a longtime fan of Broadway.

“This year, we’re also honored to have the kids from the new Annie movie on one float and Idina Menzel [from If/Then] on another. And of course we always have the Rockettes,” he adds, paying tribute to the Radio City Music Hall mainstays. “William Ivey Long,” he says, citing the six-time Tony winner for costume design, “has created an outfit for our executive director, Amy Kule, for her ribbon-cutting.”

While Schermerhorn can’t claim that he was working the parade when it started in 1924, he’s been with it for more than three decades. Under his watch, the march from Manhattan’s Upper West Side to 34th Street and Broadway usually goes swimmingly. But every now and then a glitch occurs.

Although more than 20 years have passed, Schermerhorn still winces when he remembers the 1993 parade in which Jo Anne Worley was playing Little Miss Muffet and Ruth Buzzi was dressed as Little Bo Peep. While the latter character is famous for losing her sheep, the float driver matched her gaffe by losing his way and driving down the wrong street.

“Luckily,” says Shermerhorn, “the New York Police Department helped push the float back to where it belonged.”

Schermerhorn has more pleasant memories of the year when Cats performed at the parade. “We had Betty Buckley and the other cats popping out of manholes, standing on our store marquees, and draping themselves over the statue in Herald Square,” he says with a fond chuckle of remembrance. “That made for terrific TV.”

Of course, the parade is also famous for its gigantic balloons. This year, Paddington Bear, Skylanders, the red Power Ranger, and Thomas the Tank Engine will be among those that fill the streets.

Good showman that he is, Schermerhorn won’t tell us precisely what songs the casts of this year’s musicals will perform. But he does divulge that we’ll also get a sneak peek at Peter Pan Live! which will be broadcast on December 4 on NBC, the network that has aired the parade since 1952.

This year, 50 million television viewers are expected to tune in between 9 a.m. and noon. Perhaps a more remarkable statistic is that 3 million are expected congregate from 77th to 34th Streets to witness the parade live, be there rain or shine — or snow. What ever the weather, Schermerhorn is looking forward to this year’s edition. “I love street theater,” he says.

He also likes theater when it’s safely indoors too — which brings us to another stage project that Schermerhorn has brought to Macy’s.

“Well, much of the credit goes to JWT,” says Schermerhorn, referencing the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, which was seeking a good holiday promotion for the store. It landed on what Schermerhorn calls “the greatest editorial in history”: “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus.”

It all started when 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon was curious about the existence of Santa Claus. In fact, she must have been extraordinarily conflicted about the existence of the holiday icon because she actually wrote her letter to the editor of the New York Sun not in December, but three long months before Christmas in 1897. That September 21, editorial writer Francis Pharcellus Church gave her an answer that neither confirmed nor denied the actuality of a heavy-set man in a red suit. Instead, it was a more fanciful essay that suggested that the generous spirit of Santa Claus during the holiday season in essence verified his existence.

“Virginia symbolized everything we valued,” says Schermerhorn. “In the cause of letter-writing, we started a ‘Believe’ campaign that encouraged children to write letters to Santa.” Whether a child chose snail mail or e-mail, Macy’s would donate $1 for each letter written — “Up to a million dollars,” says Schermerhorn. Nearly $9 million has been donated since.

Ms. O’Hanlon (1889–1971) wound up providing inspiration for an animated special that morphed into a Macy’s puppet show that graced the store during the holidays. Whoopi Goldberg and Matthew Broderick were among the luminaries who gave voice to the puppets.

“But Macy’s was still looking for Virginia to touch America in a different way,” Schermerhorn says.

That meant a musical version, and given that Schermerhorn was no stranger to the art form — “I was once an actor in musicals,” he admits — he decided to join forces with Wesley Whatley, another of Macy’s creative directors.

Yes, Virginia: The Musical now sports a book and lyrics by Schermerhorn and music by Whatley. “It’s a 50-minute musical that we wrote in mind for middle-school students.”

That Macy’s makes the show available free of charge to schools would be incentive enough. But Macy’s sweetens the pot by offering the first 100 schools to sign up for Yes, Virginia to receive a $1,000 grant to apply to production costs.

For the last three years, schools around the country have mounted the musical. It’s become so popular that community theaters began looking to get in on the action. “So we filled it out to make a fuller evening,” Schermerhorn says. “It’ll debut on December 19 at Twin City Stage in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, one of the nation’s oldest and largest community theatres in the country.”

Schermerhorn credits his success as a lyric-writer to Clark Gesner, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics to the world-renowned You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. “Clark lived nearby and was a true mentor to me,” Schermerhorn says. “Without him, I wouldn’t have known that home and alone don’t quite rhyme.”

And what started Schermerhorn’s interest in children’s theater in the first place? “When I was working in summer-stock theatres,” he says, “I learned quickly that I could either clean the bathrooms or write the kids’ show. I chose the latter.”