Remembering Jerry Herman’s Mrs. Santa Claus
We love Jerry Herman, especially his devotion to creating music and lyrics that make larger-than-life ladies shine: Hello, Dolly!, Mame, Dear World, La Cage aux Folles. These are all sparkling examples of Herman's ability to create a pedestal for the great ladies of the musical stage to explode with verve and personality. It has always been what he has done best.
One lady who excels at interpreting Herman characters is the great Angela Lansbury who starred in Mame and Dear World (winning Tonys for both). What some people don't know (or vaguely recall) is that Lansbury starred in one other Herman musical, the made-for-TV movie Mrs. Santa Claus. December 8th marked the 20th anniversary of its airing and today I thought it would be fun to look back at this fondly remembered and mostly forgotten musical.
Airing on CBS and produced by (among others) Hallmark, Mrs. Santa Claus sought to be a clever telling of how Santa's wife sets off to find her husband a more efficient Christmas Eve route, but ends up stranded in New York City when one of the reindeer is injured. While waiting for her transportation to heal, Mrs. Claus stays in a boarding house run by Jewish immigrants who treat her like one of the family. While there, she gets a job in a toy factory where she takes on the issue of child labor (a somewhat Dickensian-lite subplot). She also does some matchmaking and involves herself in the women's suffrage movement, all to help us understand the time-period. She returns home just in time for Christmas and joins Santa on his big night.
Mrs. Santa Claus sounded better on paper than it turned-out to be once it was executed. It was an ambling story that tried to be too many things at one time, but never focused in on a compelling story for its titular character. If anything, it should have been shortened from its 90-minute length to an easier to digest 60-minutes. This would have tightened the story and made it a manageable length for youngsters and might find itself with a perennial broadcast.
What is delightful and, at times, magical is the Jerry Herman score that ties the haphazard plot together. Herman songs explode with joy and wonder, so marrying his style with a Christmas-themed story was an inspired idea. Of particular-note is "Avenue A", a catchy, evolving number that is Mrs. Claus’s introduction to the melting pot of NYC at the beginning of the 20th century. The jaunty and sardonic "Tavish Toy" is a delicious comedic number for the story's corrupt toy maker Mr. Tavish. Lansbury gets a couple of chirpy ditties that she performs with pluck and polish: the sprightly "Almost Young" and her “I want” song, the reflective "Mrs. Santa Clause". The rest of the score is fine, but it's these numbers that truly remind us what a terrific tunesmith and lyricist Jerry Herman is.
And what about the cast? Obviously, Lansbury in the title role was a casting coup, and she has a great time despite the mediocre teleplay. It is when she is singing Herman's songs that she truly comes to life (as does the piece). Charles Durning appears as a bit of a crotchety, yet loveable Mr. Claus, and Michael Jeter brings a daffy absurdity to the role of Santa's right-hand elf (how I miss these two wonderful character actors). Broadway mainstay Terrence Mann is a menacingly cartoonish villain of classic melodrama style and proportions. The rest of the cast is earnest, if somewhat forgettable. It's hard to know if they would stand out more with better material, but, as it stands, they fade into the woodwork.
The production values of Mrs. Santa Claus were not skimped on. In fact, the 11-million-dollar budget of this TV movie rendered everything lush, festive, and authentic looking. The highlight of the production are Bob Mackie's costumes, exquisitely tailored and oozing with holiday colors and patterns. Mrs. Santa has a gorgeous red and white velvet gown and travel cape that is particularly stunning, rivaling anything Edith Head came up with for White Christmas.
So, on its 20th Anniversary, I took out my DVD of Mrs. Santa Claus and found myself revisiting it and remembering what I enjoyed and what failed to resonate the first time arounf. It deserves a second look and much of the music does stay with you. If it's not a holiday classic, it certainly is a classy holiday offering that deserves to be remembered. I hope you will consider revisiting it. You can find it on Amazon in a set called "Holiday Romance Collection Movie 10-Pack" for $16.99. What a nice way to spend the holidays!