While the Santa-is-not-real portion of the present Radio City Christmas Spectacular was not my favorite, my major criticism of this pageant is its lack of diversity. While a sprinkling of color can be found, the cast is overwhelmingly white. New York has many wonderful singers and dancers of all shades, and one wonders why more non-whites weren’t on stage. The audience, too, is heavily white, but I doubt that that is the conscious choice of Spectacular producers. I am sure that they are happy to take everyone’s money.
This Christmas Spectacular, however, retained two of its most important elements. It had the Living Nativity, although it has been shortened from back in the day. It has dropped the part where a sonorous baritone intones words that are projected on a scrim. This told us that Jesus was important even though his life had been limited: he never wrote a book; few knew about him while he lived; he never traveled more that fifty or hundred miles from home, etc, etc. I believe it ended with an explicit reference to Jesus being the Messiah. The Living Nativity today still has a religious component, but it seemed dampened down from what I (perhaps incorrectly) remember. (In today’s New York, where many people automatically say “Happy Holiday” instead of “Merry Christmas,” it is noteworthy that this is still a Christmas show that, although overwhelmingly secular except for the Living Nativity, is devoid of a menorah or any reference to kwanza.)
This Living Nativity does not have any reference to a census or to a no vacancy sign at the inn, but centers on the Magi. (Quick New Testament trivia. How many wise men do the Bible mention? You’re wrong. It says that three gifts were brought, but not the number of wise men. Radio City has it right. It says that “tradition maintains” that there were three.) A caravan of humans and animals cross the stage, including sheep and a donkey, but the audience is always most impressed with the camels. (Questions abound. Where are the kept? Where are they the rest of the year? Do they ever have an onstage accident? I have never seen this, but friends have: Late at night or early in the morning the camels and perhaps the other animals are exercised by walking them through the streets of midtown Manhattan. It is a sight I would like to see.) The Living Nativity concludes with a magnificent rendition of Hark, the Herald Angels Sing. No Sunday school could even dream of competing with this pageant.
However, what the Christmas Spectacular is most known for are the Rockettes, an amazing collection of women all of the same height, all of the same body type front and back, all of the same shapely legs. And, of course, all who can kick at the same height in precision with all the others. They are on stage more than I remember when I went in the NBP’s youth, with many costume changes, including as Santa’s reindeer and as Raggedy Annes. But their defining performance, which has apparently been included in every show since their first one in 1933, is the Parade of the Wooden Soldiers. I am sure you can see it on YouTube, but I have now seen it on the Radio City stage many times, and I have marveled at it each time, especially when the Soldiers are “shot” down. I loved it again.
I liked the show and it brought back warm memories of when the NBP was young and other times the spouse and I spent with the NBP. But this show did more than that. Sitting to my right was a ten-old girl with her seven-year-old sister. When the Mighty Wurlitzer’s overture ended, the show began with the stage, which must be a hydraulic wonder because it can do so many things—portions can go up and down and also glide over each other–impressively ascended out of depths that could now be seen holding an orchestra and conductor. I heard next to me barely breathed “Wows.” I looked over and two pairs of eyes were as wide as eyes could ever be. Seeing those wide eyes and the breathless “Wows” made me realize again that Christmas can be magic. And if it magical for those young ones, it can be magical for me, too. It still is, and I hope for you, too.