New York City’s performing arts has its old guard and its new, but there’s one show that mixes it into a beautiful mélange: the Radio City Rockettes’ Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall.
Since 1933, the annual holiday show has thrilled global tourists and New York locals alike — young and old, newbies and veterans, the sacred and the profane — staged live from Manhattan’s classic, iconic Art Deco gem in Rockefeller Center.
Radio City Music Hall anchors the northwest corner of Rockefeller Center, a cultural landmark engineered by one of the city’s august, legacy families, full of Art Deco architecture and artistry on every artifice, awning, and cornerstone.
Come Christmas, Rockefeller Center’s Rink and historic Christmas tree are must-sees before taking-in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular for its precision dance numbers, its awesome special effects, and its legendary costumes.
I traditionally go to the opening night in mid-November when the alumnae gather to catch-up and check-out the city’s holiday cheer, but this year, many of us were forced to cancel last-minute due to opening night’s Winter Storm Avery, the first of the season!
But regardless of when I go, stepping back into RCMH always feels like coming home. Like millions of other visitors, it’s my favorite holiday tradition, along with saying hello to Rockefeller Center’s historic tree and skating rink, and the 5th Avenue department store windows dressed-up in holiday style like the iconic Saks Fifth Avenue.
It’s truly unforgettable, my old hood, the place where I learned how to high-kick hundreds of times in 90-minute matches, and how to polish a lethal red lip to perfection!
The heart of the Christmas Spectacular is tradition and precision, just like Swiss watchmaking. It’s pure nostalgia with traditional holiday themes, so it’s a big deal when the show gets a tweak, like this year’s new finale called “Christmas Lights” featuring 100 Intel Mini-drones, and glamorous new costumes from headpiece to heel! More on that below…
For those who’ve never seen the show, it’s indescribable, more like a happening, a total immersive experience. In its 85-year legacy, it’s a dizzying pastiche that borrows from every genre across numerous eras: part variety show, opéra bouffe, theatrical entertainment, cheer squad, Broadway, vaudeville, Hollywood musicals, precision dancing…and more!
While many cultural organizations across the world package their yearly holiday shows onto DVDs (like the annual Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Concert beloved across Europe), the Christmas Spectacular simply doesn’t translate to media…and it doesn’t even try! If you go to the “media” section of the online store, it’s a poster and a program!
The show’s tick-tock is split into numbers vs. themed sketches with an overarching narrative, and Santa Claus as the protagonist, which allows the girls to go through eight costume changes in 1.5 hours: dressers accommodate 80 girls split equal into morning/afternoon casts, with 36 performing each show, and four “swings” to fill in for 9 girls pending unforeseen emergencies, injuries, etc.
Santa navigates the show, along with a newish Broadway-esque side story about two young brothers discovering the magic of Christmas. Over the years, the stagecraft has accommodated star sponsors such as Chase Bank, Talbots, and Pandora Jewelry, the last which has a pop-up shop in the venue, and limited edition collections tied into the show.
The soundtrack is a pastiche of holiday classics (it opens with a big band version of Irving Berlin’s “Happy Holidays” chestnut) via a live orchestra on rotating risers, almost symphonic-level huge with its very own maestro. Dueling organs in side balcony recesses start and end the show.
I love this aspect because it’s such a great way to introduce kids to live music and performing arts in a laid-back setting: jeans and knitwear is the baseline dress code! You can even bring snack bar treats into your seats during the show!
Every year, even if there are no new numbers, there are little tech enhancements and tweaks. For example, this year, Obscura Digital created all-new digital mapping projections for “The 12 Days of Christmas,” the “Nutcracker” and “Here Comes Santa Claus” numbers, the new “Christmas Lights” finale, and expanded projections for “New York at Christmas.”
Projections are key visual elements that decorate the massive stage’s eight proscenium arches. Eight! Only in-person can you get a sense of its majesty, which must have felt otherworldly when it was built in 1932.
Frankly, there wasn’t a single performance where I came through the stage door without feeling recharged and inspired by its artistry. As one of its parent MSG Company’s biggest attractions, the hall is a stunning testament to the unique legacy of NYC and the hardworking immigrants who built it. The grand foyer has scintillating chandeliers and massive Art Nouveau murals. Even the women’s toilets are a time-capsule from an era where men and women weren’t seen in public without wearing hats!
Two minutes before the curtain rises, a video projection fills the stage and sets the theme for the night’s show: a spectacle of glitter and dance — and you won’t be able to catch it all!
The first number is “Sleigh Ride,” which I was lucky-enough to have been performing with The Rockettes when it premiered in 1999 — a badge of honor! In front of a wintry forest scene, girls are dressed as Santa’s reindeer in tailcoats over ombre unitards, and bespoke LaDuca dance boots painted to replicate reindeer hooves. The best part? The twinkling antlers!
The second number is “The 12 Days of Christmas” tap number with choreography inspired by the eponymous Christmas carol, and costumes honoring candy cane stripes with corset-like bodice and pleated tulle skirts! And yes, the taps are amplified into a chattering clamor!
Then there’s a fun “Nutcracker” interlude with an en-pointe Clara and ensemble dancers in bear costumes for a Nutcracker redux with a jazzed-up Tchaikovsky arrangement.
The third number is the iconic and historic “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” in impossibly crisp, white pants. The number predates from before The Rockettes were even called The Rockettes! It’s an ode to precision and illusion, and the slow-motion fall is scored to orchestral strings that segue to total cacophony.
The “New York at Christmas” number celebrates NYC landmarks with girls in 1940s style coat-dresses. If you look closely, I’m part of the Times Square scene, immortalized in a center billboard photo with fellow Rockettes and Santa Claus, the same image that I posted about here!
The “Rag Dolls” tap number uses toy blocks to spell out seasons greetings messages and the kick line takes-on a can-can flavor with splits!
The beloved “Living Nativity” scene has been part of the show since it premiered in 1933. Set in Bethlehem, live camels, sheep and a donkey frame the Gift of the Magi flanked by an ensemble in jewel-tone silk brocades set to “Hark! The herald angels sing” and a scintillating North Star.
The new “Christmas Lights” finale number directed by Tony-nominated Sam Buntrock — its first in five years — begins with fragments of light breaking off from the North Star as two aerialists dance over the stage synced on a 90-foot LED screen. 100 Intel Shooting Star Mini drones form various shapes and patterns.
The glamorous new costumes were designed by Tony and Drama Desk Award-nominated costume designer, Emilio Sosa, embroidered with Swarovski jewels, and inspired by tangled vintage Christmas lights. The look was finished with matching headpieces, and LaDuca shoes adorned with colorful rhinestones. It’s a big departure from the style done in the past, and I wish I were still a Rockette so I could wear it with those bedazzled shoes!
Fifteen years after hanging-up my heeled dance shoes, the numbers and choreography are still engraved in my muscle memory. I have to stop myself from breaking out in eye-high kicks when the girls take the stage!
Don’t miss this year’s Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall, through January 1!